Friday, January 12, 2007
THE MAINSTREAM-ALTERNATIVE DIVIDE
An extract from my presentation at the IPS Year in Review Conference, 11 Jan 2007.
The mainstream media are being challenged on a number of fronts – revenue, readership and viewership, and influence. Blogs and other user-generated content are only part of that challenge, and indeed the mainstream media were in gradual decline long before blogging. The audience’s attention is dissipating across a wider diversity of media. At the same time, the advertising revenue that used to reward newspapers for their ability to congregate the masses now have alternative outlets such as outdoor platforms and events.
This decline needs to be put in perspective: newspapers are still the most profitable media businesses, and still occupy the commanding heights of the news business; it is just that its degree of dominance is on the decline. Mainstream media’s superior resources should mean that they will continue to be able to offer greater quantity and quality of content. However, as general interest media, the mainstream media cannot cater adequately to every specialised niche. It is impossible for the national media to serve all of the people all of the time. As Singapore society becomes increasingly complex and variegated, as sub-cultures proliferate, and as tastes become increasingly specialised, it is getting tougher for the national media to serve all of the people even some of the time. Mainstream media companies around the world are responding by spinning off more niche publications and supplements.
There are two problems with this approach. One is that not all readers are created equal in media companies’ eyes. If you have the disposable income to shop for luxury watches, designer clothes, spa vacations or cars, media companies will pander to you in order to deliver you to their advertisers. Singaporeans who are not PMEBs might as well be aliens from space as far as media executives are concerned.
Another problem with going niche is that it will shrink our common space. While we each want to nurture our own unique identities and pursue our own interests and lifestyles, society as a whole would be poorer if there were no common spaces left. If the national media appealed to all of the people none of the time, one would have to ask if there is anything Singaporean about Singapore any more. Therefore, the mainstream media need to balance the desire of an increasingly diverse audience for niche content with their role as a space for social conciliation and national discussion. This is easier said than done, but must remain a top priority.
A further challenge faced by mainstream media is their handicap in reflecting alternative views. This handicap is the result of two distinct attributes. The most obvious is the burden of operating under a government licence. The regulatory regime requires mainstream media not to try to set the political agenda, which in practice means that editors are expected to filter out or at least not over-amplify views that contradict government positions on key principles or policies. Alternative media on the internet are not subject to discretionary licensing and therefore enjoy much wider latitude in expressing contrary views.
In addition to political constraints in countries such as Singapore, the mainstream media around the world also operate with a technical disadvantage. Paradoxically, the professional operations and high production values associated with mainstream media seem to be creating a counter-demand for a more personal, supposedly authentic experience via “cottage-industry” media. This phenomenon is not unique to the news media industry: it seems to apply to most cultural and lifestyle products. Thus, we have beer drinkers who would shun Tiger and Heineken and opt for microbrews, despite the latter’s inconsistent quality; similarly, music lovers may scoff at assembly line boy bands, no matter how slick, and seek out underground, garage bands. This tendency may also explain the aforementioned appeal of You Tube despite the obviously superior standards of the TV industry. The imperfect but personally crafted and authentic is being embraced as an antidote to the impersonal and industrial, no matter how professional the latter.
Can Singapore’s mainstream media overcome this twin handicap of licensing and industrial standards? The dichotomous regulatory regime – with stricter supervision of mainstream media and more latitude for niche and/or alternative media – is likely to stay. Since think tanks are supposed to think the unthinkable, I would be shortchanging the IPS Year In Review forum if I failed to at least raise the question of reviewing the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act. It is noteworthy that in Malaysia, which has a comparable newspaper permit system, the Malaysian Human Rights Commission (Suhakam) has called for the following amendments: making permits permanent rather than requiring annual renewal; making the granting of permits automatic, subject to objections from security agencies; and requiring the government to publish reasons for permit rejection, which can then be challenged in court.
However, since Singapore is unlikely to engage in such discussions anytime in the near future, it may be more practical to consider less out-of-the-box options. Even if the letter of the law is not revised, the government needs to adapt to a changing environment and calibrate its controls accordingly. In supervising the mainstream media, regulators and internal gatekeepers need to beware of a widening gap between mainstream and alternative media. I hesitate to call it a credibility gap, because most people do believe that the mainstream media are by and large accurate and believable. For reasons I have touched on earlier, it should perhaps be called an authenticity gap – the mainstream media are seen as somehow failing to provide an authentic experience; to be presenting the news accurately, yes, but not for you and me – unlike a favourite blog.
Mainstream media can try to respond by providing more space for user-generated content and providing a sampling of that other world, which is precisely what The Straits Times is trying to do through STOMP and what Today tried to do by enlisting the blogger, Mr Brown, as a columnist. The failure of that experiment and its backfiring on Today’s reputation showed how dicey this challenge is. Although it is unclear whether the authorities wanted Today to terminate Mr Brown’s column, they obviously believed that the particular offending article should not have been published in that form. Mainstream media editors have thus been sternly reminded not to abdicate their responsibility, as gatekeepers of the formal public sphere, to filter the strident voices and other noise of the hoi polloi.
