Observer+ retaliates and says TOC got their page views and the business status of Blackwilder wrong, but could they be mistaken once again?

On Tuesday (30 April), TOC published an article where we said that Channel NewsAsia (CNA) had failed to fact-check the information given by its interviewee, Sarah Tang – a representative from Observer+ – in one of its articles.

In our article, we said that based on the information given by Ms Tang to CNA, the page views that the online news site garnered in the first month of its operations last December reached to 1.7 million and has grown to 1.9 million in March this year.

As such, we then questioned these figures as it seems unbelievable that its page views can be nearly the same as ours. According to Alexa, TOC is placed 556 in Singapore and Observer+ is ranked 1,317. However, both the sites have very similar page views despite the vast difference in ranking.

Looking at this, Observer+ retaliated and published another article on their site claiming that our points were inaccurate.

According to them, it’s “a false equivalency” to use Alexa as a gauging tool to track page views, and a “more accurate comparison tool would be Similarweb which shows a website’s standing in terms of visits”.

But, the point of our original article was solely on how CNA took Observer+’ words for it and failed to do any sort of fact-checking. It was not so much on which tool we used to find out the pageviews of the site.

If that is not all, in an attempt to justify their pageviews, the news site also showed a screenshot of its data in April, where the traffic was at its peak due to the Monica Baey’s saga. Prior to that, their daily pageviews were relatively low, well below the 100,000 mark.

This again shows that the information that they gave CNA may not be completely accurate, and CNA on the other hand, published it without doing a background check.

The business status of Blackwilder

As for the business operation status of Blackwilder, CNA wrote that Observer+ may be registered under a marketing technology firm called Blackwilder, if the need arises. It also said that Blackwilder is a registered business entity in Singapore and is part of a registered entity under Rockfeller Pte Ltd, which is owned by Azly J. Nor, the man who co-founded the Facebook page SMRT Feedback in 2015.

To this, Observer+ did admit that there “was a miscommunication on Tang’s part during the email interview with CNA”.

“Internally, Blackwilder is used interchangeably with Rockfeller – the registered entity – to be one and the same. Blackwilder is the brand, while Rockfeller is the legal entity. This is similar to how Straits Times is the brand, while Singapore is the parent entity”.

However, it’s also important to note that TOC purchased the records from the Accounting and Corporate Regulatory Authority (ACRA) and asked questions on what Observer+ told CNA.

Here’s the original bit that was published by CNA:

“In terms of working within the parameters of the law, Azly’s marketing technology firm Blackwilder is the registered business entity in Singapore. Blackwilder, in turn, is part of a registered entity under Rockefeller Pte Ltd that he owns.

“Should Observer+ hit the threshold needed for it to be licensed under the Broadcasting Act one day, similar to what was required of Yahoo or Mothership, this arrangement helps too.

“We have already planned for it. This comes back to the reason why we needed a public face,” Tang said. “When the time comes, Observer+ will go under the ownership of Blackwilder and will be operated within that Singapore entity.

“As Blackwilder already has its own P&L (profit and loss statement), any funds for (the) operation will come from them. We don’t accept foreign funding (nor) will there be a need to seek local funding,” she added.

After TOC published its article, CNA recognised the error and noted that “the story has been edited to clarify the business status and relationship between Blackwilder and Rockfeller, following an earlier miscommunication from Observer+”.

Here’s their amended text:

In terms of working within the parameters of the law, Azly’s marketing technology firm Blackwilder is the public-facing entity but it is part of a registered entity under Rockefeller Pte Ltd, which he owns.

Should Observer+ hit the threshold needed for it to be licensed under the Broadcasting Act one day, similar to what was required of Yahoo or Mothership, this arrangement helps too.

“We have already planned for it. This comes back to the reason why we needed a public face,” Tang said. “When the time comes, Observer+ will go under the ownership of Rockefeller and will be operated within that Singapore entity.

“As Rockefeller already has its own P&L (profit and loss statement), any funds for (the) operation will come from them. We don’t accept foreign funding (nor) will there be a need to seek local funding,” she added.

They’ve now said that “Blackwilder is the public-facing entity but it is part of a registered entity under Rockfeller Pte Ltd”, and “when the time comes, Observer+ will go under the ownership of Rockefeller and will be operated within that Singapore entity.”

Originally they’ve said that Observer+ will go under the ownership of Blackwilder and not Rockfeller.

Besides that, based on the information gathered from ACRA, TOC also notes that Rockfeller was registered with a foreign director, although Azly is shown to be the sole shareholder of the company with $45,000 issued shares.

And on the part of needing to register under the same licensing framework as Yahoo or Mothership, Observer+ already qualifies for the licensing. The licensing framework that was put in place in 2013.

The law states that online news sites will be shifted from the default class licence to an individual licence, if they:

  1. report an average of at least one article per week on Singapore news and current affairs over a period of two months, and
  2. are visited by at least 50,000 unique IP addresses from Singapore each month over the same period of two months.

Clearly from the statistics provided by Observer+, it already qualifies for the licensing. And even without that, the authorities can also qualify the site for licensing under the internet sites regulation which The Independent SG and Singapore is subjected to.

But like what IMDA told TOC back in 2018. It is up to the Minister to decide.