What the rise of Internet-only news sites means for media advertising


The 2015 Singapore presidential rally speech as published by free online news source.
The 2015 Singapore presidential rally speech as published by free online news source.

Singapore recently had its general election on September 11, 2015. I am one of those news junkies who will read election news from every source I can find online. What amazed me with this year’s election compared to the previous one in 2011 was the multitude of free online news sources available this time round.

In Singapore’s regulated media landscape (Singapore is ranked 150 on the 2014 Press Freedom Index, even lower than countries like Russia and Myanmar), it is amazing how these Internet-only news sites are thriving and continue to sprout like mushrooms.

Journalistic values aside, what is the impact for news publishers and advertisers?

There are two media giants in Singapore: Singapore Press Holdings, which owns all the newspapers except for one, lots of magazine titles, and a few radio stations; and Mediacorp, which owns all the free-to-air television stations, lots of radio stations, and some magazine titles.

There are hundreds of alternative news sites. Many did not exist in 2011. In fact, some were even set up just a few weeks leading in to this years elections! Here is a list of 15 such sites. They range from fully staffed, set-up sites like Mothership.sg and MustShareNews.com to individual blogs by social activists and anonymous writers.

A rough gauge from the news articles being shared on my social media feeds by friends indicate a mix of around 50/50 for articles from mainstream publications versus alternative news sites, which are available only on the Internet.

The news articles that usually go really viral are the ones from alternative news sites, though. They are more at liberty to use click-bait type headlines (e.g., “What this politician just said was political suicide,” “Five of the hottest candidates,” etc.) and sensationalise.

However, I find it really admirable that the alternative news sites are able to operate on really lean newsroom resources with a couple of dozen reporters, many whom are volunteers or interns.

This is in contrast to the fully staffed mainstream media newsrooms with hundreds of well-trained, experienced journalists. Yet, the alternative news sites are able to grab as much attention and share of voice online.

To be fair, the mainstream media’s main focus is still to sell more newspapers and get more people to watch television or tune in to radio stations. Online is something they have to do, yet cannot adequately monetise yet.

The alternative news sites seem to mostly make income from banner ads via ad networks or ad exchanges. Some always seem to be trying to raise funds from readers directly or seeking volunteer contributors. Maybe they can get some revenue from content marketing by writing advertorials, too.

These are few and bar between, though, due to the nature of the media landscape in Singapore, where advertisers may find it too risky to associate themselves too closely with political news sites.

Which brings me to the point of this article, actually: If you are an advertiser trying to tap into the sudden surge in interest in political news, how would you budget your online ad spend?

You can do your Facebook or Twitter paid social media targeting, but I believe you need to go beyond the social media networks.

A mix of banner buys across ad networks or ad exchanges (to get reach) and mainstream media Web sites (to get brand association) may do the trick.

I wonder what would happen if a brand went with an alternative news site for brand association, though. It would certainly get lots of attention because it hasn’t really happened before in Singapore’s advertising landscape.

Would it then signify a shift that alternative news sites can and will give the mainstream media news sites a run for their money?

After all, in neighbouring Malaysia, something like this did happen when the people started to distrust mainstream media sites like Utusan Online and, instead, paid out of their own pockets to sustain sites like Malaysiakini.com.

It is hard enough for mainstream media to try to monetise online, but with the addition of new Internet-only new sites as competitors, it is going to get even tougher.

Moreover, I only covered the hard news sites here. Think about the light news content covered by sites like BuzzFeed and Mashable. The latter just set up its Southeast Asia office in Singapore. The competition is even tougher in this space.

That’s for another article, though. Maybe part two …

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