4.2 Case Study: The Straits Times Interactive (Singapore)
Publisher - Singapore Press Holdings
The Straits Times Interactive (STI) is the WWW version of Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) broadsheet flagship publication, The Straits Times. Publicly listed SPH publishes eight local dailies with a combined circulation of one million copies in four languages. Its English newspapers include - The Straits Times (broadsheet), The Sunday Times (Sunday broadsheet), The Business Times (broadsheet business daily) and The New Paper (afternoon tabloid). Three Chinese broadsheet newspapers - Lianhe Zaobao (United Morning News), Lianhe Wanbao (United Evening News) and Shin Min Daily News come under its wing. It publishes the Malay broadsheet daily, Berita Harian (Daily News) including its Sunday edition Berita Minggu (Weekly News), and the Tamil broadsheet, Tamil Murasu as well (Kuo and Ang 1998, p.12 - 13). Turnbull (1995) provides a detailed history of SPH and its growth in 'Dateline Singapore: 150 years of The Straits Times'.
The Straits Times was first published on July 15, 1845, and is the most widely read newspaper in Singapore. Weekday circulation is around 391,649 with a readership of 1.7 million (SPH Online 1999). The Straits Times strives to be an authoritative provider of news and views, with a special focus on Singapore and the Asian region. It has 8 bureaus in Asia, a bureau in Washington, and a worldwide network of other contributors (http://straitstimes.asia1.com.sg/about/staboutus.html). To ensure better print quality, cope with volume increase and allow colour facilities, SPH updated its printing facilities costing S$250 million in 1998. It also runs a fully operational sub-editing and layout team from its Sydney office (SPH Annual Report 1996).
In 1999, SPH reported a group profit (before tax) of S$421.7 million, 7.2 per cent higher than 1998. After-tax profit growth was even higher at 17.6 per cent due to a 10 per cent rebate on tax on prior year's earnings (Lim 1999). SPH captured 49 per cent of Singapore's S$1.27 billion advertising share market from 1997 - 1998. Asiaone, SPH's online news portal secured approximately S$1 million in advertising revenue (SPH)
Annual Report 1998, p.4 - 21), but the cost of going online was not reported. The company has a diverse range of business interests ranging from property to film and video post-production, telecommunications, multimedia, as well as providing Internet and cable television services. SPH's strategy since 1995 has been to establish itself on the information superhighway. It began by developing an Internet presence for its core newspapers through AsiaOne, launching Singapore's third ISP, CyberWay and operating MobileOne, a local mobile and paging network. SPH then, acquired a 20 per cent stake in Singapore CableVision, the only local cable service (SPH Annual Report 1995, p.3).
Earlier this year, SPH sold its share of Cyberway and successfully acquired the licence to operate the Republic's fourth ISP - DataOne (Asia). SPH and Keppel Telecommunications & Transportation jointly own DataOne and their long-term plan includes acquiring ISP licences in Malaysia, Philippines and Thailand. The two groups are shareholders in MobileOne, therefore project customers will be able to get on to the Web via handphones soon. DataOne aims to provide e-commerce, web hosting and virtual private network services (The Business Times, 8 June 1999).
SPH's most aggressive move yet, is the incorporation of a wholly owned subsidiary, AsiaOne Internet Pty Ltd to handle all its Internet ventures. AsiaOne took over SPH's Multimedia division. Its authorised and paid-up capital have increased from S$100,000 and S$2 to S$100 million and S$10 million respectively, establishing AsiaOne as an independently run company. As noted AsiaOne recently invested S$1 million in BuzzCity (described earlier in Chapter 3, p. 58) a local start-up, which alerts subscribers by e-mail when changes are made to user-specified websites (The Business Times, 1 September 1999).
AsiaOne - the website
AsiaOne (http://www.asia1.com.sg), SPH's website was launched in 1995 with a web portal strategy, long before the term was commonly used. It acts as a gateway for SPH's products and services and consists of five main sections:
Additional services include web hosting, development and consultation services targeted to private enterprises hoping to maximise their online presence. At time of writing, AsiaOne revamped its site and repositioned itself as a "comprehensive portals for news and e-commerce". Besides content from the SPH stable of newspapers and magazines, it launched a range of other services and features including classified advertising, auctions, job opportunities, financial services, data services, e-shopping, free e-mail and various lifestyle sites (Velloor 1999)
The birth and growth of Straits Times Interactive
STI (http://straitstimes.asia1.com.sg) is prominently displayed as the second hyperlink on the left of AsiaOne's videowall of advertisements. SPH Executive Chairman Lim Kim San, launched the online paper on 30 November 1995, the same day disgraced Barings trader Nick Leeson was brought to trial in Singapore. Leeson single-handedly bankrupted the London merchant bank overnight.
