Kitchen closed

SingaporeScene

Bertha Henson's website "Breakfast Network" will be closing, but she says her team will continue to post blogs and content on its Facebook page. (Screengrab from Breakfast Network's Facebook page)

Bertha Henson was a journalist with the Singapore Press Holdings stable of newspapers for 26 years until May 2012. Her last designation was Associate Editor of The Straits Times. She is now Journalist-in-residence at Tembusu College, University Town in the National University of Singapore. She runs a media consultancy, Newsmakers, and helms a blog, Bertha Harian. She is a founder of online news/views site Breakfast Network, where this article was originally published. This post first appeared here.

Okay, we are shutting down www.breakfastnetwork.sg. We need to take a breather and re-organise. We are moving back to blogging and putting our stuff on our Facebook Page (facebook.com/BreakfastNetwork.SG). So you can still find us online, but not as a full-fledged website.

As owner and editor, I can tell you this was a tough decision to make. The site was set up because there were like-minded individuals who wanted to report and write and we thought, what the heck, why not set up something cheap? I also had some undergraduates in my residential college in the National University of Singapore who were keen to contribute. A good chance, I thought, to put my teaching into action so that they could behave like “real’’ journalists. It was also an opportunity to get them involved in other aspects of web publishing if the site grew.

What we didn’t reckon on was that the site would gain fans so quickly, so much so we had to keep buying more server space. And despite being a pro bono site, there were readers who wanted more and more. So, I thought why not do the site “properly’’, set up a legal entity to do business and pay for a more-or-less proper newsroom operation? As a network, we were determined to marry the best of journalistic practices with the freedom to express ourselves in various ways online. I think we succeeded over the past eight months in getting something good going.

People have asked us about our shareholders. There is really just one: me. I had a couple of reasons for not taking on more shareholders. I know what it is like to be an editor who has to think about pleasing investors. I thought if I financed everything, I could run everything. That is, I would not have to bother with investors who are not aligned with the Breakfast Network vision and wanted the editorial team to do some crazy things, like writing nice pieces for people and companies who want to sponsor us. I also thought I should carry the risk on my own, because everyone, even the Media Development Authority, knows that getting online advertising is tough.

I am beginning to think I was wrong in not getting more financially vested players.

In any case, I got the ball rolling sometime in August. I incorporated a company and started to work on the legal and business end of things while everyone, except for one paid full-timer and a couple of interns, contributed articles pro bono. I had pro bono help from experts. I hired a team to do a new, improved website.

So it was a bit of a surprise to get an email from the Media Development Authority about three weeks back about having to register the site. I hadn’t even begun to pull together a business plan to show the network contributors.

I suppose the MDA was in a conundrum. First, the Independent and now, Breakfast Network. How to ensure some control over news sites, especially those that hadn’t hit the 50,000 visitors mark that would attract licensing? What if there are more clones? What if we get in bed with nefarious foreigners?

The first thing that came to mind was: Did we do something wrong? Which article pissed off who in the G? And, yes, was this a way of saying that Big Brother is watching? Or were we reading sinister motives into a mundane, regulatory issue that was simply prohibiting foreigners with dubious motives funding us? That is, registration is really no big deal.

Of course, we wondered why we were singled out. The G thought the Independent was getting foreign funds, which it has denied, hence the registration demand in July. This area must be entirely new to the G, because it later revised the registration forms which The Independent described as “different in scope’’. Now with the revised forms, the next move – to use a civil service phrase – would be to “regularise’’ everything else, we suppose.

Stupidly, we made the head of the queue because we had incorporated a company to run the website.

There was a bout of self-pity. Why us? We are not an advocacy site; we have no ideological underpinnings. We are just people who are interested in news developments and ask, we hope, thoughtful questions on behalf of the citizenry. We try to get as close as possible to our ideal of a functioning, independent newsroom that upholds journalistic ethics and professionalism.

Of course, bureaucrats would say that we are “mixing’’ the issues. Foreign funding and editorial content are two different things. The first has to do with the need to keep “Singapore politics for Singaporeans only’’. The second, with freedom of expression.

The G was quick to say it never curbed content. I can testify to that. It would be nice if it could sign a declaration that it would never do so, but we are not that unreasonable.

The MDA’s rebuttal to Maruah’s statement that registration might affect the growth of start-ups is quite tragic: “While it is convenient to blame MDA’s registration requirement for causing online commercial enterprises to be unviable, it is also true that many online sites struggle to be commercially viable in the first place.’’

Exactly, MDA. And you just made it harder for Breakfast Network.

Lawyers and business people who have seen the registration forms describe them as “onerous’’. 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.

Then there is the wide definition of “person(s) responsible for and/or involved in the provision, management and/or operation of the website” who would have to put their names down. At this stage, BN relies primarily on volunteers. But the MDA has insisted that even pro bono editors have to be named. I cannot compel people to agree to do that. Nor should I.

From a bureaucratic point of view, everything looks easy. It boils down to this: If you are not receiving dubious foreign funds, why should you be worried?

I think the G should think a bit harder about imposing regulations on this new environment that is called the Internet.

Because some people believe it should remain un-regulated; some think that conceding to one piece of regulation is a slippery slope that will push online views into a shape resembling the mainstream media. And that is not what people who report and write online sign up to be.

Some people even wonder if this was a way to crimp the growth of a media outfit that could prove over time too big and too difficult to handle if not regulated at its infancy.

The other question we had was: Why now?

Why not wait for the review of the Broadcasting Act, when any interested party could have a say in the promised public consultation exercise? Heh, who knows, the revised legislation might actually lead to the removal of the need for registration! That was a joke, by the way.

We asked for a month’s extension of the deadline. MDA gave us a week. It did not think a month was required because “the forms are straightforward’’ and it had “clarified’’ the issues. It does not understand that it is not just a question of form-filling but also wrapping our heads around what registration means… really, means.

The demand to register or else – has created a wrinkle in our barely-formed plans to become a sustainable and professional outfit.

Therefore, we have decided to suspend operations until we have re-strategized or at least till the amendments to the Broadcasting Act are unveiled.

Breakfast Network will go back to its original mission: a labour of love undertaken pro bono because we love writing and we think that every citizen should take an interest in what’s happening in their own country. No, we haven’t given up on our vision. We need time to re-group, re-think and re-strategise.

Please go to Bertha Harian and the BN Facebook page from hereafter. We will keep you posted when the kitchen is re-opened. Now, anyone wants to sink in $1m to retrofit our kitchen and renovate premises?

Must be Singaporean.