BY BERTHA HENSON
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.
And there I was thinking that we were still flying under the radar… Breakfast Network has been asked by the Media Development Authority to “register” the site by Dec 10.
This isn’t the same thing as having a licence — which was what Yahoo and nine other news sites had to obtain and put down a $50,000 deposit for, because they had reached a certain number of visitors.
Instead, this is about swearing that you don’t have, and will never have, foreign funding for the site.
I have been assured by MDA that this is just a “declaration” (statutory declaration and other forms to sign) and it is not because it has “something” on BN. Remember in July how it put out a statement about the Independent flirting with foreigners and therefore having to register the site? (I gather it was last week given the same Form C1 that is now with me. Deadline looming guys…)
I suppose the argument is that if there is no intent to receive foreign funding, then as editor and publisher, I should have no problem signing it.
But the thing is, “foreign funding” as defined here isn’t just about who’s investing in the site (in any case, we never did figure on getting a Malaysian dato, Russian oligarch or the CIA to dump money into BN). It’s also about who’s advertising and doing sponsorship deals with the site. In other words, “funding” means any type of revenue. MDA rules require putting up a listing of local/foreign advertisers who contributed more than 5 per cent of revenue (which might mean just about everybody given how small advertising is online) and what sort of money they’re giving. The phrase “foreign sources” is defined very, very widely — although there is a saving grace – it’s okay if they are bona fide companies engaged in bona fide businesses. So I guess an advertiser like Rolex is okay.
If the MDA thinks your funding is coming from a “foreign source”, you’ve got to give it back or donate to charity. Unless you can prove that it is a commercial transaction that was made in good faith. That means keeping very good records of every single transaction that goes through the site. (I am beginning to feel like a beleaguered SME boss who always complains of compliance costs.)
This move is part of the harmonisation of rules between new media and traditional media that the G talks about so often. In fact, MSM has rather more onerous provisions, as MDA officials politely pointed out to me this morning. If the MSM can accept the red tape, why not a small outfit like BN?
That’s the crux of the matter. New media and MSM aren’t playing on a level field. BN is a pro bono site that aspires to be a business start-up. MSM are dominated by giants with more than just online media in their stable.
Most people know, including MSM, how difficult it is to monetise online news and views. Most newspaper sites would be dead in the water if their income was based on purely online news operations. And if not dead – because its operations are funded by a shoe-string budget – then you can bet that they are probably not worth reading if their mission is to do good journalism.
The trouble with good journalism, where professionals do the job of reporting, writing and editing, is that it must be paid for, whether by advertisements or subscription. There is simply no getting away from it.
It’s easy enough to sign on the dotted line. It’s the tracking and reporting of financial activity that will be troublesome. MDA assures me that the reporting need only be done once a year (so no need to worry about hiring more staff), but in another declaration form, it says that it has to be told of changes in transactions and editorial content or staffing within seven days. I pointed this out and was told that nevertheless, it will do whatever it can to make it as hassle-free as possible. So nice.
I wager, however, that potential advertisers and sponsors are likely to think very hard before putting their money on a fledgling site that has to be “registered”. Plus, it doesn’t help that the atmosphere is reeking of official distrust for anything online. We can expect more curbs on the Net activity.
During my conversation with MDA, I asked why not wait till the review of the Broadcasting Act? I was told registration was an “interim measure”.
I don’t know whether to laugh or to cry.
I should have thought twice about professionalising Breakfast Network, which started as a labour of love eight months ago by a group of people who got the itch to write.
We put up a no-brainer website, came up with a concept and populated it with content. We thought we had a formula: People have no time to read everything so why not filter the news and present them from a certain point of view? Not necessarily alternative, but which asks important questions. Then we moved into reporting. I daresay our reports on the Hong Lim Park protests are quite different from what was reported on other online media and in the rather subdued MSM.
We tried to marry the discipline and rigour of mainstream media with the freedom that the Internet gives to do various styles of reporting and writing. We insisted that every article carries a byline and that errors are recorded at the end of posts.
Somehow the traction we got gave us the confidence that we could actually make this work on a more professional foundation, rather than relying on whether we had the spare time and energy to write for and manage the site, and depending on the goodwill of unpaid contributors. So I incorporated Breakfast Network as a company, and knowing how easy it is for editorial control to slip because of shareholder pressures, put up the money myself. We felt we needed a legal entity, a commercial vehicle, to do business.
That’s the bit which is ironic. We wanted to be legit, transparent and tightly structured. It also means we’re easy to target by the G. It’s our fault that we declared ourselves a commercial entity although we know full well we’ll not be minting money.
Perhaps, we should have gone guerilla, underground, use some server from abroad and all sorts of pseudonyms to confuse everyone about who are the people really behind the site. Then we could allow all sorts of people to post comments, do plenty of drumming and escalate the number of eyeballs. No need to worry about making money to cover cost and to hire good people to raise the quality of content.
Now we have to sign on to a thicket of rules, like MSM. And we still don’t know what is to come with the revised Broadcasting Act. We’re in two minds about continuing Breakfast Network even though we actually on the way to re-launching a new website which we paid for. Something more professional. And hopefully, with professional staffing.