SPH led with its core newspapers onto AsiaOne with The Business Times (June 1995) followed successively by Lianhe Zaobao (August 1995), Computer Times (September 1995), The Straits Times (November 1995), The New Paper (December 1995), Berita Harian (March 1996). STI's pioneer editor Paul Jansen recalls its genesis,
It was in late 1994 that the Internet came to our part of the world. I kept hearing about its potential but I was busy preparing for the 1995 National Day Supplement. The moment I was done, I put together a proposal on how we should create an Internet version of our paper in a fashion that I thought would put us on the world map.The idea was to add value to the information we already gathered. Meanwhile some others were working on developing AsiaOne, and Business Times' (BT) Deputy Editor, Margaret Thomas was working on putting BT online.
(Jansen pers comm, 27 July 1999)
Work on developing the paper began in September and Jansen's aim was to launch the paper later in the year. The team slowly expanded to include staff with specific skills - a backbencher (sub-editor), two IT personnel and a layout artist joined the team. Jansen recalls the days when the team had to learn HTML from scratch, 'we invested in S$1,000 worth of books and spent time to learn the basic tags to manually code the stories. We didn't have WYSIWYG (what you see, is what you get) HTML editors then' (ibid).
On 29 November 1995, Nick Leeson the Barings trader was arrested and he was to be brought to trial the day after. Jansen received a call from Executive Director Tjong Yik Min asking, 'Are you ready to run? Now's a great time to launch STI with a bang.' The next day, STI was launched with a quick press conference and led with the Nick Leeson story. From its inception, STI stuck to its vision of being an interactive newspaper. Two journalists were based in Court, providing a blow by blow account of the proceedings as an artist sketched his in-court impression. 'The story must have been updated 24 - 25 times that day. We were as competitive as a wire agency but more so as we had pictures as well,' said Jansen.
Leeson surprised everyone when he pleaded guilty and the case was heard the next day (in most instances, a case is held over for a week awaiting further mention). Jansen recalled (pers comm, 27 July 1999):
His move surprised us and caught most papers off-guard. This was an important international story and thankfully because we were online, we distributed our URL and the foreign press could run stories based on our information. Otherwise it would have taken them a few days just to fly over. We received e-mails thanking us for our coverage and the most memorable was one from Belgium saying 'Thank God for you guys, we couldn't get our journalists there on time. It was almost like being there, thanks to STI.
During Jansen's editorship from 1995 - 1998 (he is currently Straits Times' Money Editor), STI experimented with a number of web techniques. On June 7 1996, STI for the first time webcast Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew's; 'Will there be a Singapore after Lee Kuan Yew?' speech at a Singapore Press Club/Foreign Correspondents Association Lunch at Raffles Hotel. Jansen (ibid) said:
Audio streaming was virtually unheard of then, there definitely weren't any webcasts by newspapers and no one in South-east Asia used it till years later. Because it was so new, we had to explain streaming to the press secretary when we requested permission. We ended up using a laptop, modem, plenty of wires, an audio feed from the Minister's stand, transmitted back to our Times House office before it was cast live on the Web. Mind you, that was from a very uncomfortable spot in the hotel's pantry.
Other milestones include the first live 'combi' webcast of Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong's National Day Rally speech. Cleverly avoiding the high bandwidth required for a video webcast, STI transmitted PM Goh's speech live via RealAudio (an audio streaming software), showed pictures as he spoke, and displayed text of his speech as he completed it. There were special sections to landmark important news events such as the Hong Kong handover in 1997, the South-east Asia Games, the launch of Lee Kuan Yew's book, 'Lee Kuan Yew: The Man and his ideas', and the SilkAir plane crash in Indonesia.
The SilkAir plane crash tested our journalistic prowess. We provided 24-hour up to the minute news, on the latest in the rescue mission and recorded hits from around the world. Distressed readers emailed and rang the STI office to find out the well being of loved ones. We ran passengers lists, help hotline numbers and worked like crazy till the wee hours of the morning. One weeping reader who couldn't locate a spouse expressed her gratitude to STI via e-mail for our detailed coverage.
(Raoul Le Blond, Former STI Online Journalist, pers comm, 21 February 1999)
According to Jansen, STI was the only English language paper under the SPH group to have a full-time editor. The other online papers, were led by staff who juggled their print newsroom responsibilities alongside managing the online editions. Margaret Thomas led the Business Times Online, Ivan Fernandez took charge of the Electric New Paper. Lianhe Zaobao Online, was the only other non-English paper to have a full-time editor as well.
It is crucial to mention here that STI together with its other online newspapers were amalgamated under the New Media Unit in early 1998. It decided to re-structure and move away from producing original content and re-focus on transferring its core print paper online well. (This is explained in detail in a later section called Management Policy).
Since 1998, STI has experienced a switch in editorial policy. It has reverted to the basic transfer of print content online rather than novel content with regular updates. In the past few months, 'vertical sections' in the form of IT@AsiaOne and Food@AsiaOne have been developed. The latter focuses on food, restaurant and wine reviews repackaged into a column from content originally used in the various print editions. Besides being an IT portal, IT@AsiaOne carries a fortnightly column written by the various New Media Unit journalists, discussing trends and events in the IT scene. More such columns are expected to emerge over the next few months.
