Advertising for serious journalism

SOMETHING was missing from my Straits Times (ST). Where were my “Home” and “Life” sections? It took me a while, but when I finally found them, I was shocked.

The two sections were covered by full-page advertisements and the only clue of what the real covers underneath looked like were at the corner of the page.

While it only took a flip of the page to bring order back into my daily read, this “cover-up” of news was definitely the headline of my day.

Firstly, the move to allow advertisers to take up page one of sections of the newspaper gives them more clout. It’s similar to the way new initiatives like weekly supplements diverts resources of the newspaper away from serious journalism and distracts readers from the issues of the day. ST appears to be trading responsibility to the reader for advertiser cash.

Newspapers have always had an uneasy relationship with the people who pay for them. Advertisers pay most, but they’re only there as long as the paper has readers. Alienate the readers, and the advertisers walk too.

This move to “cover-up” looks symbolic of a shift in the balance towards advertisers and away from its readers.

While newspapers and advertisers are interested in readers, they are selective about which kind of readers they want. Again, this “cover-up” could lead to a newspaper losing its responsibility and relevance to the general public, and end up pandering only to readers that serve the interest of advertisers.

Just before the “cover-up”, Cheong Yip Seng, the editor-in-chief of ST wrote how the survival of a newspaper hinges on its credibility and ability to practise serious journalism. Serious journalism costs money; who will pay for it?

One answer appears to be allowing advertisements on the front of two sections. Today has been putting advertisements all over its page one for some time, so it is not surprising that ST gets requests from advertisers for the same treatment.

Unlike Today, though, ST is not dependent on money from advertisers as it has revenue from subscribers and news-stand sales, too.

So, while ST has yet to allow a full-page advertisement to front its cover page, with this latest move, who is to say it will not happen tomorrow? The “Home” section contains serious news. By allowing advertisers to buy page one of a serious news section, ST has weakened its position if an advertiser wants to buy page one of the whole paper.

And there are other signs that ST is going the extra mile to get advertisers.

The decision to introduce Urban, Mind Your Body and Digital Lifestyle has been said to better cater to readers. But aren’t ST’s supplements equally a sign that it is trying to cater to specific advertisers, too?

Also, while ST has introduced more critical sections like Insight as well as this consumer-friendly fare, the fact that the former only has two pages while the latter runs on its own speaks volumes about where ST has chosen to place new resources.

Some argue that these new sections serve popular interests, and I do not dispute that. Yet, there has been a myth that separates what is “popular” and “serious”. Can serious journalism that is popular not exist? The reports on the NKF scandal last year were a piece of serious journalism, followed closely by many readers. This, I feel, is the way for ST to go.

It should take advantage of the fact that it is the most widely read broadsheet English paper in Singapore, and pour in more resources to deliver more critical content.

ST should be careful to balance this precarious relationship with advertisers and readers. In any case, the readers should wield the most influence.

Advertisers are after all interested in getting to the readers and readers themselves will only read newspapers that are credible. Serious journalism is the way to go, and if it matters, the readers will willingly pay for it.

As Mr. Cheong expressed, popular journalism caters to readers while serious journalism enhances a newspaper’s credibility, and helps ST in a world being overtaken by the Internet.

I think that ST straddles between being a popular and critical paper. At the end of the day it is up the editors and stakeholders to choose which direction they want to take.

The Nanyang Chronicle, 6th Mar 2006

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