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WRITINGS ISABELLE TOW MEI ZHENG


Business / Op-Ed

The Business of Journalism in Singapore: the survival of The Straits Times How the writer’s interest to work at the local flagship paper led to a study of its business

By Isabelle Tow 18 January 2017

In November, I had a fortuitous meeting with a former journalist at The Straits Times at the Singapore Writer’s Festival with whom I shared my hopes of joining her previous company, which was met with unexpectedly gloomy news. She had advised me against it, saying that the paper had been undergoing drastic restructuring, forced by the reality of declining revenues. Furthermore, the ex-journalist recommended that I consider an alternative career besides journalism, which revealed an assumption that the troubles of the newspaper directly implicated the diminished prospects of local journalists – she had essentially equated the decline of the paper with the endangerment of the profession in Singapore. Hearing her advice was a bit of a dampener; I had to admit that my own assessment of the viability of this career path lacked a serious investigation into the health of the newspaper and the broader journalistic field in Singapore. Inspired by this incident, and mostly hoping to quell these newly-founded fears on career-viability, I seek to address what the state of professional journalism is and will look like in the near future, in terms of Singapore’s ‘flagship English daily’, The Straits Times (ST). What does the future of ST look like, and does that future have a place for aspiring journalists like me? Will they be able to still expand to create jobs for new journalists, or will they be crowded out by the changing news ecosystem that is being redefined by the digital revolution? Also worth looking at is how the changes within ST affects the broader journalistic profession in Singapore. It would be apt to first sketch out the economic reality of ST that the journalist drew attention to. The annual reports of Singapore Press Holdings (SPH), the media company that owns ST, have shown a steady year-on-year decline in its core Media Business revenues, having lost $60.9 million or 6.3 per cent in 2015, and then another $68.3 million (7.6 per cent) in 2016. This loss in revenues was despite increases in both SPH total newspaper circulation, and ST and Sunday Times circulation numbers, which have risen by 2.8 per cent and 3.9 per cent year-on-year respectively in 2016. So, why aren’t revenues increasing in tandem with the increase in circulation? Based on observations of the global newspaper industry by long-time journalists and media experts, such as The Guardian’s Peter Preston, the main reason for this is the decline of print newspaper subscriptions as more readers go online for their news. As Rebecca J. Rosen wrote in her article for The Atlantic, real money is made from a newspaper’s print readership because of the high advertising prices it can charge on print; therefore, “advertising revenues are much greater for print than on the web”. And the prices of advertising on print newspapers demand as much as five to ten times more compared to the ones charged for advertising online. Picking apart its numbers indicating positive circulation growth in 2016, it showed that SPH had lost $68.3 million even as it experienced a 56.8% growth in digital subscriptions in daily average circulation of ST and Sunday Times. Print versions of the papers, on the other hand, had declined by 9 per cent. And where the rise and fall in circulation occurs makes all the difference, even if overall the increased digital subscriptions had offset the decline in print. As one could expect, in his Chairman’s Statement in SPH’s 2016 Annual Report, Lee Boon Yang stated that the decline in its Media Business Revenue had been attributable to declines in both advertising revenue and circulation


