When asked about the future of socio-political discourse on the Internet in Singapore at a dialogue session last week, I spoke about the difficulties that news sites and community blogs might have in terms of monetisation, filling up specific niches, as well as contending with online content from the mainstream media. And with these challenges, in an environment where Internet publications are ubiquitous, focusing on niches could be a solution.
At the moment individual opinion blogs like mine flood cyberspace, and while the nuances or perspectives might differ the commentaries rarely go beyond superficial musings. We fill perceived oversights in the news. We complement, not necessarily build. Moreover because the reporting of events – despite greater focus on civil society activities on the Internet – is mainly handled by the mainstream media, online content producers in Singapore still rely heavily on these news articles. Regurgitated news and information are not uncommon too.
In other words besides the strengthening of media literacy to combat misinformation and disinformation, the quality of online socio-political discourse has to increase. And within a space so crowded, online news sites should up their game with more subject-matter experts entering the fray. Beyond reaction pieces they can provide accessible, reliable insights to economics, healthcare, housing, transportation … In other words, these individuals can work through the jargon to produce pieces which are easily understood.
Change is not an option, with stiff competition and financial sustainability still a concern.
With so much content on the Internet advertisements no longer bring in large dollars. The Online Citizen (TOC) announced a subscription drive on August 3 – for access to special subscriber content and invitations to TOC events – but after a month the number of annual subscribers has not hit 600. When it was first established The Independent – Singapore had announced its intent to hire full-time reporters and offer subscriptions, yet after a year the news site remains a confused mishmash of news analyses and commentaries. It also, in a rather awkward fashion, runs media releases from corporate organisations like Pacnet and the National University of Singapore Business School, presumably to supplement revenues.
Readers are more discerning and demanding. They will not pay for substandard content, for content already produced by the mainstream media, and content without depth. Online news sites wishing to monetise might learn to be creative with their advertising – as the satire producer SGAG has done – yet in the long run the value of the articles will matter. Creating new niches for socio-political discourse in Singapore might be a way forward.