Cockroaches are an irritant in Singapore’s rainy season. These insects may be a nuisance, but they have a durability that investors crave. Cockroaches are the one species that can withstand nuclear bombs.
If there is an equivalent of cockroaches in finance, it would be print magazines. Print magazines have weathered the Internet explosion.
The first 1,000 issues of The Edge Singapore have taken nearly 20 years to appear. Stories in the finance world change constantly. But, in every year of The Edge Singapore’s existence, the death of print magazines has been proclaimed.
The Edge Singapore ran its first issue in a time of trouble. Asian media was reeling from the dotcom collapse. The Sept 11 atrocity had tipped the world into recession.
Print magazines were tottering. Asiaweek, a glossy publication owned by Time Warner, had folded a few weeks earlier. Asiaweek covered politics and business in much the same way as Time magazine. It had bureaus in most Asian capitals and an army of famous writers. The Edge Singapore columnist Assif Shameen was prominent among them. Its owners pulled the plug with the fallout from Sept 11.
The end of print magazines was said to be imminent. Many said that print magazines would be dead in five years.
Indeed, the last 20 years have been hard for print magazines. The graveyard is full of famous magazines. Newsweek closed down in 2012. In Asia, the Far Eastern Economic Review, which was an authoritative weekly, folded.
More magazines have shut in Singapore in the last 20 years than have opened. Magazines in advanced countries have faced decay, rot and layoffs. The total number of magazines in publication in the US has fallen by a third in the last 20 years. In Singapore, Singapore Press Holdings (SPH), which is the country’s main publisher, has closed down several titles in that period. The workforce in the Singapore magazine trade has fallen by a quarter.
Covid-19 made it worse. The economic collapse meant that advertisers were not spending. Print revenue dried up. There were cutbacks and circulation declines.
In the US, one quarter of the print magazines had lower publishing frequency in 2020. Only two increased their printing frequency.
But, despite the pandemic, magazines are still opening. In the US, 60 magazines were launched in 2020. In Singapore, five titles were launched, including three fashion magazines.
What is the secret sauce that has kept The Edge Singapore afloat in the last 20 years? What is prompting the death in magazines?
The title has defied death by mastering techniques that eluded Asiaweek. It has never compromised on print quality. It is printed in fine paper with bright colours. The A5-sized paper looks magisterial and people relish its touch.
There are many online news sources these days. As many publications operate digitally, print stands out from the crowd. Print is the luxury medium.
The Edge Singapore has combined print and digital. Readers and advertisers can move smoothly between the two media. The print magazines that fell by the wayside like Asiaweek and Far Easter Economic Review were too wired in the print mode.
It is said that all politics is local. So it is for magazine content. The Edge Singapore has stuck to its knitting through thick and thin. Its main content offering is to inform local investors in Singapore and Malaysia. It features local themes like Singapore REITs and Malaysian mid-caps which are ignored by Reuters and Bloomberg.
There’s also the shine rubbed off from The Edge Malaysia, flagship of The Edge Media Group, which helped expose the 1MDB scandal and earned them the ire of the authorities.
The tech boom has lifted social media stocks like Facebook and Twitter to extravagant heights. However, listed print publishers have fallen by the wayside. SPH will be privatised after print circulation tumbled.
There are a still few listed proxies in this region. The Star Media Group in Malaysia has lost 85% of its value in the last five years. It is now at a third of its book value. Its revenue has defied the pandemic and rose 48% in 2Q2021.
Investors could find value in the sector. If they are averse to picking stocks, they can still thrive. They can buy The Edge — the cockroach of publishing.
Nirgunan Tiruchelvam is head of consumer sector equity at Tellimer and author of Investing in the Covid Era. He does not hold any position in the stocks mentioned in this column
Photo: Nirgunan Tiruchelvam