Wednesday, November 19, 2008

:The Straits Times Front PageImage via WikipediaRecently, it has seemed like not a day has gone by without an article appearing in my reader about the imminent death of newspapers. The Inquisitr has provided great coverage of the warning signs of print's decline, prompting Duncan Riley to change his forecast of broadcast television, as the first heritage media medium to fall, to print newspapers instead. Even media mogul Rupert Murdoch has made known his opinion that newspapers will shift from their physical format to the web, becoming 'news brands' instead of 'news papers'. The American Press Institute has certainly recognised the pressing need for change, with its closed door session last Thursday on the revival of the newspaper business. The crowning cherry must be Six Apart's offer of free Typepad blogs to professional bloggers and journalists who fear their jobs may be in jeopardy.

The reasons for the decline mostly have to do with the competition of the widespread accessibility, low costs and rapid production of the online medium, leading to a dearth of advertising for print. By now, it's common knowledge that the Christian Science Monitor will be making the complete transition online cum April 2009 and that the New York Times is in trouble, so how are Singapore's newspapers doing?

For those not familiar with Singapore's newspapers, our major publishing house, Singapore Press Holdings (SPH), produces its flagship paper of The Straits Times with local, world and lifestyle coverage. It also publishes mypaper, a biligual broadsheet that is distributed free. mypaper's freesheet competitor, Today, is published by Mediacorp, our major media company (starting to see a trend here?). Although there are certain indications that the newspapers are having to work hard to maintain their relevancy, I think it's going to take quite a while longer before the physical medium becomes less of a contender here.

Singapore's ageing population is one major factor. According to a government report, 'the first batch of post-war baby boomers will reach 65 years of age by 2012'. By 2030, one out of every five Singaporeans will have hit 65 or above. Which means that we have quite a few of the middle and upper-middle-aged in our midst, who grew up with news in print. Not enough babies are being born for the more web-savvy youth population to be as significant. A look around any coffee shop will attest to this truth - elderly ah peks (uncles) and ah mas (aunties) sit around, enjoying their copy of the paper along with a steaming mug of kopi (coffee). As demand continues, advertising will hence probably stay with the physical papers for some time more.

We also have few other alternatives for local coverage and in-depth analysis of local developments, at least not that the average man on the street is aware of. Considering that hyperlocal journalism seems to be one of the main suggestions made for newspapers to persist, such content could be a strong reason for people to continue picking up the paper. The few news sources also means that demand and revenue will not be diluted across a number of different content-providers.

There have been signs that Singapore's newspapers are feeling some of the pressure to stay relevant and economically viable, like The Straits Times' recent price increase and redesign of its print version and online platform. On the whole though, it seems likely that print's retreat will not come as soon as generally predicted. Perhaps this is generally true of small markets, with reliable local reporting. If you live in a similarly small economy, how long do you think print newspapers are going to last there?

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Monday, November 17, 2008

A crowd leaves the Vienna/Fairfax-GMU station ...Image via WikipediaThe impact of the internet tends to remind me of something a certain wise Jedi once sensed - a million voices crying out. But certainly not in terror. On the contrary, the internet has made it possible for anyone to be a producer or creator and have an access to an audience not previously possible.

However, it is no secret that just as with every other platform or marketplace in society, some have more influence than others. In social media, blogs like ReadWriteWeb and Mashable, and individuals such as Robert Scoble and Jason Calacanis have a certain credibility, not to mention a good dose of likeability, that gives them reach. This was recently driven home for me by Louis Gray's plug for this small and relatively young blog, which drove unprecedented pageviews and increases in subscriptions. (On that note, a warm welcome to all new readers and subscribers; please feel free to engage and comment as much as possible - I enjoy hearing your views! Although I aim to update this blog on a regular basis, other commitments may interfere occasionally. At such times I suggest checking my twitter and/or friendfeed for my latest activity, to say hello or even to bug me to update.)

'But What About Us' (twitter account) - a statement of sorts meant to represent the majority - recognises this distribution of influence, thanking movers and shakers for sharing their 'information', 'secrets', 'tips', 'lifestyles', 'insights', 'methodologies', 'opinions' and 'mindsets'. But it offers up the quandary of 'inferior products [being] propelled into the depths of web stardom by social media giants' while superior alternatives by 'us' languish because of 'our' lesser connections or cash. It asks for a targeted response from these 'giants' on what can be done by those 'without connections, without massive follower-bases, and without significant amounts of cash', citing Gary Vaynerchuk's recent video on attracting advertisers as a good example.

The internet has created a kind of democratic marketplace, produced by the people for the people. The question is - is meritocracy also a priority of the internet? Theoretically, the 'wisdom of the crowd' should see the cream rising to the surface, but with so many products and so much information out there, we're coming to rely more on thought leaders as human filters. How much do they see their role as being about bringing the best to the fore, and how much about just covering products with significant buzz and capital?

In a sense the concern of 'But What About Us' comes back to the horror of those millions of voices being 'suddenly silenced' and the masses unwittingly adopting subpar experiences as a result. What do you think about meritocracy on the web? How about 'But What About Us''s purported representation of the majority - is its appeal for help for the everyman one that you feel urgently needs to be addressed?

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Sunday, November 9, 2008

IM Just Got Interesting

Image by jidnet via FlickrIM has never been that big of a deal for me. Most of my friends have been using MSN Messenger since they first got on the internet, and have never left. That was chat for me - a critical mass sitting on one client, with IM not seeming to offer up much functionality besides. The only other place my friends would perhaps consider chatting would be Facebook following the launch of its IM product. Unlike many others on the internet, barely any of my chat contacts used GTalk, despite having gmail accounts.

