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Musings

What Are Online News Sites Good For?

"Content Is Not King, The Audience Is"

The Middle Ground” – an online news site I wrote for, for two years between 2015 and 2017, after a one-year stint with “Breakfast Network” in 2013 – is no more.

In the wake of this announcement, an online commentary argued that “content snobbery is the real killer of content creation” (emphasis mine). The argument is a straightforward one: That “quality” is subjective, that for the average Singaporean reader “quality” is a predilection for the simple or the superficial, over something more substantive, and consequently that online news sites should therefore pander to these preferences. “You do not need to go to great lengths to create quality content”, the writer concluded. “Good content is produced with creativity and integrity, not condescension and pretentiousness” (emphases mine).

Many of the assumptions which undergird the argument can be problematised – not least, the distinction between what it is, and what it could be (because if maintenance of the financial bottomline is the sole purpose of a website, then, epitomised by short listicles and templatised regurgitation of news stories in the MSM, Singaporean content producers in the genres of food, lifestyles, and entertainment have already provided the formula) – yet I think the central question is: What is the purpose of online news sites?

In other words, if aspirations to raise the level of socio-political discourse and to hold politicians and policymakers in Singapore to account – which I believe to be the most productive purpose of these sites – are “snobbish”, “condescending”, and “pretentious”, then yes, I am guilty as charged. On the role of egotism in essay-writing, after all, American writer E. B. White wrote: “Only a person who is congenitally self-centred has the effrontery and the stamina to write essays”.

Because for news sites (and even small blogs like mine), having an audience is a privilege, and especially in the context of Singapore awareness and civic engagement are prerequisites for a more active citizenry. It is further premised upon the view that the government does not necessarily know best, and that a citizenry armed with data and information can contribute meaningfully. Holding the MSM and its reporting to account – with the government as the primary newsmaker – for example, is an important part of this exercise.

The aforementioned commentary compared two “news” stories: One of a “crayfish attempting an escape on the Downtown Line”, and another of “Singapore’s low fertility rate”. The bizarre and the funny get clicks, yes, but which of the two stories challenges the reader to think more, to question the status quo? Over its two-year history, “The Middle Ground” broke a story about the GCE ‘O’ level class in Raffles Institution, tallied the number of times an MP spoke or raised a question in parliament (which spawned similar pieces analysing the parliamentary performance of nominated MPs and first-time MPs), and ran pieces about the history and heritage of “disappearing” old malls in Singapore.

Readers and their consumption patterns – with a little more time and patience – can change. Instead of pandering to what they want, nudging readers out of their comfort zones and to think more critically is a noble ambition, even if, for the moment, it is not financially viable.

Gains from these publications are not realised immediately. And they are not easily measured too. Knowing how active an MP is in parliament could influence voting behaviours, and could raise broader questions about the legislative and municipal responsibilities of an MP, respectively in parliament and through the town councils. Yet these potential changes take time. What this example also shows is that the conception of what constitutes a “reader” should not always be generalised to the average reader (unless, again, making money is the main concern), and should also include those in positions of power.

And it is not just change which takes time. Even though I had soft copies of all the 51 National Day Rally (NDR) speeches delivered by the three Singaporean PMs, it took weeks of work to tidy and clean up the documents, to run content analyses for the frequency of words or themes, and finally to draft the article. There were no immediate implications to such knowledge: PM Lee did not amend his speech, and readers may see no use for the findings. But in the bigger picture, given the significance of the NDR, the findings present broad trends of the prevailing discourse in Singapore, offering insights on how to use the (political) past to shape our future.

Which is why reconciling the time and effort needed to produce longer, thought- and action-provoking pieces and the need to maintain a financial bottomline is a tall order. In time to come, there will be more proper, more constructive post-mortems on why online news sites like “The Middle Ground” did not survive. The answers are unlikely to echo the present calls for sites to choose between the simple or the superficial and the substantive. Instead, it is likely to be a balance; somewhere, I suspect, in the middle ground.

About guanyinmiao

A man of knowledge lives by acting, not by thinking about acting. Carlos Castaneda.

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