By Kumaran Pillai
The Middle Ground (TMG), another social-political website in Singapore has announced that it plans on putting its shutters down after making a debut two and a half years ago. Their founders Daniel Yap and Bertha Henson brought a unique brand of journalism and contributed immensely to the political discourse in Singapore.
Over the weekend, we saw a lot of their fans giving them a pat on their backs for their efforts. Surely, the demise of a prominent blog is not good for the already muted political discourse in Singapore. But being cash trapped and unable to extract more from their initial customer base of two hundred or so subscribers, they are left with no choice but to end their venture.
We saw two other sites, Six-Six News (66N) and Inconvenient Questions (IQ) shutting their operations soon after the 2015 elections. Rumour has it that these sites ran out of shareholder funds and they were not able to build a sustainable business model to keep them going. Needless to say, their state-approved stakeholders were not interested in them anymore.
The media industry is going through a major transformation. State backed media SPH and Mediacorp are rationalising their business and they have done a few nifty maneuverers to consolidate their position even further.
Edmund Wee, publisher of Epigram, said soon after the General Elections in 2015 that the government has managed to neutralise social media. He is absolutely spot-on: in 2012, The Online Citizen (TOC) was neck and neck with Straits Times (ST) in terms of Facebook reach but today, TOC has less than 10% of ST’s reach and they are slipping in the Alexa ranking, a key indicator of the popularity of websites.
TOC has a weak organisation and has been plagued by much in-fighting. Its failure to scale is in its inability to build a strong management team, though some of which can be attributed to the harsh media environment and government (over) regulation. They have lost too much ground to mount a serious challenge, or as one of their co-founders Remy Choo once said, to be the king-maker in politics.
TMG on the other hand was more solid – they had a good team of journalists, well-argued pieces and often brought perspectives that were sorely lacking in the main stream media. It was a good mix, I must say and, so I was surprised that they decided to fold up.
This reminds me of an old business adage, “Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door.” It is highly seductive to say that you’ve invented a better mousetrap and in TMG’s case, good journalism was a good mousetrap. Their initial customers even endorsed it as the best mousetrap ever. Their readers really swore by it but only two hundred news junkies literally bought into it.
So, why did they fail?
Unfortunately, good journalism is only good as a vanity metric, it is both subjective and unquantifiable. I am not even sure if it can be defined as a product that can be differentiated in a highly competitive marketplace. As a business, it is not defensible.
In this business, there is no customer lock in. People read what they want to read and often read news that comes in their social media feeds. Even the 30% die-hard opposition supporters read the main-stream media – they share articles widely about how the MSM is so biased and in the process making MSM more entrenched. Let’s not forget, ST has more followers that all the alternate media combined.
Secondly, readers’ preferences about what they read changes over time and it is difficult for a small media outfit to monitor the changes in reader habits. Besides, a one trick pony that only attracts a certain kind of readers is poorly equipped to monitor the changing trends in the space.
Therein lies their business dilemma, growing out of their niche would be difficult as it would offend their initial customer segment and their need for good well-argued pieces. They also brought on subscribers on the basis of good journalism, though very little, it is a market that they couldn’t forsake till now.
Paywall is a death trap
Nobody owes anybody a living and if you’re going out there to raise funds to bankroll your operations, you’ll soon find that you have few friends. Subscribers are finicky – they want good service, they want a certain number of articles to be published each day, expect constant uptime of servers and all these cost monies and you need truckloads of them.
Unless you have a well-oiled machine, you’ll soon realise that you cannot deliver on your promises as you will need to juggle between running a good sales team on top of a good editorial team. A major, if not impossible undertaking for a startup.
Long verbose articles do not sit well in a mobile device. People’s attention span is too short to go through long pieces. Singapore’s market of 2.3M readers and to target a niche segment of the total addressable market is really a death trap.
There are few contenders that’ll probably cover this segment and it could very well be TODAY and ST – it is easy to dismiss them as old media houses languishing in the digital age or that their pro-government Pyongyang styled media is completely out of touch, I would argue otherwise.
Recently, both TODAY and ST have published articles that are critical of the government and these pieces are shared widely by anti-establishment activists. They probably were on TMG’s heals to chip away the little market share she had.
All three, TMG, 66N and IQ managed to raise seed capital to launch their sites, yet they failed to scale their startups and there is a valuable lesson here for any startup founder – never put the cart before the horse. Only raise funds when you have a sure-fire way of sustaining the business.
The fundamental question we need to ask, is there really a market for middle-of-the-road, well-balanced, neither here-nor-there, running on the road divider kind of publication? Perhaps not, so, let’s not beat ourselves over it, though it’s sorely missed!