My immediate response to non-subscribers complaining about not being able to access premium ST content – whenever I link to or reference these articles on social media, especially on Twitter – is that news should not be free. To produce useful information about current events, newsrooms and their journalists need to be fairly compensated, but because many of us are used to consuming news for free, the legwork or labour of sourcing, reporting, and writing is oftentimes underestimated. In the past week for instance, as the 2018 Pulitzer Prize winners in journalism were announced, it was revealed that photojournalist Ryan Kelly, who won this year’s prize for breaking news photography, had already left his newspaper to instead run the social media account of a brewery. He is said to be at least the fourth Pulitzer prize winner since 2015 to have left for the public relations sector, which promises higher levels of remuneration and of job security as compared to journalism.
These pressures on journalists are felt around the world, though in Singapore the landscape is also complicated by the persistence of media regulation through the Broadcasting Act and the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act. Even so, however, even within these modes of control of the mainstream media, ST – as Singapore’s highest-selling newspaper and by drawing from the country’s strategic location in Asia – has the potential to improve its offerings. Notwithstanding the seemingly imprecise between what is labelled “premium” and what is not, ST’s premium content should be communicated through more diversified modes or channels beyond print, should move beyond straight-up reports or even commentaries and editorials per se to more in-depth analysis, and should include long-form, long-term publications.
More diverse communication channels
In proposing these recommendations, I draw from my daily and weekly reading resources (mainly email newsletters). A related apprehension, in this vein, might be the influence of political ideologies, and “The New York Times” – one of my go-to newspapers – might be labelled as liberal or left-leaning. But in my examples and comparisons which follow politics or ideology hardly features, and relates to quality and creativity. There is another argument too, that these publications benefit from a wider base of international readership and thus have the resources for their newsrooms, yet the benchmarks established are worth aspiring to, and our local contemporaries can potentially work around their constraints. In other words, it should at least aspire to set the bar in the region.
The communication of premium content beyond print appears an obvious strategy, and while ST has taken first stabs through basic social media presence, podcasts (including a tie-up with Google Home), and a new weekly “Hangout with ST” live video series on trending news stories, they leave much to be desired. Such a video series should allow for a showcase of “best-of” articles, though the present approach feels too disorganised and whimsical. In contrast, “The Daily” produced daily by the “The New York Times” – which also runs for 20 to 30 minutes per episode, albeit without the visual dimension (but the visuals of “Hangout with ST” add little) – has a more focused and deliberate format: The host talks through one or two news stories of the day with a journalist or with an interviewee of interest.
In fact, the newspaper has used a new podcast – “Caliphate”, on the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) – to incentivise subscriptions by giving their subscribers early access. To produce the episodes the intrepid journalist Rukmini Callimachi, who covers terrorism and jihadists, made multiple trips to Iraq to rummage through formerly occupied ISIS locations and garbage to collect first-hand documents, uses messaging apps to join extremist groups online and trawls social media accounts of jihadists, and later meets with some of these individuals through a cautious process of deliberation. Turning to the South East Asian context, one could imagine similar reporting work done by ST in the regional hotspots of Myanmar (for the assault against the Rohingyas) and the Philippines (during the siege of Marawi city last year).
More in-depth analysis and long-form publications
Turning to more in-depth analysis – and prioritising them over news reports, commentaries, and editorials as premium content – is the second recommendations, and this can take different forms: Meaningful data and policy analysis, an informed summary of Singapore and global news stories and drawing meaningful threads for the reader, and even the use of academic content which mostly stays within the confines of the university. ST has a series of what it categorises as “dataSTories”, and while the graphics are generally informative they lack the “so what?” implications, which online site “FiveThirtyEight” does a great job of. News and commentary websites such as “Futurity” and “The Conversation” distil research or academic news for the lay reader, and “The Interpreter” column of “The New York Times” incorporates scholarly perspectives on foreign policy.
One immediate advantage that ST can build upon – with its access to experienced interlocutors and its stable of correspondents – is Singapore’s strategic location in South East Asia and in Asia. In-depth analysis does not just mean reaching out to experts for quotes or occasionally as guest columnists, but also helping readers make sense of developments and broader bodies of work.
And tied to the two preceding points is the final proposal for long-form, long-term publications, which both require journalists to invest more substantial time and effort over a longer period of time to produce more substantive and investigative pieces. Publications such as “The Atlantic” and “The New Yorker” are known for long-form essays, and in Singapore – and with ST – they could take precedence over some of the shorter and more perspective-driven columns which tend to populate the opinion section. A distinction is therefore drawn with blogs or forum letters like mine, which do not require the same legwork and which are more likely to be threaded by personal anecdotes.
Working within the confines of regulation and the unfair expectations of news to be free is challenging, and hence many of the criticisms against ST charging for premium content seems misplaced. At the same time, nevertheless, the newspaper has to justify the label and the corresponding price-tag of premium content, and an extension of the status quo does little to convert a growing band of sceptics.