Contrasts in focus as Publish Asia returns to Singapore

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When Publish Asia opened this morning and split its audience between business sessions and those of the World Editors Forum, the cynical might argue that it was if half the delegates were concerned with the practice of journalism, and half with how it might be financed (writes Peter Coleman).

In fact, it wasn't like that and thankfully there was general agreement that the choice - cited by one speaker - between giving priority to a serious story or one about a pensioner having sex with a goat, wasn't hard to make.

And of course, newsmedia's place as a trustable medium is its USP, its raison d'être if you like.

A more succinct contrast came later in the day, when the programme put the traditional priorities of Bisness Indonesia alongside the pricing psychology expressed by consultant Jochen Krauss: Deliver a really good product well, and have the confidence to charge plenty for it - as BI Group president director Lulu Terianto advocated - or come to terms with the fact that more than that drives willingness to pay.

Krauss, a partner in pricing specialist Simon-Kucher & Partners, brought fascinating insights into the science of getting readers to pay as much as possible for content... or at all. One valuable point came from an exercise for The Economist, which recognized that while customers can't always assess good value, they could identify relative value. So the proposition needed an 'ugly brother' - print only, in this example - to succeed, just as Starbucks found a cheap coffee option helpful to help customers choose the more expensive of its four cup sizes.

"Good quality is very subjective and hard to measure," said Krauss, arguing against heaping extra features into a membership, when they could be priced and sold separately.

To the publisher agonizing whether to enter the paywall fray with a high or low-priced offering, Terianto reminded that nothing is free: "If it's good quality, people will pay, but not everyone will pay," and earlier, "just do it".

After the welcomes an pragmatic comments of Singapore communications and information minister S. Iswaran that news was "more than data and facts, precisely why trusted news sources are essential", I took the route to the WEF sessions, which followed the establishment of the Forum's Asian regional chapter (the second after South Asia) yesterday, also the day on which jailed journalists had been freed in Myanmar.

There, Singapore Press Holdings' chief executive Ng Yat Chung reported on the local publisher's progress with transformation and aspirations, one of which is to exploit the growing external audience for its multiracial, multi-language news coverage.

"Not out of the woods," SPH still faced challenges in changing the organization, in being more responsive and adaptive, and "to make decisions based on evidence," as part of transforming the culture to digital. "We know better than ever before, what readers read, when and how often."

More confident of her offering perhaps, was Caixin Media publisher Hu Shuli, named by Fortune in 2017 as "one of the world's greatest leaders" and as one of Time's top-100 influential people in 2011, but even she admitted the industry had changed "faster than we anticipated".

"Winter is coming," she warned, urging publishers not to give up on key roles and advantages while searching for new business models.

'Content' was a word often on the lips of Esther Ng, and on the business card as Star Media's chief content officer, as she related the Malaysian publisher's "two attempts at convergence, the push for 'digital first' - and the challenges of monetization, mindset and multitasking: "Premium quality content is king; journalism is journalism - everything else is a platform," she offered, urging delegates to "never say no to ideas - say 'why not'."

SPH editor-in-chief Warren Fernandez preferred a 'first to digital' newsroom, admitting he was platform-agnostic - "print is still quite profitable," he said - and repeating a consultant's water analogy of 'liquid content' as an expression of the ways in which the publisher reuses material on a growing variety of platforms.

"While none of us can forecast the future, demand for reliable, credible news will continue," he said.

In the same way, Channel News Asia Digital's chief editor Jaime Ho, showed how the use of content had changed, the "traditional broadcaster" (and traditional rival of SPH) telling of its move into digital and onto Facebook: "Dare to challenge who you are, and where your audience is," he urged.

Asked to forecast the future, Caixin Media's Li Xin saw complex newsrooms with a lot of younger staff in peripheral roles, and Ho saw forms of AI becoming mainstream, while Fernandez reminded that many ideas had already been tried at least once - an argument for having some "old hands" on board who had seen trends come and go.

Later in a session on wooing millennial audiences, IDN Times editor-in-chief Uni Lubis - who admitted her staff, most the same age as her son, "call me Mum" - told of the aim to have 33 hyperlocal sites in Indonesia by the end of this year, using scalable technology and 90,000 community writers. With the aim of "giving a voice to the voiceless", the politically-orientated publisher used cutting-edge technology to find the story ideas they wrote. "Featured questions are popular, but people don't know how to ask," she said.

Another initiative ahead of Mexico's elections was fact-checking site Verificado, which consultant Fergus Bell said started with the support of three organisations and ended with more than 90 by election day. Using WhatsApp, they tackled misinformation "in such a way that it could go viral," and attracted almost ten thousand subscribers in two months.

But back to Jochen Krauss for the last word: "It's the content which is not available elsewhere that is the most compelling."

• Publish Asia - which ended its first day with a presentation dinner for the Asia Media Awards - continues tomorrow, and will include a visit to the new SPH newsroom.

Pictured: Caixin Media publisher Hu Shuli (top); Jochen Krauss, Lulu Terianto and DealStreet Asia's Joji Philip (above);

On our homepage: Singapore communications and information minister S. Iswaran

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