Yet, for the mainstream media’s own good as well as for Singapore’s, we should avoid erecting a firewall between mainstream and alternative media. We need ideas to flow between the two. Therefore, the national media should have the latitude to reflect the buzz of alternative spaces. But, after the government’s statements in 2006, can they? I do not pretend to be able to read the government’s mind, but I suspect that it would not be opposed to newspapers reporting or republishing online viewpoints as long as three criteria are met.
First, of course, the statements quoted must not cross any boundaries of law or good taste. Second, avant-garde or minority views should not be misrepresented as reflecting mainstream or majority views. Third, the mainstream media should be mindful of the power they possess to bequeath symbolic status on the people and perspectives they give space to, and should therefore be judicious in whether and how they do so. These may seem onerous rules, but they are not impossible, as existing journalistic conventions allow newspapers to have their cake and eat it too. The trick is to signal clearly to the reader what editing standards are being applied to an article. This is how established newspapers carry diverse content of various standards. For example, regular readers know that the views that The Straits Times regards as most authoritative are to be found in its own editorial and in columns such as “Thinking Aloud”. At the other extreme are its user-generated content pages – and even among these there is a clear hierarchy, with the “Forum” page at the top and other sections for reader contributions – including online views – given lower status. Similarly, clear signaling tells the reader that YouthInk is not to be treated as seriously as more grown up columns.
This is cheap speculation, and in hindsight, but Today’s mistake may have been to give Mr Brown’s column the same look and feel of its more elevated columns, thus apparently giving the editors’ stamp of approval to the arguments therein. Today’s relatively small staff of full-time writers creates a greater reliance on user-generated content, which is not distinguished particularly clearly from more authoritative viewpoints. To borrow the words of Singapore’s eloquent former information minister George Yeo, Today’s design was and continues to be a case of boh tua boh suay.
All in all, though, mainstream media editors can probably be trusted to preserve the distinction between formal and informal public spheres, and not to go overboard with user-generated content. After all, it would be self-defeating to do so, compromising their main competitive advantage in professionally produced content.
However, there is a real risk that certain other professional standards will be compromised due to the competitive pressure posed by alternative media. Digital delivery and fewer layers of checks sometimes enable alternative media to be the first with the news. Professional journalists know that they are supposed to “get it first but first get it right”. Unfortunately, once the alternative media release a piece of news, there is pressure on mainstream media to publish it on the grounds that it is already “out there”. There is plenty of evidence worldwide to suggest that this risk is already materialising, short-circuiting the standard, rigorous checks that journalists know they are supposed to exercise. Usually, newspapers will try to cover themselves with a fig leaf by saying that the unverified gossip that they are recirculating is newsworthy because it is creating a buzz and not because it is necessarily true – sometimes adding for good measure their disapproval of the very sources they are quoting. Singapore’s national newspaper is not immune to such tendencies: the front page of The Sunday Times was recently splashed with sexy photos of a model that, according to online speculation, was the Mongolian woman who had been murdered in Malaysia. It turned out that she was a Korean model unconnected with the sordid affair.
In appealing to the mainstream media not to imitate the alternative media in some respects, I do not want to give the impression that the national newspapers and broadcasters are always the paragons of virtue and guardians of high standards, while the alternative media are irresponsible and anti-national. On the contrary, with mainstream media becoming increasingly commercial in its impulses, the informal public sphere is seen as the more hospitable space for many Singaporeans who want to contribute to public life and culture regardless of profitability. Indeed, one could say that there is at least as much nation-building going on in the alternative media as there is in the national mainstream media. Of course, if you define nation-building in old-fashioned top-down terms – equating it merely with treating the nation’s leaders with deference and amplifying their messages – then the mainstream media have the edge. However, if we adopt the contemporary understanding of nation-building as a bottom-up process of active citizenship, a la Singapore 21 and Remaking Singapore, then the action is really in the alternative media. In an increasing number of sectors – heritage and history, the arts, natural history and the environment, local music and culture, even the National Service experience – the most passionate and knowledgeable efforts to connect Singaporeans with their nation are taking place in the informal public sphere.
Increasingly, the national media are adopting commercial marketability rather than nation-building as their touchstone. They are getting away with it partly because they are careful to continue playing their traditional top-down nation-building role and thus appease their political masters. They have also succeeded in convincing us that they are in a life-and-death struggle for survival and that they have no choice but to be more commercially-driven. They are businesses after all, it’s their money, and it’s their prerogative to make investment decisions. Leaving aside the fact that newspapers are still among the most profitable manufacturing industries around, there are two problems with this logic. First, in the Singapore context, media giants are protected by government licensing. As custodians of scarce, publicly granted publishing and broadcasting permits, they owe a fiduciary responsibility to the public that we should never let them forget. Second, if the news media choose to be ever more entertainment-driven, consumer-driven and accommodating to advertisers, then the traditional professional values of journalism as a public service will be increasingly marginalised. This is a worldwide trend, prompting the Economist last year to speculate that the mission of high-quality journalism will have to find a new home, migrating from newspapers to other types of organisation, such as NGOs and citizen groups.