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Why Did't the Internet Zap Singapore's Straits Times Newspaper?

Larry Press

US papers employed 56,900 full-time journalists in 1990, the year Tim Berners Lee began testing his World Wide Web software, and they employed 32,900 in 2015. The disruption of the newspaper business began 22 years ago, when Craig Newmark launched his classified ad site, Craigslist. (Note that Newmark now generously supports investigative journalism and fact-checking organizations). Newspapers have adapted to the Internet by adding digital editions, but they generate less ad revenue than print editions have lost.

Thomas Jefferson and a lot of other smart people believed that democracy requires a free press. (See these quotes). If we agree with Jefferson, et al, that investigative journalism and fact-checking are important facilitators of democracy, can the Internet at least help keep organizations like newspapers alive?

At least one newspaper seems to be OK — can we learn from it?

I was in Singapore a few weeks ago and picked up a copy of the 2/1/17 edition their major, English-language newspaper, the Straits Times. I was impressed — the paper was physically large, every page had color, and the price was only S1.1, about 78 US cents. When I got home, I compared it to a 2/22/17 copy of my hometown newspaper, the Los Angeles times, which sells for $2. (Both were Wednesday editions).

The pages of the Strait's Times were 27 percent larger than those of the LA Times (which shrunk after it was purchased by Tribune Publishing in 2000) and there were more of them, as you see here. And what about those "dead" classified ads? The Straits Times had 16 pages of classifieds and the LA Times only 2/3 of a page at the end of the Sports section.

Straits TimesLos Angeles Times
News1617
Editorial Opinion63
Business86
Sports65.3
Arts and Entertainment1210
Classified Ads160.7
Consumer Tech6-
Home6-
Total Pages7642
Number of pages in each section


Why does the newspaper business in Singapore seem to be thriving, while US newspapers are having a hard time?

It's not the market size. The population of Singapore is about 5.6 million, the population of Los Angles is about 4 million and greater Los Angeles is about 10.2 million.

It's not economies of scale. In August 2016, the Straits Times had a daily print circulation of 277,100 and 116,200 digital. The LA Times media kit says their weekday circulation is 690,870 and it's 955,319 on Sunday.

The Straits Times is not a local paper — they have 16 bureaus and special correspondents in major cities worldwide. (Both of the stories that were "above the fold" on the front page of the edition I picked up were about US politics).

Maybe there is no Craigslist in Singapore — but there is.

The government role

Singapore's fast, affordable Internet connectivity makes the digital edition of the Straits Times attractive. There are five competing ISPs and most of the country is covered by fiber as well as copper. A 1 gb/s account will set you back S$49.99 per month if you sign a two-year contract or S$59.99 without a contract. For two gig, you pay $69.99 with a two-year contract. The slowest offering is 100 mb/s. (Singapore dollars are around 71 US cents).

The Singapore government deserves a good deal of credit for their Internet service. In 2000, I worked on a study of the Singapore Internet and, with the help of my nephew who was with Goldman Sachs in Singapore, developed this figure:

As you see, the government had equity positions in the ISPs and an indirect link to Singapore Press Holdings, a media conglomerate that owns the Straits Times. The government provides wholesale backbone connectivity to those competing retail ISPs. (Other cities, notably Stockholm, have followed a similar strategy and Google has done so in Africa).

Competition is the key to the success of the Internet in Singapore and, while the current US administration claims to like free markets, moves to weaken net neutrality, set-top box standards and municipal wholesale networks strike me as anti-competitive. (Also, see this interview of outgoing FCC Chairman, Tom Wheeler).

The Singapore government plays an important role in the economy, doing strategic economic and educational planning and they have invested in the oil, shipping, finance, media, Internet and biotech industries since World War II. I am not advocating a Singapore model for the US, but neither should we ignore possible steps local and national government can take to increase competition in the Internet service market.

Ownership of Singapore's info-communications industry, June 2000
Source: ITU compiled from company reports / Singapore Inc.

The Straits Times benefits from the strong Singapore Internet, but I suspect the government also offers direct or indirect subsidy. I understand that we don't want the government to control our press, although there is considerable precedent for US government support of broadcast and print media. That being said, the current US administration will doubtless do its best to eliminate what little federal support remains.

But, since Republicans favor free markets and decentralized choice when it comes to health care, energy and schools, why not the press? How about media vouchers for voting age adults? Individuals would be free to allocate their media subsidy as they see fit — to the New York Times or Breitbart, NPR or Rush Limbaugh. Milton Friedman might have even gone for that.

By Larry Press, Professor of Information Systems at California State University. More blog posts from Larry Press can also be read here.

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Comments

I read to the end but I Mike Burns  –  Mar 07, 2017 9:11 AM PDT

I read to the end but I still don't really know why the Straits newspaper is succeeding in physical form. This article kind of went off the rails midway through for me. Is the author saying that fast and cheap Internet with government ownership of a portion of the ISPs the key to retaining print media somehow? I missed the connection.

Mike,I tried to think of an explanation Larry Press  –  Mar 09, 2017 12:37 PM PDT

Mike,

I tried to think of an explanation for the apparent success of the Straits times, but nothing checked out. All I could do was speculate that it had something to do with the relatively active role the government there plays in the economy — strategic planning,
investing, focused education, etc.

In the second part I said that part of the success of the (digital) paper was due to excellent Internet infrastructure, due in part to their activist, pro-competition government policy. I also said the new US administration seems to be moving away from competition.

That in itself does not explain the relative success of the Straits Times (their circulation is also down somewhat). I suspect the Straits Times gets some direct or indirect subsidy. (I would love to hear from some Singaporeans on this). If subsidy is on the table, I concluded with a form of subsidy that I thought might have some appeal to traditional Republicans — journalism vouchers.

Thanks for the additional information, but I Mike Burns  –  Mar 09, 2017 1:01 PM PDT

Thanks for the additional information, but I guessed the posited underlying success of the Straits Times was a government subsidy. And therein lies the rub. You can't really have an independent 4th Estate if it is receiving government subsidies, and I doubt many traditional Republicans would accept that notion even it was described as journalism vouchers. I have loved newspapers my whole life, but times change. Sure, the number of worldwide journalists has decreased, but how many citizen-journalists has the Internet enabled?

I doubt the success or failure of digital press in the States is related to Internet infrastructure, after all, people are demanding bandwidth for Netflix and Hulu, not for the NY Times.  Nor do I hear requests for the Times to receive government subsidies. The Times seems to have quite the opposite relationship to government today.

I appreciate your reply, though, as the author. And while I object to the government model of Singapore, I can't deny that it has its benefits, and for those who love print newspapers especially, you may have identified one.

I agree -- print per se is Larry Press  –  Mar 09, 2017 1:20 PM PDT

I agree — print per se is not as important as finding a way to preserve investigative journalism and fact checking — online or off. I also agree that a government-directed subsidy would have obvious problems, but Republicans do seem to like vouchers that give consumers choice. If they agree that investigative journalism and fact-checking are pro-democracy and worth preserving, why not vouchers?

I too have lauded the rise of citizen journalism — like this — but the rist of fake "news" and opinion has tempered my enthusiasm. (See this slide deck that I developed for teaching last semester: http://cis471.blogspot.com/2016/11/teaching-slides-on-political-impact-of.html)

I hope we come up with something to keep investigative journalism and fact-checking alive.

Larry

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