On October 17, Singapore’s largest media company, Singapore Press Holdings (SPH), announced it will be reducing it headcount by up to 10% over two years and merging two newspapers, a bilingual free sheet, My Paper, and a tabloid publication, The New Paper (TNP), into a revamped TNP that will be distributed free starting in December.

The media giant employs 4,182 staff and is reported by Bloomberg to have a market capitalisation of S$6 billion — more than twice that of The New York Times Co. Even now, SPH’s net profits are almost thrice as large as the New York Times’. Yet retrenchment and a major restructuring of its media business is necessary, a testimonial of the trying environment news publishers operate in, with fierce competition from online and mobile players.

To be honest, the demise of TNP was something everyone should have seen coming. It was just a matter of when and how soon.

There is just too much free tabloid content online to read that it no longer makes sense for a reader to fork out money to buy a physical copy anymore.

I remember a time when many of my schoolmates would rush out to buy a copy of TNP to read the latest football commentary pieces so as to curse the writer if he/she did not write a favourable review of the teams they were supporting. Nowadays, you read these online and engage directly about the article by commenting on social media channels like Facebook and Twitter.

It will be too quick to write off the merger of TNP and My Paper as the sad demise of print publications. I see it more as a Goliath entering into the domain of the little Davids to wage a fierce war for online eyeballs and ad revenue.

In Singapore’s context, in the absence of a major newspaper company attempting to conquer the free tabloid space, several pure online tabloid sites like Mothership.sg and The Independent have sprouted and flourished.

These sites all have lean editorial teams compared to the mainstream media and probably, as such, tend to focus more on curated stories versus stories requiring more investigative reporting or groundwork.

One particularly rotten tabloid, The Real Singapore, was reported to be able to make more than S$500,000 from ads in just 17 months. This is an amazing feat considering that much of the journalism work amounts to just copying stuff off the Internet by a husband-and-wife team, including fabricating and publishing seditious content that eventually got the duo into trouble with the law.

Profit is a balance of revenue of cost. Instead of increasing revenue to increase profit, these sites can also be very profitable if they are able to reduce operation costs significantly compared to the traditional media companies.

Now that TNP is entering into the free-content arena, it will be interesting to see how the war will heat up now there is a player that is better resourced and equipped to do investigative journalism and deeper reporting compared to what most other online players are able to invest in.

How would the game change?

I am actually more interested to find out the impact of a free TNP tabloid in the online space rather than whatever ad revenue can be made from the free print edition. The latter will account for a larger revenue share in the short run for sure, but we all know that print ad revenue is declining sharply year-on-year.

In the long run, it’s the free tabloid war in the online space that really matters.