The future of Singapore’s newspapers may lie in the plans of a student rejected from journalism school and The Straits Times.
Text by Justin Zhuang | Photos by Sam Kang Li
If his dreams for the coming months come true, a possible beginning for what would be a revolutionary-esque movie might go something like this. The scene: we walk down a dimly lit corridor of identical pale yellow doors like any others in the National University of Singapore (NUS). At the last door, we rap on it and Belmont Lay, the recent chief of The Campus Observer (CO), a online student newspaper of NUS, lets us in.
For the next hour, we huddle around the 25-year-old talking about the future of Singapore newspapers. That is, until we start talking about our plans for the future. “Have you all found jobs?” asks the final-year undergraduate of NUS’s Communications and New Media (CNM) programme. No, as neither of Singapore’s two newspaper publishers are hiring because of the economic downturn, we say.
“Then how? All (young) journalists eat grass right now ah?” Lay asks mockingly referring to the possibility of being jobless and unable to afford anything to eat but grass. Then he leans forward and asks, “How about joining me to start an online newspaper?” Dressed in his plain black t-shirt, bermudas and navy blue sneakers, we pause to wonder if he is serious.
FINDING HIS OWN WAY OUT
Since his secondary school days, Lay has always wanted to be a journalist as he likes writing and hopes to make a career out of it.
But the 25-year-old was never considered to be good enough by the industry. Scoring only straight ‘Bs” in his ‘A’ Levels, his application to Nanyang Technological University’s Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information – the only university with a journalism division – was rejected.
Hence, Lay found himself in his second choice – NUS’s Faculty of Arts and Social Science – where he discovered the Communications and New Media (CNM) programme. During his second year he took a mass media writing class. It was there he met the eleven other students who started the campus paper in 2006.
“I always wanted to try out journalism and this was the best avenue,” he says. At that time, the university did not have a student paper. “We wanted to see how it was like writing for a newspaper.”
Initially, no one took these “new kids on the block” seriously. There was also unhappiness amidst the student community. The student union and student groups were not used to a group of “pesky” students reporting about them, he recalls.
But the online paper is going strong two years on. In recognition of how far it has come, the CNM department provided a room to house the paper’s current staff of eight.
Lay has also grown with the paper. In 2007, he took over as Campus Observer’s editor from its founder, Clement Tan.
Yet even with his experience of starting and working for a student newspaper, Lay was unable to secure an internship at Singapore’s biggest English newspaper, The Straits Times (ST), when he applied last year.
While Lay has not ruled out applying again to work at the local papers like ST and TODAY when he graduates, he is afraid that working for the major papers would mean losing autonomy over what he can write about. Although he goes on to say that it is a personal issue that he can overcome.
Despite the rejections and uncertainty, Lay is determined. “I will still want to be a journalist because that’s what I wanted to be,” he says. If the local papers have no place for him, he will create one for himself.
IT’S POSSIBLE ONLINE
If it were a few years back, enthusiasm to set up an independent newspaper would have been met with scepticism. The printing cost and the sacred newspaper permit will have killed the hopes of any young media entrepreneur.
But as Lay has shown with Campus Observer, the online world – with its low start-up cost and unregulated environment – has opened up an avenue for aspiring journalists like him to strike it on their own instead of joining the small stable of newspapers in Singapore.
Lay thinks local papers are not hard-hitting enough. “Somehow you get this feeling that everyone seems very happy and privileged when you read the local newspapers,” he says “But there are still those issues of underprivileged individuals that are glossed over.”
His plan is to provide a wider scope of news, modelled after one of his favourite magazines Rolling Stones. The American publication discusses music, politics and popular culture often in an irreverent manner that will better engage readers, he says.
There have been online news sites that discuss issues about Singapore like The Online Citizen (TOC) and The Singapore Enquirer. Lay, however, makes a distinction between his planned news site and the existing ones. TOC’s views are partisan and the posts are commentaries rather than news, he says. These sites also limit coverage to the political arena and express only the views of the same few writers.
THIS IS SERIOUS BUSINESS
It is easy to dismiss Lay’s plan as idealistic but he is aware of its realities. “The whole challenge is to start it as a business,” he says. And he has given it serious thought. Halfway through explaining his plans he stops and asks, “I’ve told you this idea now, what are your scepticisms?”
Our questions come in fast and furious. How are you going to earn money? Who are your readers? What is your unique selling point? How are you going to have sustained content creation? How will you pay your content creators? What if the official voices ignore you?
Lay answers each of our concerns with confidence and clarity. He even brings out attention to issues we missed out, such as registering as a business and internet content provider, although, he has no solution for them as yet.
In a nutshell, Lay’s solution is to enter the market as a core unit of five to eight committed journalists reinforced by freelancers. To ensure quality, content producers will be remunerated. The money will come from advertisers like small and medium enterprises that cannot afford the services of big papers.
SINGING TO HIMSELF?
But Lay says that this whole plan is on the condition that he can find enough “like-minded” individuals to get it started. He stresses that commitment is the fundamental to quality journalism. “This is no part-time job offer,” he says.
As the editor in Campus Observer, he spent most of his time, including weekends, writing and editing stories. This was on top of the heap of schoolwork he had. We begin to understand why Lay struggles to tell us anything interesting he does besides working on the paper.
After much prodding, Lay says he enjoys indie tunes from The Strokesand Arctic Monkeys and also plays music on his guitar. For whom, we ask? The self-proclaimed “bedroom musician” chuckles and says he is his own audience.
But will his online newspaper also remain a dream in his bedroom, we wonder. After all, traditional newspapers, some of hundred years history, are struggling to keep their audience. To go electronic may not necessary solve the problem. Millions of online news outlets are also competing against one another.
Lay can give no guarantee that his plan will work, and for the record, we did not turn down his request to join him. But we’re not sure if we’re up for the roles in his movie – working day and night for something we cared for, even sacrificing thousands of dollars that we could have make as a wage-earner, only to find ourselves disappointed if we fail at the end of day.
This story is part of a series, Where are we going: The future of newspapers in Singapore