World Press Freedom Day: Investigative journalism, who pays for it in Singapore?

Every year, 3 May is a date which celebrates the fundamental principles of press freedom; to evaluate press freedom around the world, to defend the media from attacks on their independence and to pay tribute to journalists who have lost their lives in the exercise of their profession.

Some have asked, why The Online Citizen, as an independent news site, is not doing much investigative stories these days?

Well, the short answer is investigative stories doesn’t pay for itself.

The long answer is, despite having good-will donors who support the website through monthly donation, the website only gets about $1,200 in donation each month, subscription around $100, while advertising through per view basis, $800 on average and fixed rate advertising at $300 a month. All these income while dealing with expenses of hosting (close to $900) and wages for three full-time/part-time staff (around $3000).

Volunteers for TOC have largely moved on in life to cope with growing demands of living in Singapore or in some cases, pressurised not to continue writing for the website.

If TOC just focuses on providing in-depth quality investigative stories, and publishing once in a while, it will probably have to close down by the third month due to lack of funds and perceived inactivity by readers and donors.

Truth be told, the chief-editor has to do part-time work at times to supplement the expenses and also depend on ad-hoc donations to tide the website by.

And even if investigative stories are not published, it does not mean such stories are not pursued. Many stories need a long lead time for the research and response by various agencies or correspondence in order to form a proper story. Some stories are even “canned” because the story comes to a dead-end or that the person who is the main source of the story decides to pull out due to consideration of the possible repercussions.

Some may ask, why is there a need to support independent journalism? While many pin their hopes on the General Elections for change to take place in this country, we have witnessed how, over the past few elections, that change cannot be expected to occur simply over the span of a few weeks of political campaigning to educate the masses about the gravity of issues.

Democracy relies on informed citizenry. In order for the country to improve, the population has to be told the truth in order for them to make decisions based on a varied range of factual opinions. One important tool in achieving that goal is to have media publications that are free from political influence.

How mainstream media survive and why “fake news” thrive

You may then ask, how is it that other sites seem to be doing pretty well without seeking donations?

Singapore news/media websites generally generate income via a few ways:
– Subscription
– Advertising
– Sponsored post (Advertiser pays for an article to be published on site)
– Advertorials (Advertiser pays the site to write a piece of article which does not seem to be from the advertiser, promoting a certain product, service or ideology.)
– CPM Advertising (paid based on per thousand views of the ad)
– Or funded by some “angel investors”

With subscription, you basically create content to satisfy your subscribers for premium content. For advertising, basically you create content for your niche market group which in turn entice advertisers targeting at the market group to advertise on your platform.

For CPM advertising, anything goes in order to bring in the views as more view, more income. Most supposedly “fake news” come under this revenue model, such as the defunct The Real Singapore (TRS) which was reported to have earned around $24,000 each month.

Mainstream media such as Business Times, Chinese papers (Sin Ming Wanbao, Lian He Zaobao, Wanbao) and Straits Times adopt the subscriber and a mixed advertising model, with the occasional advertorial. With its subscription dwindling, MSM is trying to rope in more income via advertising and aggressive push for subscription such as a particular website’s limit of 15 articles.

As for most of the social media sites, they earn through some advertising but mainly through sponsored post and advertorials.

CPM advertising is definitely not sustainable for websites especially with a large staff pool. TRS with its monthly page views matching Singapore’s most read newspaper, Straits Times could only pull in $24,000 per month. While substantial, it is not enough to support a team of full-time reporters and writers. Not to mention, there is no site that is near TRS’s former page view counts except for All Singapore Stuff.

So for TOC, despite having an average of 700,000 monthly visitors, there is only 50 odd subscribers, which is soon predicted to be around 20 as some have not renewed their subscription. In order to keep the website afloat, TOC has to push out current news or information as much as possible to catch some of the traffic for the daily viewership to maintain.

Well-funded sites on the rise

If anyone with a keen eye on trend would notice, there has been a surge of social media sites in Singapore, and an outpour of content from various sites, or Facebook fan pages. Whether it is commentaries, viral social media video and etc, one should ask how is the content funded.

In my opinion, the machinery that has kept the press in check in the style of dystopian state featured in “1984” has shifted its gear to emulate the “negative utopia” in “A Brave New World“.

It was revealed in a parliamentary question that the Ministry of Communication and Information spent approximately $4.3 million over multiple media platform during the year of election in 2015, no break down of expenses were provided. It also did not account for media expenses by the other ministers and department.

In another example, while looking through the People’s Action Party election expenses for the General Election 2015, TOC did not observe any line items pertaining to social media marketing or influencer expenses. This is despite the well-known fact that that candidates had engaged in Public Relation consultation and social media marketing.

So where were the money spent and whose money were spent on the direct and indirect publicity for political gain?

Who funds independent journalism and how “profitable” is it?

While bringing up the checking of the General Election electoral expenses, this brings us back to the point of funding. When the electoral expenses were open for inspection, TOC had no money to look at all the expenses back in 2016 as funds were close to zero.

And as for coverage of legal proceedings and commentaries, although legal documents are generally “free”, but the examination of court documents from the defendants, prosecutors and judges take up significant time, up to days even, so as to understand and come up with news stories that readers can grasp.

