In my previous post, I wondered what the government's statement on mrbrown's Today column would mean for the national newspapers' attempts to borrow the blogsphere's appeal. The government seems to be saying that alternative is alternative and mainstream is mainstream, and never the twain shall meet. If so, I am increasingly of the view that the biggest losers this past week are the mainstream mass media. The online protestations notwithstanding, there is no evidence (yet) that the government's statement represents a crackdown on blogs per se. Instead, it is a crackdown on mainstream editors who are trying to increase their newspapers' appeal by co-opting celebrity bloggers.
Newspaper editors know that their pages must reflect at least some of the buzz that's going on online. If they don't, they risk losing some readers entirely - readers who feel quite at home online, and for whom the online experience is part of daily reality. If newspapers don't respond to this, they will seem like an alien landscape to such readers. Even if they continue to read The Straits Times, Today and other papers, they will read them as foreign newspapers: informative, entertaining and educational as The New Straits Times or the New York Times are informative, entertaining and educational - but not as "their" newspapers.
Society will also lose if the Singapore mediascape has a great wall between mainstream and alternative. We need bridges between the two. The alternative media fulfil the roles of self-expression and identity formation for individuals and groups; the mainstream media help people figure out their common interests and shared problems as a Public. Both types of communication are important, but shouldn't take place in complete isolation.
Therefore, newspapers should continue to give some space to the kind of communication that takes place online. But, after the government's statement, can they? I think it is possible, using certain journalistic and design conventions. The trick is to signal clearly to the reader (and the government) what kind of editing standards are being applied to an article. Newspapers always apply multiple standards. For example, the Straits Times applies a higher standard to its op-ed Review pages than to its Forum or YouthInk pages. It is clear to readers that a piece published in Forum or YouthInk won't necessarily have the same authority or level of argument as a piece selected for Review. When ST carries a piece in Review, it is implicitly saying, "Here's an article that we the national newspaper think is important, well-argued, and contributes to policy and intellectual debate." On the other hand, when ST runs a piece in YouthInk, readers know that it is saying, "Here's a contribution that's interesting because it shows what young people are thinking, even if wouldn't pass muster for our more serious, grown-up pages." Similarly, I think it should be acceptable for national newspapers to carry articles like the one by mrbrown, if editors signal clearly the standards that are being applied. This is pure speculation, but I think Today's mistake was to give mrbrown's column the same "look and feel" of its more elevated columns, thus apparently giving the editors' stamp of approval to mrbrown's arguments. In the government's eyes, this would "confuse" the public, when the national newspapers are depended on to provide clarity and not contribute to the alleged confusion. Would the government have tolerated mrbrown's column if it was labeled "A partisan blogger's view"? I think it is possible, but we shall never know.