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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