With the collected data which was garnered through hard labour and money, one would wonder how such expenses can be recovered.

TOC’s ad revenue for the month of April 17

When TOC publishes a post, the revenue generated per post based on the CPM advertising model is about $0.50 USD (according to ad statistics). Even if a post published has more than 100,000 views, the site would probably make 20-30 USD off of that post at this present moment due to low CPM rates, combined with the fact that more and more individuals use ad blockers on their browsers.

The ad revenue difference between a well-researched story and casually written story may not be that much of a difference, what matters more is how viral the story is. Examples of this would be cat videos, sad stories, gruesome crime, latest gossips or just simply stories that the publication deem to be viral.

Cost could be largely cut down and output increased if posts are just simply cut and pasted without verification, but that would defeat the purpose of running such a website in the first place.

If one were to opt for quality instead of quantity, the post would have to pay for itself through other means such as a sponsored post where a company, individual or an entity pays for the publication to cover a story and to be presented in a certain angle. Even if the angle is not prescribed by the client, the publication would not be silly enough to write a story that would infuriate the client. The conflict of interest would play a part here in uncovering the truth of the matter to readers.

Therefore readers have to understand that at the end of the day, someone will eventually have to pay for the news. From the days where the allegiance of a journalist is towards its readers as they are the pay masters, to the current era where the readers have given up paying for news, leaving the publication to choose between the distortion of news for viral sharing or to take up offers of hidden advertorials paid by entities with an agenda.

The dilemma of non-affiliated independent websites

One could notice that TOC is relatively slow when it comes to publishing news. As the chief editor, I would put it to two reason, one being government press releases are only published on government websites long after the mainstream media have published the story (TOC is not being issued the press releases). Two, social media happenings are not reported immediately if facts cannot be ascertained or if there are missing information.

In terms of perspective, most who trust TOC for what it is will want to take TOC’s word for whatever has been published. And to honor that trust, due diligence has to be made to verifiy information so that readers can be ascertained of the facts of the incident or story.

Take for example the recent saga involving a couple at the Toa Payoh Hawker Centre, if TOC had been the site that published the wrong details about the identity of the couple or part of the internet mob that misreported on the identity, MPs from the ruling party and the internet brigade would have taken the opportunity to condemn how untrustworthy the website is.

As for consumer complaints that TOC receives, such stories have more than often gone unreported after they are amicably resolved between consumer and company/individuals as a sign of respect to the company and sometimes under the request of the complainant. 

Also, more than often, stories are chased halfway because the individual can not back his/her claims or they back out in realisation of possible implications. Or in some cases, other pressing events overshadows the stories and due to time constraints, gets left aside.

Despite TOC being an media outlet that is run on a budget of less than $4000 which cannot be sustained, readers and the general public still expects the publication to live up to their expectations of well-written English articles with no grammar mistakes that are backed by sources which are independently verified with no bias – something which can also be optimistically seen as a sign of endorsement or the usual sense of entitlement.

Legally speaking, TOC also does not have the same leeway as other sites in Singapore that publish submissions or social media posting immediately without the need for checks. If TOC publishes stories that are non-factual, or there had been no right of reply from government agencies, companies or individuals, it is more than likely we will receive a legal letter for defamation.

When we do write to seek a reply on the allegations, companies or entities refuse to engage on legitimate queries by the site on stories of public interest, by engaging legal firms to issue letters of demand warning of a highly possible legal suit, should the publication choose to continue.

Often, we also get warned by our friends not to pursue certain stories in light of the possible repercussion to the site and to pick our battles.

Journalism for democracy

Of course, journalists don’t get killed or intimidated in Singapore as compared to other countries. But what happens is that their means of livelihood is being strangled by the powers that be. Ask any trained reporter on why do they not embark on a path of truth instead of writing for the media controlled by the government, and they will tell you that it is in all consideration for their rice bowl. Passion and belief cannot pay for bills and feed your family.

In order for more journalists to be on the ground and pursue stories that are newsworthy, readers have to continually be steady and firm on their dedication to support independent sites or freelance journalists like Middle Ground and Kirsten Han, and not just TOC.

There is a real possibility of these sites being forced to follow the footsteps of Inconvenient Questions, which had to close down due to the lack of funds, despite producing numerous educational forums which touched on important topics in Singapore and organising the first successful forum which featured all political parties in Singapore prior to the GE 2015.

When all is said and done, the future does look bleak with entities which are well-funded to crowd out independent sites like TOC. While many have claimed that the continued presence of TOC simply proves the accusation of Singapore’s dictatorial control over media is just over-exaggerated, one should envision himself or herself in the position of TOC in Singapore to understand the pressure from the government for asking the right questions, the threat of being charged, imprisoned and fined to the point of bankruptcy.

Despite the challenges, the site will still have to struggle on in view of the injustice that emerges every now and then, the supporters who have been supporting the site since its formation in 2006 and to fulfill the role of the media in a democratic society, bringing the truth to the people for them to make an informed decision.

I would like to thank TOC supporters for their continued unwavering support and would beseech more to support the website in the continuation of its work.

Meanwhile, Happy World Press Freedom Day.

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