The writing was on the wall for Mediacorp when Ernest Wong came back to the national broadcaster as its chairman last July. And two weeks ago, Mediacorp appointed a surprise choice as its chief executive: Tham Loke Kheng.
Tham is not your normal, safe choice to run a sensitive business like Mediacorp. She is a battle-hardened media executive, having spent considerable time in the dog-eat-dog world of Hong Kong and Taiwan. Wong, who was CEO from 2000 to 2005, seems to have come with specific plans for the media giant as it flounders in a market facing declining advertising revenues and stiff competition from disruptive digital streaming businesses.
Then on Friday (25 August) came the news that the company has struck a deal with its rival Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) to buy back the print giant’s stakes in the publisher of Today, Mediacorp Press, and the national broadcaster for $18 million. The deal comes with two catches – that Today, the print arm of Mediacorp, goes fully digital and, more importantly, that it stops publishing any soft copy of the computer-readable format of the newspaper that looks and feels like the print version of the paper for five years.
The bottom line is this: Today, which came on to the scene in 2000 with audacious ambitions to gobble up 10 per cent of The Straits Times’ advertising revenue, has now surrendered the print market to SPH. The deal comes 13 years after the latter gave up fighting a bloody war with Mediacorp in the TV market.
The duopoly of Mediacorp and SPH
With that, SPH has been given a respite but the bout has got a few more rounds to go. Will it continue to put its faith in The New Paper? Can the Chinese afternoon newspapers, Shin Min and Lianhe Wanbao, continue to provide very similar content and survive?
And the biggest question of all: Can SPH continue to bite at the fringes instead of executing some big bang decisions and, if so, for how long? But there is no doubt about one thing: that the reality of the death of print can now be discussed by observers without them being accused of purveying a doomsday scenario.
For Today, it is a scenario the paper has been looking at for a couple of years. Print is the highest cost item for the paper because it does not have a printing press of its own and had to pay a bomb to a private printer, Kim Hup Lee, to get out 200,000 copies a day from Monday to Friday. The weekend edition went fully digital in April this year.
Today faces other challenges as well. Ad revenues in the digital world are miniscule and the fight is with world media giants like Google, Facebook and Amazon. There is also the question of how Mediacorp will rationalise the digital offerings of Channel New Asia and Today.
The media scene has come one full circle after the government initiated a “liberalisation” drive to get the two giants to compete. Although the government does not have an official hand in the latest change, it is not beyond belief that it had at least some influence on proceedings. Look at what the government said in a Today article on the latest move, “This is a commercial decision.” In the next breath, it said, “We have no objections to the proposed move.” If it is a commercial decision, then why say it has no objections?
The ever-present government
Singapore’s media history is littered with examples of the government’s visible and invisible hand. It was instrumental in getting United Overseas Bank (UOB) to underwrite a newspaper, The Singapore Monitor, in 1981. The goal was to provide competition for The Straits Times, which the authorities felt was getting a little laidback. A new company was formed to include the Chinese papers in the Monitor fold. That attempt failed miserably.
Then came another rationalisation move to get the Chinese papers under the SPH umbrella as a sop to the Chinese-educated, who were still sore about the forced closure of Nanyang University. Then came the liberalisation drive in 2000, with SPH getting a TV licence and Mediacorp a print licence. All these measures have failed.
Most of them were made under the late Lee Kuan Yew, whose obsession with media control was legendary. But times are changing dramatically and the current political leadership must decide if such government interventions are still useful for an industry struggling with declining revenues and fewer and fewer eyeballs.
As both Ernest Wong and new SPH chief Ng Yat Chung attempt to ensure the survival of their respective companies in a post-print world, a new reality will hopefully dawn on them. A post-mainstream media world has arrived and it is here to stay.
P N Balji is a veteran Singaporean journalist and the former chief editor of Today, as well as a former editor at The New Paper. He is currently a media consultant. The views expressed are his own.