Debbie Goh Pei Chin
Assistant Professor, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore
Digital news sites and social media serve as Singapore’s primary sources of news, with three-quarters of the country accessing news through smartphones.
Singapore has two main legacy media organisations, the commercial Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) and the state-owned MediaCorp. Both of these conglomerates dominate the traditional and digital news market. SPH publishes most of Singapore’s local newspapers, including the flagship English-language Straits Times and Chinese-language Lianhe Zaobao, Malay-language Berita Harian, and Tamil-language Tamil Murasu. Overall readership of SPH newspapers fell slightly to 2.43 million in 2016, from 2.6 million in 2015. However, digital circulation for most of its newspapers increased, offsetting decreases in print. During the past year, combined print and digital circulation increased for newspapers such as The Straits Times, Business Times, and The New Paper.1
SPH’s strategy involves a push towards more digital offerings, while providing advertisers audience reach across multiple platforms. In 2016, SPH revamped Zaobao and its English-language tabloid, The New Paper (TNP). Zaobao created a new mobile-responsive website and an app that reads articles aloud, catering to readers who understand but have difficulty reading Chinese. TNP merged with SPH’s free bilingual morning commute MyPaper.
Though Straits Times remains ahead as the leader among news brands, other SPH newspapers face stiff competition from MediaCorp, local news sites, and international news organisations including BBC News, CNN, Huffington Post, and BuzzFeed news. In 2016, SPH announced a staff cut of up to 10% over two years through attrition, retirement, non-renewal of contracts, outplacement, and retrenchment.
The state-owned MediaCorp produces Channel NewsAsia, a 24-hour English news channel, as well as news in Chinese, Malay, and Tamil for local TV and radio broadcast. It also publishes the free Today newspaper. In August 2016, Mediacorp’s Toggle, its over-the-top (OTT) service, recorded over 11 million video views for live and repeat telecasts of four large events such as the National Day Parade. The strong viewership indicates growing demand for the use of digital, on-demand platforms to access live events.
The online news landscape in Singapore operates on a licence basis. All internet content providers are automatically licensed under the Broadcasting Act, and must comply with Class Licence conditions and the Internet Code of Practice. In 2013, the Online News Licensing Scheme was introduced to require news websites to be individually licensed if they report an average of at least one article per week on Singapore news and current affairs over a period of two months and are visited by at least 50,000 unique IP addresses from Singapore each month over the same period. Websites are then required to remove content which is in breach of content standards within 24 hours and post a performance bond of SG$50,000.
Apart from large news sites that fall under the requirement, like SPH and Mediacorp news units, independent news sites whose smaller readership do not meet licensing criteria have also been asked to register for a class licence under the Broadcasting Act. Socio-political news sites Mothership.sg, Independent.sg, The Middle Ground, and The Online Citizen were among the independent outlets licensed. Since then, these sites have become mainstays in Singapore’s digital news landscape – e.g. the monthly readership of Mothership.sg has increased to 3.8 million.
In 2016, the co-founders of the popular website The Real Singapore were convicted for fabricating news that sowed discord between Singaporeans and foreigners. Such examples have alarmed the Singapore government, which announced in April 2017 that it is reviewing laws to tackle false news reporting.
More broadly, the majority (85%) of Singaporeans reported going online for news, with 61% obtaining news from social media. Only slightly more than half turn to print (53%) and TV (57%) for news. Three-quarters of Singaporeans access news on their smartphones. Despite their preference for digital news, only a small percentage (16%) were willing to pay for online access. SPH operates different paywalls including a metered paywall for The Straits Times and a freemium model for The Business Times. Other publications including Zaobao and TNP are free. MediaCorp news sites are free.
Singaporeans have relatively low trust in the news compared to other countries (42%) and only a quarter perceive news to be free from political or commercial influences. For election news, however, Singaporeans trust the traditional news outlets more than alternative news sources like social media and digital-born outlets.2
- http://sph.listedcompany.com/misc/annualreport/2016b/SPH_AR2016_daily_average.pdf ↩
- C. Soon and N. Samsudin, Media Use and Political Participation. In C. Soon, T. H. Tan, and N. Samsudin (eds), Media and Internet Use during General Election 2015. Singapore: Institute of Policy Studies, 2016, pp. 27–55. ↩