Sunday, June 11th, 2000
Life section

Bad news to have more papers?

While others lament that media liberalisation is too limited, my concern is that more papers may lead to further segmentation of society.

a week of breathless excitement for us in the media business.

The announcements have been made one day after another, right up to yesterday, following the key announcement made on Monday by Mr Lee Yock Suan, Minister for Information and the Arts and Minister for the Environment, on the liberalisation of the media.

Singapore Press Holdings will launch two new newspapers this year, and has set up a subsidiary company which aims to run two television channels in at least a year's time and possibly one or two radio channels as well.

The Media Corporation of Singapore, on the other hand, has been issued a licence to publish a newspaper. Partnering the broadcaster are transport company SMRT Investments, bus operator Delgro and SingTel Yellow Pages.

I'm a newspaperman who probably cannot do anything else better, and so I'm all for more newspapers. I believe too that the liberalisation is inevitable, and better sooner than later, given the pace the new technologies and the forces of globalisation are reshaping the world.

But while others have expressed dissatisfaction with what they saw as a limited liberalisation, my concern is that limited though it may be, it may nevertheless still lead to a further segmentation of the population, without intending to.

As it is, the Chinese newspaper audience has remained, since the early days of nationhood, a different one from the English papers', although that difference has become less marked over the years. Berita Harian and Tamil Murasu, both very much smaller papers, have their own constituencies.

The three new English-language papers are being planned for two different ends of the market, as they should be for sound financial reasons. SPH's Project Eyeball, to be launched in August, is pitched at the Net-savvy ""hip and opinionated'' young, aged 20 to 40.

Streats, SPH's free tabloid, will be competing with MediaCorps' free sheet, Today, for the attention of train and bus commuters.

As has been pointed out by a financial analyst quoted in The Business Times, while professionals and managers do commute by subway trains in London and those European cities where the successful Metro free sheet is distributed, they generally don't in Singapore.

My view is that more than the question of whether or not our public transport system is as efficient as those in these European cities, the tropical heat and humidity here is a big disincentive for those who can afford a car to opt for commuting by bus or the subway train.

Walking a few hundred metres, say, from the MRT station to that all-important meeting at the office, can enervate a corporate warrior in a way it doesn't in a temperate-zone city.

The bulk of Eyeball's readers - a target of 25,000 to 35,000 in a year and 100,000 in five years, will be those who can opt not to take public transport. Many will also be plugged into the global news networks, via cable TV and the Net.

How many of them will go out of the way, in the heat, to get a free copy of Streats or Today? Will they even bother to, after the initial novelty has worn off?

Of course, there will be those bus and train commuters who can afford to buy Eyeball, or get it free, at least initially on the Net. But they are not likely to be in the majority.

Like it or not, The Straits Times is, and has always been, a paper for Singaporeans from all strata of society. The Jurong factory worker may read only the human-interest stories and the sports pages, the Shenton Way executive only the Money pages, and the more opinionated, the weighty features and opinion pieces, and, dare I say, Life!?

The ST is like a buffet table open to all who can afford the 60 cents it costs. Rich or not-so-rich, tertiary-educated or just N levels, you get to see the whole spread, and although you go for just what you want, you can see what others are taking.

In The ST, there are advertisements pitched at you and those that are not. But you get to look at them all. This won't be the case with Eyeball, Streats, Today and The New Paper. Eyeball's advertisements will be very different from the others'.

The stories may be radically different too, and not just in the hip quotient. Eyeball may find it more viable to pitch its stories at the Singapore fraternity of what a new book, A Future Perfect: The Challenge And Hidden Promise Of Globalisation (Crown Business), calls the ""cosmocrats'', the global elite who are more connected with their own kind across different parts of the world than with their neighbours in their own communities.

It was telling that when reporting the Eyeball press conference, the ST reporters noted that its editor Bertha Henson first wore a grey Armani pantsuit, then discarded the jacket after much ribbing by her staff, to put on her usual black leather DKNY jacket. Such details on designer labels, though not important to the Bertha I know, are important to the cosmocrats. Cosmocrats are people on the move and on the make, and if they have a creed at all, it is cosmopolitan consumerism.

Streats, as its editor Ken Jalleh Jr has been quoted as saying, is ""a privilege card for the clueless and carless''. Today cannot be very much different. (The New Paper, though meant too for the clueless and carless, has also become the paper of choice for the young, rich or poor.)

When Eyeball Reader is thrown by chance next to Streats Reader, say at a bar, will they have anything in common to talk about?

They will, if both still read The ST as well. But for how long? The ST's circulation of 400,000 may still grow in the next few years, but how many potential readers is it going to lose to these new papers, not to mention the new media? Already, the last I heard, about 30,000 readers of The New Paper do not read The Straits Times.

Whatever the case, the papers will have their run, and likely a very good one, for only the next 10 to 15 years, before they lose their dominance to the new media. This efflorescence of the newspapers, then, is really their last big bang. Of course, as I've said here before, I hope to be proven wrong.

The possibility of segmentation will be even greater, and finer, with the new media, because as they are now, they already allow for one-to-one marketing, or mass customisation. But that's another story.


Archive 1

03/12/00 Nice work if you can get it

19/11/00 Simple emotions stalls paperless future

04/11/00 A club of pretencious class

21/10/00 Canby's passion for cinema

16/09/00 Clint still a draw at 70

09/09/00 The inspiring Keppel Men

09/07/00 Time and love wait for no man

25/06/00 Seizing opportunity in old-economy biz

11/06/00 Bad news to have more papers?

14/05/00 When my hostesses didn't show up...

30/04/00 Bellow's betrayal -- or act of friendship?

16/04/00 Alone, you don't get to grow up

02/04/00 New Economy

19/03/00 The Good Life

06/03/00 Time for creative destruction

20/02/00 Meet the new superhuman

30/01/00 OK, I don't have to be rich

16/01/00 An intimation of timelessness

02/01/00 Let's not forget to meet F2F