SINGAPORE: Study downside of media competition

The ominous statements made recently by government leaders on the future of media competition in Singapore have sparked a debate on how the media might best serve readers and viewers here

The Straits Times
Monday, December 1, 2003

By Warren Fernandez

The ominous statements made recently by government leaders on the future of media competition in Singapore have sparked a debate on how the media might best serve readers and viewers here.

One group of market analysts has hailed the talk of possible mergers and a return to monopolies. It sees them as good for share prices. The other group of media watchers has bemoaned the possible demise of competition, seeing in it the dangers of the media here becoming complacent and compliant, and standards slipping.

For this group, competition is both necessary and sufficient for good journalism. It seems to mistake economic liberalisation with political liberalisation.

Having more media companies is seen to lead to a less restrictive media regime, and thereby better-quality media.

Several from this camp have e-mailed or written to me to take issue with a recent Thinking Aloud column I had written, in which I sought to point out the downside of competition, here and abroad.

A Nov 22 commentary by my former colleague at The Straits Times, Mr Cherian George, summed up the view of this 'keep the competition alive', 'no turning back' camp. He charged: 'There have been many cases where competition has indeed caused a slide in quality. But is this automatic or inevitable? No.'

Yet nowhere in my column did I suggest that competition inevitably leads to lower quality. Let me be clear: Like most journalists, I, too, am in favour of competition and do not wish to argue a case for less competition as an end in itself.

Competition keeps editors and reporters on their toes and gives them that spur to chase, develop and hone stories to deliver the best they can to their readers.

But what I had sought to do was to debunk the idea that simply having more media companies necessarily makes for better journalism. Quality media is not confined to cities where there is direct competition. The BBC, for example, is widely regarded as being credible and authoritative, even though this state-owned entity does not face intense competition. It is its own deep-rooted sense of news values that drives it.

Similarly, the New York example cited by Mr George is telling. He argues that contrary to my assertion that the New York Times (NYT) dominates the newspaper market in that city, it is, in fact, ranked only No. 3, after two tabloid papers, the Daily News and the New York Post, which have daily circulations of 700,000 and 650,000 respectively.

The NYT, in contrast, has a circulation of 1.1 million, although more than half of this is sold outside the city and in the rest of the United States.

While the Daily News and the New York Post do compete among themselves to serve their readers' needs, I doubt that the NYT regards either as a competitor. They serve different niches.

Nor would many consider those two tabloids models of journalistic 'excellence' or much of a spur to greater heights for the NYT. They have neither the scope of coverage nor the extensive reach of correspondents and worldwide bureaus the NYT has, partly because the latter has financial muscle and a world view few newspapers can match.

The fact that the NYT makes more than half of its daily sales outside its own home city is also significant. Competition, after all, need not take place within the confines of a city, but can be regional, even international, with good newspapers setting benchmarks others aspire to.

In Boston, for example, the city's main paper has long been the Boston Globe. In recent years, however, it has been facing a mounting challenge from the NYT.

Ironically, both the Globe and the NYT are owned by the same company - the New York Times. But they maintain separate newsrooms, which are independent and fiercely competitive.

This situation is little different from the competition that exists between The Straits Times and the Business Times. Yet media watchers with a low view of the media here somehow do not accept this competition as being 'real'.

Furthermore, is it not thought-provoking that New York City's eight million citizens support two tabloids and two broadsheets, the NYT and the Wall Street Journal? The NYT and Journal also operate, as Mr George notes, in the rest of the US, which has a 300-million population.

Yet, in Singapore, with an English readership of at most two million, there are two broadsheets, two freesheets and an afternoon tabloid. (This leaves out the share of readers and advertisers that goes to the vernacular papers).

Then there are the many international papers that now compete aggressively for market share among Singapore's professionals, promising home or office deliveries by 7.30am, just like any local paper.

These papers know if they can win sufficient readers among these professional groups, advertisers will follow, giving them a cut of the limited advertising pie.

Can Singapore media groups shrug off this competition, simply because they are being launched by rivals based abroad, any more than the Boston Globe might ignore the NYT simply because it is edited in another city?

Mr George also suggested I had misrepresented the views of respected American media commentators Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel when I quoted from their book, Warp Speed, which studies how new technology and competitive pressures have undermined editors' ability to sift and select content judiciously.

He argues that the main message of their book was not that competition exacts a price, but that newspaper editors are responding to competition 'the wrong way.'

Now this raises an interesting question: Who decides what is the 'right' or 'wrong' way to compete? Markets and consumers? Media watchers and pundits? Editors and journalists? Politicians and bureaucrats?

Indeed, the deeper question is this: If the solution was as simple as newspapers having to brand and market their 'higher values', rather than take the easy and low road of pandering to popular tastes, why have thousands of committed editors not done that?

It is precisely because the pressures of competition and technology, with the never-ending news cycle and the growing array of news sources that Mr Kovach and Mr Rosenstiel write about, have diminished the ability of thoughtful journalists to uphold standards and values. Of course, they have not been removed entirely, but it has been harder to uphold them.

That is a price that competition exacts. Whether or not a community is willing to pay it is up to the community to decide. But it should do so with eyes open, and not simply by having 'faith' that competition will right all wrongs.

Communities everywhere have drawn up rules and regulations to govern the media, from who owns it to how it is used to further the public good.

Here is one area Mr George and I seem to agree on. That is his view that 'for competition to work its magic, it cannot be a free-for-all.'

Getting the market structure right, having a robust competition code, managements that are enlightened enough to invest in developing the product rather than simply trying to bleed the competition, and journalists who are committed to upholding standards and values, are all critical if media consumers are to be well served.

It is these that, I had argued, cannot be left to the vagaries of the market.

Mr George, however, extrapolates from this to conclude that media professionals here have 'low expectations' about competition and that this would become self-fulfilling.

Yet my concerns stem not from 'low expectations' but from my conclusion that the present experiment of limited media liberalisation has not delivered its promised benefits. Yes, there is more choice, but this has not always gone together with higher quality.

Indeed, my own sense is that much of the impetus to make improvements to this newspaper, for example, stem more from a long-standing desire to keep and grow its audience, rather than the recent emergence of competition.

The media slugfest has instead left the two media groups drained, unable or unwilling to invest more to develop their products.

Nor do I claim to reflect the views of all my fellow media professionals. Some of them share my concerns, others do not. That is as it should be in a media which aims to reflect a diversity of views.

Even among government leaders, I suspect, there are differences of opinion on the issue, rather than the black-and- white world Mr George seems to portray.

What Singapore needs is not more blind faith in competition and what its advocates promise, but a hard-headed look at whether competition in this market and in its present form needs fixing or is best left alone. A sober appraisal of the downside of competition is called for, even as we note its benefits, if we are to find ways to ensure that markets deliver the media Singaporeans want, and deserve.