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.
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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.
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