Former Chief Executive Officer and Editor-in-Chief of the Today newspaper, said that he sometimes “shuddered looking at some of the stories that are displayed” in the Singapore papers. Comparing the local papers to the Financial Times, which he called a “class act” with “crisp” writings, he said of the mainstream press: “There is an attempt to go downstream by the Straits Times.”
An example he gave was the recent Straits Times coverage of the death of Ms Lo Hwei Yen who was killed in the Mumbai terrorist attacks. “Such a graphic story of her death… The question is: is that the way the pride of Singapore journalism should go?” he asked. “Where’s the going upstream?”
When asked by blogger Alex Au why he thought this was so, Mr Balji said it is because “we don’t have the talent.” “Journalists are the biggest threats to change in the media,” he said, “I don’t see that kind of talent in our young journalists,” he explained, referring to the lack of journalists who could delve deeper into the issues.
This blunt assessment was offered up at a seminar at the Institute of Policy Studies, National University of Singapore, titled “New Media Challenges For Old Media: From Behind The Battle Lines”. Mr Balji shared his views with invited guests ,which included officers from various government ministries and departments, journalists, academics and bloggers. Interestingly, 10 of the 40 invited guests in the audience were from the Ministry of Home Affairs, according to the list of participants which was handed out.
Mr Balji noted that the source of the problem was the lack of desire for change within the leadership itself. “Hardly anything has changed in the newsroom… since the 70s,” he said. “Where is the innovation in the media? None.” He observed that the editorial leadership of the press is now more focused on attracting the advertising dollar than anything else. “Editorial stories are predictable,” he said. “What you see on tv, tomorrow’s headlines in the papers is the same.” The mainstream media, in trying to be everything to everyone, has gone for breadth rather than depth, he said.
Despite his criticisms of the mainstream media, Mr Balji does not feel its survival in Singapore is under threat from New Media. This is because the prospect of an alternative online newspaper is still not a viable undertaking. Having explored this idea with several friends, Mr Balji said the biggest obstacle was finding a revenue model for such a business.
As long as this is elusive, the mainstream media (msm) will not face any pressure or competition to improve. However, this also means that the quality of content in the msm may suffer.
“Readership is not that perceptive in knowing what is good and not so good,” he said. “As long as this stays, there’s no threat.” He noted, however, that when it comes to coverage of local news, and because there is a lack of other news sources for news about Singapore, readers do not have a benchmark to assess the standards or professionalism of local news coverage. This results in the local media “going downstream” rather than upstream.
To Mr Au’s suggestion that smaller, niche models for alternative media would be the way forward, Mr Balji said he is not convinced this would work. “[The] main obstacle is advertisers,” he said. “I’m not convinced that advertisers will advertise on a niche product.”
He explained that even with an online newspaper which would cover just the top five stories in Singapore daily, it was a daunting prospect. His conclusion was: “Better give up.”
The other reasons he gave for why the local media faces no threats were that the two media companies in Singapore – Singapore Press Holdings and Mediacorp – are “quite entrenched”. “As long as there are no threats to the bottomline, no changes are expected,” Mr Balji said.
The Online Citizen asked if the resistance to change was more because of a larger societal issue – that of fear and self-censorship – rather than a lack of journalistic talent. The recent incident of a group of student journalists from the Nanyang Technological University whose report on the visit to the school campus by Dr Chee Soon Juan was prohibited from being published by the school’s authorities was brought up as an example. To this, Mr Balji agreed that there is this sense of fear in Singapore society. However, he feels that journalists cannot be like ordinary citizens with such fears. “That’s why we go into the profession,” he said. Despite the constraints, he feels that there’s still a lot which journalists can do.
Ultimately, he said, change in the local media will only come if there are threats to its dominance and if there are pressure on its bottomline. And with the government as its ‘biggest stakeholder’, policies towards the media will change only if the government feels there is a threat to its position.
PN Balji left Today in October 2008 and is currently the Director, Asia Journalism Fellowship, Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information, Nanyang Technological University.