However, the introduction of Friendfeed's capability to be received and interacted with via IM a couple of days ago piqued my curiosity (cyjy in the blog announcement's example screenshot is me - how rad is that!). It has the very handy option of alerting you when your items are commented on, which though sadly is not likely for me at this point in time, is something I like to stay abreast of. Besides this, new feed items can be IMed directly to you, with the possibilities of viewing only posts, posts and friends' comments, or posts and everyone's comments. I tried it out and enjoyed the ability to comment and like items via IM shortcuts. As Friendfeed connected with my GTalk account, initially I used iChat; since MSN was my main chat client, I decided to finally try out one of those cross-IM clients. I downloaded Adium, and was delighted to discover that Facebook Chat was supported as well. In a matter of minutes, my GTalk, MSN and Facebook chat contacts had been imported. I even downloaded the Skype plug-in for Adium to ensure that that my few contacts there were not left out.

The only thing that remained, in terms of my communication utilities, was Twitter. Although Twitter suspended its IM function earlier this year, Jesse Stay is hopeful that the XMPP stream, which allows Twitter to be received and updated via GTalk and other Jabber accounts, will be made available by Thanksgiving this year. In the meantime, I added's jabber bot as one of my contacts. Presently it only allows for Twitter to be updated via IM, but the developer is 'thinking hard' about how best to allow tweets to be received.

Although it was announced in May that Facebook Chat would soon, too, be XMPP-compliant, little seems to have been heard about that since. Regardless, clients like Adium (Mac only) and Digsby (Windows only) have managed to integrate it. If and when XMPP-compliant Facebook Chat and Twitter's XMPP stream are released, it could only mean more growth for chat, especially for services like Meebo. Its 'Community IM' partnerships provide XMPP/Jabber IM for web communities, which would then be able to integrate with Facebook Chat.

I'm really enjoying receiving my latest Friendfeed items via Adium, with each item appearing briefly as a lovely growl notification at the upper right-hand corner of my screen. To my mind, chat platforms used to be segregated one-trick ponies. With these recent revelations, I'm actually actively rooting for Twitter in my IM.

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Thursday, November 6, 2008

The November issue of 'First' hit the stands a couple of days ago, bringing with it goodies to celebrate its latest milestone - the 6th anniversary of its inaugural issue. One side of its regular fold-out poster is covered in the covers of its past few years (the other side is the Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull DVD poster - I guess they knew that not too many people would want to display that...), while a cardboard tear-out makes for a DIY popcorn box/kachang puteh container. I was shocked, actually, to see the 'Six Years' boast on its cover, and had to do a double-take. It seemed like just yesterday that I was seeing the first issue of First with its cover of the then precocious Harry Potter, when in reality that was all of 6 years ago (this must be something like watching your child grow up).

For those unfamiliar with 'First', it touts itself as 'asia's premier movie magazine' and looks kind of like UK's 'Empire'. When it debuted, it nicely met a need in the publishing landscape in Singapore, that had otherwise only seen the usual weekly entertainment mags and newspaper review columns. It's a magazine for movie buffs by people who genuinely get excited (and know something) about movies, and it shows. In addition to reviews that are not afraid to gush and which guard against over-intellectualisation, it's seen its share of features over the years. Some of these have been nicely sustained - like the monthly poking around at a reader's home theatre, while others have not been as successful - one of my favourites is a very funny and quirky section that culled suggestions from readers on mash-ups of various movies. It also made the transition from a somewhat 'niche' publication to one more mainstream with its acquisition in 2005 by Singapore Press Holdings (SPH), Singapore's largest newspaper/magazine publisher.

For an idea of 'First''s comic and irreverent tone, one need look no further than its own nostalgic look back over its six years. Its first birthday is the only anniversary that is conspicuously noted (Neo was on the cover because he was the 'One', geddit?); otherwise the main events that the team seem to value would be their experiments with twin covers, dual covers and a lenticular cover (don't ask). Self-mocking and confessed geeks (recent references made include one to their Kim Possible fan art) , the 'First' team yet somehow manages to score exclusives with a number of the hottest stars in Hollywood.

'First' holds a special place in my heart because it was to it that my only letter to a magazine was written, and published. Not only that, but when I visited its office to collect the goodies promised for a featured letter, I saw an amazing workplace environment crammed to the hilt with movie freebies and posters, where people actually were surrounded by and worked with what they loved. That was before the takeover by SPH, so I'm not sure if it's still the same, but that vision of workplace heaven has stayed with me ever since.

Recently I was thrilled to notice that the 'First' website was finally up and running. While scanty compared to some overseas magazines, it's not bad for a local publication. My birthday wish for it, though, is that it would use the site, and its magazine, to increase reader engagement. That cherished section of mine that published readers' letters has been long-scrapped, and the contact email tucked away in tiny font in the dense column of its team credits. While engagement via twitter ala CNN would perhaps be a bit ambitious, it would be nice to see one of my favourite magazines lead the field in Singapore in updating what it means to be a publication in the new media age. In tone and in presentation, it's always scoffed at the stuffiness of its local peers, so why not open up even more and converse with the readers? A starting point might be a Facebook Page, or a regularly updated blog. Who knows, in listening it might just find a larger readership in Asia, and even beyond.

Do you have any favourite publications that you wish were online more? Do you think it would be wise for them to expand their engagement online, or would that just put them into unnecessary competition with blogs in their field?

Photo Credit: First Movie

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