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Middle Ground aiming for the middle-age spread?

Middle Ground logoBy Howard Lee

Earlier this week, former news website Breakfast Network, which closed following the call to register by the Media Development Authority, experienced a revival – that is, if the closing and re-opening of a website can be called a “revival” without getting chuckles from old hands in the industry.

The Middle Ground was quietly (re)launched on Monday, 15 June, with much of the same people at the helm, and even the Facebook page is a rename of the old Breakfast Network page.

“Other than myself, there is Bertha (Henson), who plays the role of consulting editor,” said publisher Daniel Yap, who also contributes content for the new website. “That basically means she doesn’t have to worry much about all the other aspects of running the company. She is still lecturing at NUS.”

Apart from Henson and Yap, there does not seem to be any other person listed on the website who is making key editorial decisions.

Henson was a former journalist from national broadsheet The Straits Times. Yap was also working with Henson on Breakfast Network, which had to close down because Henson, then in charge of the website, found the registration details required by MDA too onerous to be worth sustaining the website.

However, the team now seems to be a lot better prepared for what MDA can throw it, including the kitchen sink.

“Breakfast Network was a volunteer-run team, although we had incorporated as a company. We decided that it wasn’t worth the risk and hassle that MDA was asking us to sign up for as volunteers,” said Yap.

Henson had said in 2013, when Breakfast Network was forced to close, “We could declare that all revenue came through bona fide commercial transactions, but we would probably need to produce some kind of proof if queried. Does that make it a kind of compliance checklist to ensure we have done due diligence? BN is not even steady on its feet to start thinking about putting in such administrative structures.”

“This time around, we have a stronger financial footing with investors behind us and it is part of the business plan to take on the risk if and when MDA does require us to,” said Yap.

Bertha Henson and Daniel Yap
Bertha Henson and Daniel Yap

The key “risk” might really be MDA's continual insistence that it's purpose for regulating social-political news websites in Singapore is to ensure that such websites are not subject to foreign funding. This would have been a problem for websites that, in particular, are backed by foreign companies.

On this count, Middle Ground does not seem to be too concerned. The website is owned by The Middle Ground Pte Ltd, a company co-owned by Yap and Henson, which Yap says shares much of the same goals as the publication.

“We will be funded by the advertising and partnership revenues that are common in media businesses,” related Yap, when asked about where money for the website comes from. “For the initial period, before we become financially stable, we are funded by a group of Singaporean investors as one of many projects that show commercial promise as well as a potentially positive impact on society.”

What, then, is the impact that The Middle Ground hopes to have on Singapore society?

“The Middle Ground is a news, views and news-you-can-use (lifestyle news) portal that wants to serve and foster Singaporeans who consider themselves “middle ground” in one way or another,” said Yap.

“As an addition to Singapore’s online media scene we hope to continue a trend towards professionalising and improving the quality of online news and writing. We want to help make online news a viable and credible industry. We are certainly not alone in this.”

Indeed, shortly before the re-launch, Six-Six, a website that professes to be an “e-viewspaper”.

“Be it business, politics, current affairs, sports or lifestyle issues, SIX-SIX.COM will bring together various views from people in the know. By offering a varied and balanced analysis, this e-viewspaper will challenge readers to think beyond what they glean from mainstream media, and to reach a balanced, considered opinion,” the website’s publisher, Kannan Chandran, wrote in a press release.

Middle Ground scBalanced, credible, quality, lifestyle – this seems to be the current preferred mix that attempts to straddle the mirage of the often-cited mantra of traditional media, with the happening, fast-paced content of online money-making ventures.

The gravitation towards the professed qualities of traditional media is hardly surprising – both Henson and Kannan were former journalists from the newspaper industry.

Indeed, both websites seem to be keen on attracting the same target audience. “We are targeted at people who consider themselves the middle ground,” said Yap, who also said that he was keen to explore collaborations with Six-Six.

“I think that every publication reaches out to the middle ground in one way or another. The middle ground is not un-opinionated or even necessarily “swing voters”. Some are firm supporters of specific causes that can be opposed by other segments of society. The important thing is their ability to engage and coexist and hold those differences in balance and in tension instead of burying their head in the sand and acting like an extremist.”

“We really want to compete and take market share and readership from publications that spread misinformation, or polarise or isolate people. That’s what The Middle Ground is about - we want people to engage and take ownership of their opinions and ideas and be mature enough to have real, cordial conversations with people who disagree.”

Whether people who do not inhabit the middle ground are necessarily those who act like extremists remains a debatable point. But at the very least, Yap seems to have grasped the need to maintain reader trust, a do-or-die in today's media environment.

“We won’t ever go the route of letting advertisers or sponsors influence our editorial content, of course. This has been an issue with some of the more inexperienced sites and publications but it takes a long-term toll on the credibility of the publication. We respect our readers too much to do that.”