revenue. Advertising revenues have not been able to recover to its heyday high in 2008, when it reached $780.1 million, which were thanks to increases in display and classified ad revenues from print product advertisements. Recent figures show advertisement revenues now amount to $670 million in 2015, which fell again to $607 million in 2016, a significant 22 per cent fall from its peak eight years ago. Besides the ex-journalist I bumped into, subeditor for ST Derek Wong confirmed that now could hardly be said to be the best time for the paper and the media company at large. He said, “[Over the past year], many contract staff did not have their contracts renewed, and other full-timers were let go”. I had asked another ST journalist if there were fulltime vacancies available; not too surprisingly, their HR department replied saying that they were not looking to hire at the time. In Singapore, where ST currently enjoys a dominant local readership amongst English news outlets, the deteriorating shape of its coffers spells trouble for local journalists who ply their trade in reporting hard news to its local readers. This is perhaps the most plausible reason for the former journalist’s advice to reconsider pursuing a journalistic career. It is usually meaningful to separate the phenomena of the slow death of newspapers and the assumed corollary “endangerment” of the journalism profession, since conceptually they are not only different entities, but the latter is not entirely a function of the former; one could, hypothetically, go into an all-digital news operation. But in Singapore, newspapers, both their print and online version, have market dominance over the local scene of hard news. There is therefore an inextricable relationship between newspapers and Singaporean news, and newspapers and local professional journalists – the newspaper industry is still the cornerstone of Singaporean journalism. This is largely determined by the small market of Singapore, which allows for the demand for Singaporean news and perspectives to be adequately supplied by a small number of news outlets. There are some persuasive arguments that support the idea that ST can maintain an enduring presence, and this is bolstered by its strong brand as Singapore’s ‘flagship English paper’. Inasmuch as a comprehensive broadsheet English daily is concerned, the ST is the only product in the local market, and the foremost newspaper choice of Singaporeans. In the Singapore Media Index Report 2016 by survey company Nielson, they found that ST’s print and digital news were read by nearly 3 in 10 adults daily, maintaining the largest proportion of readers of any local paper. The other English newspapers that are its closest substitutes are the freesheets Today and The New Paper that attract average daily readerships of 12.9 and 6.4 per cent respectively. However, they depart from ST in some key ways. The papers are produced in compact formats, containing concise and relatively more soft news. Both papers also command a less authoritative voice than ST’s, which hinges in part on their smaller circulation numbers and “softer” content, especially The New Paper that is branded as a tabloid paper. Additionally, the Nielsen report also revealed that one in two adults turned to printed newspapers as their main provider of news, and just 14.9 per cent of local readers turned to digital newspapers. The finding shows that the largely conservative tastes in news media of Singaporeans may be the preserve of the newspaper business and The Straits Times, at least for the next couple of years. Moreover, ST stands to continually gain from its parent company’s SPH’s journalism scholarship programme, which is offered to both undergraduate and graduate students. The journalistic skills sowed in these new talents are directly reaped in ST’s newsrooms when recipients serve their minimum four-year bond upon graduation. As Chairman Lee said at the SPH scholarship awards ceremony in 2014, talent lies at the heart of their strategy for continued success. At the end of the day, whether ST and SPH can produce high quality reportage and stories will determine its relevance to its readers for sustained readership. Additionally, whether ST goes under depends more than just its business viability; it also rests on the government’s discretion. Former long-time editor-in-chief of ST Cheong Yip Seng wrote in 2015, Singapore’s first Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew had viewed the media as a key institution he needed to control in order to govern effectively. Since 1982, with the installation of S. R. Nathan as executive chairman of ST, who would later become Singapore’s sixth president in 1999, many trusted civil servants have assumed that position to oversee the operations of ST and SPH. Evidently, the government has a vested interest in the content it publishes, and the importance of the paper in their governance. Perhaps this question will help elucidate perspectives in the midst of the disruption wrecked upon the business of newspapers today: where would Singapore be without The Straits Times? There is no denying the irresistible trend blighting the newspaper industry globally, but just because a trend is irresistible is no reason not to resist it. If Singaporeans will be left for poorer without a competent paper such as ST has been for over a century, perhaps it is more than worth saving. n

