Ho Kay Tat (left) and Tan Boon Kean speaking at the launch party of The Edge Singapore in March 2002. Photo: The Edge Singapore
Nearly two decades ago, marketing strategy gurus Al Ries and Jack Trout published a book on successful Asian companies and their brands. The duo’s earlier groundbreaking 1981 book, Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind, had sold more than two million copies, been translated into more than 20 languages and became required reading for MBA students.
In 2003, they focused on Asia. In The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing in Asia, Ries and Trout, with the addition of Paul Temporal, had this to say about The Edge: “There was no newspaper in Asia that catered for readers who wanted some local general news and lots of specific financial news … until The Edge created that category in Malaysia. Now it has entered the Singapore market.” Believe it or not, we did not pay for that endorsement or buy them lunch. In fact, we did not even know they were in Singapore.
As The Edge Singapore publishes its 1,000th issue this week, it was not clear back then whether we had made the right decision. The 2000 dotcom crash had sunk the economy. 2001 was the worst GDP performance (or non-performance) year for Singapore since it gained independence in 1965. The next year, 2002, eked out a low 2.2% GDP growth. Then-prime minister Goh Chok Tong said “full recovery” would not be until 2004.
Just when we thought the situation couldn’t get any worse, the SARS epidemic hit Asia in 2003. In a slowdown, the first thing companies cut is their marketing and advertising budget. The Edge, being a print newspaper living off advertising, got throttled early.
What if we had cut losses and exited in 2004? I doubt if we would be blamed harshly for a pragmatic and reasonable, albeit humbling, decision.
But, The Edge held on and, as the cycle turned, rode the economic and property boom thereafter. We even survived the global great recession of 2008. Advertising fell but subscriptions jumped, as befit a crisis. Like investors with a buy-and-hold strategy, if the first decade of the 21st century proved paltry in returns, the second decade rewarded our patience.
In hindsight, timing is important. But you do not always get to choose that. Prime property was $500 psf in 2002 but would you have bought it? Back then, things were “affordable”. Rent was low (the landlord fell over backward when we asked for an entire floor) and competent journalists and staff were reasonable in their hiring expectations. Advertisers were twiddling thumbs and had the time and patience to listen to our pitches.
The important question was: Could we create a new market? The Edge is a focused product (a niche category, as Ries and Trout would say) and perhaps the Singapore market was open to a new source of information and analysis.
In March 2002, we launched The Edge Singapore and awaited the reaction from the news monolith residing then on Kim Seng Road. There wasn’t much. The main competitor in business news coverage, The Business Times, did revamp its weekend edition. Thankfully, it was not a full-fledged business weekly. (I guess they already made plenty of money from the daily.) Thus, The Edge carved out its own niche and by the time I left Singapore in 2011, the weekly was making money.
In the end, the biggest challenge was not media competitors but Big Tech and the Internet.
Finally, it took a pandemic in 2020 to decisively end the long slow death by a thousand cuts for much of the global print media industry. Print journalism, especially, had been trying for decades to stretch out its time-honoured model of living off advertising revenues whether offline, online, or on clotheslines.
The business model of an editorial office and publisher making daily profits by mediating between news reporting and informing the customers via dead trees (printed pulp) is literally gone. More than 70% of advertising today bypasses the publisher’s vehicle and goes straight to platforms like Google and Facebook. That is why many governments are legislating to support the local media industry. Others sue the tech giants for their fair share of news and content revenue that was “stolen” via deep linking.
With the pandemic, things like WFH, Zoom, streaming video, substack.com, Medium, SocMed influencers and financial tweets have entered our daily lexicon. Special purpose acquisition vehicles (SPACs), which have raised billions in funds, have also jumped into the fray. They are doing reverse buyouts and listing online media like BuzzFeed, VICE and Vox.
What if The Edge Singapore does not get to print its 2,000th issue? That is another 20- year forecast. As they say in the market, what is certain is prices will go up, and prices will go down. Certainly, I will miss the feel and scent of a freshly rolled-off-the-press newspaper, but that is an old veteran’s indulgence.
As long as The Edge can engage and serve readers, it will thrive. Content is king, but the platform, the medium with which we deliver balanced and accurate news and analyses to readers, will change.
In the coming 10G world, whether it be the metaverse of Mark Zuckerberg or the multiverse of Marvel’s Doctor Strange, news and information will continue to stream. Digital subscription revenues will overtake advertising. Your future mobile or Internet plan will come bundled with news. Facebook and Twitter and other social media platforms are already mediators and arbiters of what is true or false. Truth and trust is more crucial than ever in a world of “alternative facts” and fake news. The question is: Who will be the new paymasters of the future? Amazon, Google, or Facebook? Or a Singapore unicorn?
Tan Boon Kean was regional managing director of The Edge Media Group when he retired in 2012. He led the teams that launched The Edge in Malaysia and Singapore, and other titles
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