STI Production Process
STI employs three computer systems; the Coyote, Pictoria and the conventional Macintosh/IBM compatible systems. The Coyote is an internal office system with exclusive commands customised for efficient processing of stories from original copy to subediting to final layout for the print editions. It archives all stories written for newspapers under the SPH group, carries the in-house style guide and a database of contacts/sources. Pictoria is its photograph archival system, which dates back to 1994. STI staff use conventional Macintosh/IBM compatible systems for developing web pages, and other Internet-related tasks.
Typically, the print to online production transfer process begins daily at 4.30am with an administrative assistant (AA) who scans through the print edition (which is available on the stands by around 3am) and assigns filenames to published stories, and slot them into a template matched against a HTML filename. For example, a lead story on Prime Minister Goh might carry the slug - goh. Minimal editorial decisions are made at this stage and the AA keeps to the print edition's priorities or in journalistic terms, the editor's 'agenda'. The top story in the Singapore section with the slug - goh is given a corresponding HTML filename for example Sin1_0721 that roughly translates to: Name of section/story order_MMDD. On occasion, the online journalist might decide to shift the position of the Internet-related story on STI's pages.
Most of our readers are from overseas and they visit STI for local and South-east Asia news which is our main strength. Sometimes, we emphasise IT-related stories that might interest our IT-savvy readers or an important local story can take precedence over an International story. As a guide, we try to present our pages as a package by grouping related stories, and cross-linking stories with a similar theme although they might be in different sections or newspapers.
(Adeline Goh, Straits Times Interactive Online Journalist pers comm, 22 July 1999)
On completion of filename assignment, the AA runs the in-house developed program which strips off redundant tags that are unnecessary for Web publishing. For example, commands, which dictate superscript and sidebars for the print edition, are dropped at this stage. The Internet system automatically generates web pages according to predefined templates designed by the editorial/graphic teams. Each page has a program to insert appropriate advertisements and can carry contests or advertisement tracking services.
The batch is then ftp'ed into a holding area on the STI server so that these files can be worked on in the conventional PC environment. This transfer process takes up to an hour and the files are close to web ready by 9.30 - 11am. The online journalist takes over from here to double-check and make required changes to the copy including story placement, photograph insertion, captioning and creating the index pages for the various sections. By 12 noon, the site goes live on the WWW. The latter half of the day is devoted to research and writing column for sections like IT@AsiaOne and Food@AsiaOne. STI journalists scan the wire services to pick up any interesting stories that could fit on the Breaking News section at this time as well. STI also has an understand with Reuters and carries a live Reuters Asian News Feed on its main page.
During the observation period, there was an emphasis on automating the news production process, attempts were being made to directly transfer the news content from the desktop publishing (print) area efficiently across to the WWW. This move aims to free the online journalist from production allowing them to concentrate on producing original content. This could result in a 'template-approach' but its implications have yet to be realised. A step further from this move would be to decentralise production with individual print news sections uploading content to the WWW similar to the desktop publishing today's newsrooms subscribe to.
Physical Setting & Human Resources
At the time of the study, there were two full-time journalists maintaining STI. There were 3 student interns who were attached to the online newsroom. One of them was a full-time university student pursuing a Bachelors degree in Communication Studies, and two were library and information services diploma students from Temasek Polytechnic. The interns assisted with locating photographs from Pictoria for the Life! Section and the production process. An AA rotates between the Business Times, Straits Times and The New Paper online newsrooms to handle the online production transfer. The STI team was based in a room on the second floor of the building, two doors away from Cheong Yip Seng, The Straits Times Editor in Chief.
The traditional print newsroom is divided into various sections - Life!, MoneyDesk, ForeignDesk, SportsDesk, and Local News. Like most newsrooms, the different sections of the paper operate from a huge work space with only low-level office partitions separating them, if at all. The STI server runs mainly on Sun Solaris UNIX OS platforms with journalists using the Macintosh system. Besides the in-house web-transfer program, all kinds of Internet software are used (some are bought off the shelf, developed in-house or by vendors). There are few audio/video options on the current site but the Technical Development team, which handles STI's IT support, recognises its potential and plans to enhance STI (See pers comm, 28 July 1999).
During the early days of STI, Jansen (pers comm, 27 July 1999) said journalists were required to have three main qualities - "They had to be good journalists, who were interested in this revolutionising new technology, and work efficiently as independent operators". New Media Editor Thomas (pers 28 July 1999) comm who currently heads all of SPH's online newspapers, describes the profile of today's online journalists as a "web content managers or web masters who have basic HTML skills with a passion for the Web. They need to have the ability to re-package or re-purpose news and create and source information."
As part of their contract, all SPH journalists are required to pass a shorthand test. It is customary for all junior journalists to undergo basic news page design, tee-line, copy editing, basic photography and shorthand courses conducted by the in-house training group.Senior SPH journalists, sub-editors and editors conduct these courses which range from a day to two weeks in length explained Training Manager Ria Boon (pers comm, 28 July 1999)
When asked if there is a trend to hire IT professionals and train them into becoming journalists. Jansen (pers comm, 27 July 1999) said, 'I don't think it will work. What is happening is you are confusing the box with the content. Giving pretty boxes doesn't result in good content. From the beginning the idea was always to present good content.'