3


Music / Review

2016’s Songs of Comfort The writer’s top three tracks for soul-healing

By Isabelle Tow 24 January 2017 2016 was a tumultuous year for the world, and similarly a tumultuous year personally. I achieved much, but also felt like I had died a little inside, especially because of the gruelling final year of university. The songs that saw me through the year provided a little comfort to my shrivelled prune of a soul during hard moments, and the selections shown here prove music’s magic and its amazing capacity to convey empathy and solace in times of personal and societal turmoil. The three tracks of personal worthy mention are “How are you true” by Cage the Elephant, “3am” by Honne and “Alaska” by Maggie Rogers. This review was inspired by The New Yorker’s ‘Three songs that pushed me through 2016’ in which Anna Petrusich shared her song picks of 2016 that she thought neatly embodied and encapsulated the musical trends of the year. Out of American alternative rock band Cage the Elephant’s fourth studio album Tell me I’m Pretty, the track “How are you true” featured on my ‘Golist’ for much of the year. I remember crying upon the first listen from the initial sadness, and then the warm relief after – relief at having found the song, for a cathartic song that speaks to you is a song for keeps. The opening strokes on the acoustic guitar stir a leaden, almost suffocating sadness that is disproportionate to its airy strumming. Lead singer Matthew Schultz’s voice warbles as it trails off at the end of each line, which is accompanied by clean plucks of the bass that ground the poignant undercurrent of the song, countering the upbeat drumming that vainly attempt to lift the mood. It is a lonesome song, a song you would add into your playlist titled “Songs to cry through” – the playlist you return to on days when you allow yourself to expend the allowance of self-pity, for times you must break down in order to keep functioning the following day. And break down is exactly what you do when Schulz cries, ‘Oh no, no, don’t cry, oh no’. The song, but also the whole album, speaks of the agony of living, and really captures what Schulz had described its inspiration, which he revealed in an interview with Music Times was depression, something Schulz himself can attest . This is perhaps why it struck a chord; this year had been a year of recovery from melancholia, and a series of fortuitous meetings with other sufferers have helped me along the road to healing. One had been Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, the other has to be “How are you true”. The tears that well up now, as I replay the track, spring forth from a well of comfort and gratitude for this song’s Cage the Elephant’s fourth studio album existence. Honne released their full-length debut album, Warm on a Cold Night, at the beginning of the year after a string of EP releases in 2015 of tightly-composed catchy and very danceable tracks. The British R&B electronic duo, comprising Andy Clutterback and James Hatcher, have labelled their work “baby-making music”, and though that much is true - their songs are almost literally dripping in sensuality – their songs are, it is worth pointing out, not about sex. In a music industry where sex is endlessly peddled because “sex sells”, their distinct sound evokes a sensuality that is reined in a notch by carefully curated words, which hits the nail on the head on capturing the epitome of musical seduction. The listener gets hooked, because their appetite is whetted for what could be, instead of having lurid and gratuitous eroticism thrust at their face, which oftentimes overspills into vulgar territory that has, regrettably, become the norm of mainstream music. Perhaps this is attributable to their British ‘stiff upper lip’, which proves to be an endearing and original quality in a music industry dominated by hyper-sexuality.


A running theme in their songs is the guy courting the girl, and their lyrics are chock-full of his irresistible promises to her. In the track “3am”, Andy croons enticingly, ‘we could be getting frisky girl till three o’clock in the morning’. “3am” is a characteristically Honne song, and contains all of their usual elements – the lush vibe created by their use of synths, the druggy beat and cool instrumentation. The sound of diving into and the emergent pants out of water provides a mid-song aural point of interest, a not-unwelcome effect to jazz the line, ‘cos your eyes are like an ocean I can dive straight into that’. Honne: James Hatcher and Andy Clutterback 2016 was the break-out year for Maggie Rogers, and “Alaska” was the track that soared her out of anonymity. The video that documents the awe singer-songwriter Pharrell Williams was struck by when Rogers first played the track to him during a NYU masterclass has become an essential introduction to her music. That Pharrell’s creds lent her a helping hand is definite, but “Alaska” is still an amazing track on its own, something I feel that reviewers have generally shortchanged her for. Petrusich’s New Yorker review was basically commentary on that viral video of Pharrell’s virgin listen of Rogers’ track, where she does an analytical reading of his facial expressions that display his growing glowing appreciation of Rogers’ musical creation. Her song deserves more attention than the celebrity endorsement it has been paid with. The song opens with an upbeat first verse, which in her music video is played up by the jaunty walk that she does towards the camera. But then it quickly softens into the pre-chorus, as she tells of walking off an old lover, of a past relationship. And as she sings of shaking off all the excesses and coming back to her essence, the song climaxes to this breathy, delicate chorus that Maggie’s falsetto fleshes out masterfully. The instrumentation used calls to mind (at least in mine) an image of a snowflake as it spins towards earth, and the listener is compelled to close their eyes and stretch a hand out to do a finger dance in the air. The chorus is nothing but pure heaven to hear. Her song writing abilities are also laudable, and “Alaska” was composed with a certain feisty flair that appears to capture a fragment of Rogers’ personality. Perhaps this song panders to my biases because it contains so many things that I find personally endearing: the imagery of wintry Alaskan landscapes, and the language used to describe said landscapes; the whole chorus on breathing, and this air of untouchability it evokes when she says, ‘Leave me be I’m exhaling’, which Maggie Rogers in a scene of “Alaska”’s MV speaks simply of her sublime unflappable present state. 2016 was a year to confront and beat back at personal demons, much like how Harry had practiced the Patronus charm to repel the Dementor-boggart in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. A lot of the times it was a difficult and a lonely journey to becoming more resilient, but music had lent a vital helping hand in pushing me forward. The three songs represent my customized opioid concoction for the ears and the soul in 2016 – thanks to them I endured the year. n

Photo Credits: Amazon, DIY mag, Billboard

5


Business

The Dark Arts - Singapore’s dealings in the opaque art economy The Bouvier Affair is a harbinger of more art scandals in the region in the future By Isabelle Tow 9 February 2017


In 2015, a US$1 billion legal suit was filed against Swiss art dealer Yves Bouvier for fraud in the Singapore High Court by Russian fertiliser tycoon Dmitry Rybolovlev. Apart from the fact that the legal battle will ensue in the city-state, Singapore’s role had also been considerable in the play out of what is now known as ‘The Bouvier Affair’. Bouvier became a Singapore permanent resident after setting up a free port, by far his largest, Singapore Freeport – a high-tech, high-security, luxury storage facility – in the premises of Changi Airport in 2010, where a number of art works he had sold to Rybolovlev were kept. The high-profile case had cast a not-entirely wholesome spotlight onto Singapore, which proved rather ironic for a security-conscious country known to be in constant upkeep of its squeaky-clean public image. When the Singapore Freeport was first opened in 2010, international observers like those at The Economist called it a part of Singapore’s strategy to becoming the “Switzerland of the East”, a moniker likening us to the European country from which freeports originated, and its reputation as a haven for the ultra-rich. To be fair, the label is not completely undeserved. The establishment of the Freeport was a deliberate undertaking in the third phase of the city-state’s arts and cultural masterplan, the Renaissance City Plan (RCP), which was first implemented in 2000. The government’s cultivation of its local art scene has been done in the name of realizing its grand vision in becoming a ‘Distinctive Global City of Culture and the Arts’. The Singapore Freeport is indicative especially of an important demographic the state has been trying to attract in grooming its cultural infrastructure. In the 2008 RCP Phase III report published by the Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts (MICA), other than Singaporeans and foreign talent, high net worth individuals (HNWIs) were identified as the key third group that the vision in becoming a global arts hub was endeavoured to attract. In a press release jointly issued by MICA, the National Arts Council (NAC) and the National Heritage Board (NHB) that same year, the idea of free ports or storage facilities for art works was identified as one of the supporting services targeted to cultivate ‘a total ecosystem’ for the arts scene to truly flourish. This objective had been reiterated in Senior Minister for Trade and Industry and Education S. Iswaran’s speech that he delivered at the official opening of Singapore Freeport in 2010 – an event that Bouvier, in his distinguished position as Chairman of the facility, had attended. The establishment of the Freeport represented a win-win scenario for both host and its customers: in its allowance to lessees “to store and trade their high-value collections”, the presence of the Freeport reflected the economic potential to spur related supporting services like specialised logistics, art consultancies and conservation. The establishment of Singapore Freeport had therefore been a calculated move on the part of the government, which aligned with the dual aims to make the country appealing to both its residents, but also in attracting international talent. However, the scandal represented Singapore’s exposure to those risks that the opaque and largely unregulated art market has tolerated under its nose, such as money laundering and terrorist financing. The Singapore government’s attempts to mitigate these risks have been relooked and bolstered since the scandal. Singapore Customs responded with the Zero-GST Warehouse Scheme they implemented in October 2015, which identified art works as one of four categories of goods especially vulnerable to money laundering and terrorism financing risks. Customers who deposit art works are now subject to screening, in which crucial information such as value of the art work, identities of the customer and those who control the art works are obtained by Singapore Customs. This response had been uncannily timely, having been rolled out the same year Rybolovlev filed his suit in Singapore. The scheme directly responds to the 2013 National Risk Assessment conducted by the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS), which identified sectors with high money laundering and terrorism financing risk, in which the Singapore Freeport was mentioned briefly as a risk area for ‘further study’. The efficacy of this scheme will depend heavily on Customs’ and the government’s dedication to rigorous oversight. In 2015, Asia-Pacific surpassed North America as the region with the most number of high net-worth individuals, totalling a collective wealth of US$17.4 trillion, and these individuals are spending a larger proportion of their wealth on Investments of Pleasure (IoPs) such as art. This will only mean storage facilities like Singapore Freeport will become increasingly in demand and the oversight of its operations more relevant and imperative in mitigating not only scandalous but also criminal activities committed through the art market. n 7


Contact: tow.isabelle@gmail.com


Writings by Isabelle Tow