Monday, June 23, 2008

The Straits Times deserves a Pulitzer for…

For outstanding achievement in managing newsflow for the purpose of nationbuilding.

I read the local version of what passes for a newspaper in Singapore. Mostly because my parents read it and it’s just there on the table in the morning. Normally, I can dispense with the entire rag in about 20 minutes. I spend far longer reading the New York Times online (and it’s free). I’ve made myself a promise: Once I have my own place, I will never buy the local rag. In fact, given that I won’t be buying it, there’s a very good chance I won’t be reading it also, which is probably a wise thing to do. Not reading the Straits Times is probably good for my health. My blood pressure won’t spike so frequently.

So what’s this post about? It’s about the latest edition of the Sunday Times (June 22, 2008). You’ll notice that this post is tagged “rant”.

If you look at the June 22, 2008 print edition of the rag, the cover has a huge headline on how shopping and entertainment bills are pushing a growing number of under-30s into debt. Just below it is a headline article that parrots the Minister of National Development saying that an “oil tax cut sends the wrong signal”. To the left of this is a headline on a special report on “void deck nomads”.

Based on coverage (1.5 pages), the special report on homeless people (yes, let’s call them what they are please) deserves the biggest headline. But the biggest headline went to the 0.75 pages on under-30s piling on debt instead.

Based on the report on homeless people, there are about 43000 rental flats for the “truly needy”. If we assume each flat goes to a typical 2-parent family with 2 kids (which is probably an underestimate), we’re talking about approximately 200000 low-income folks, or about 5% of Singapore’s population. And that’s not counting the families wait-listed for rental flats. As for the group of under-30s piling on debt, while it’s highlighted as a rapidly growing problem, no absolute figures are available for the number of such debt-ridden yuppies. Which story, based on the number of people it concerns, is clearly the bigger and more important story?

The special report focused on what the Sunday Times called “nomad families”. The title line at the top of the page called them “transient” homeless. The family discussed in the story had lived on the beach for 4 years. Transient indeed. In any other city, they would simply be called homeless. But not in Singapore. In Singapore, they’re just transient homeless or urban nomads, notwithstanding the existence of only one shelter for displaced families on the entire island (and no indication that it’s government funded).

What especially irks me is the chiding tone of the entire front page, of how overspending yuppies are pushing themselves into debt, of how Singaporeans should “modify lifestyles” instead of expecting a lift of oil taxes. Subtext: you bunch of ungrateful and undisciplined gits! For the record: I happen to believe that the oil taxes should stay, but I object to the manner in which the message was delivered. Meanwhile, the important story on homeless families, trying to get by in highly inflationary times, gets pushed to the side.

Managing newflow for “nationbuilding” happens frequently for the Straits Times, but this past weekend’s edition of the national rag is a particularly egregious example of it. There were multiple articles that were managed, and all with a heavy hand.

It doesn’t stop with the story on homeless people. There’s another story on “Foreign service staff as good as locals: Poll”. I didn’t bother reading it. It had all the marks of the government spin machine going into overdrive [this is how I dispense with the rag everyday in just 20 minutes.].

Another article: “Stars at home or abroad – let’s cheer them both”. Senior Writer Wong Kim Hoh should learn to think more critically if he’s going to write for the “THINK” section of the rag. Just about all the examples he cited of talent not being recognized here but only abroad can be explained away by differences in the size and depth of markets here and abroad, the concept of 15 minutes of fame, winner-take-all effects and the phenomena of narrowcasting in large markets. Not to mention that the failure to recognize talent is hardly a “uniquely Singapore” trait. Einstein worked as a patent clerk, remember? Senior writer Wong should take notes from Teo Cheng Wee, who had a better story on the LZR Racer and technology in sports.

Lastly, the editorial in this edition of the rag basically ragged on the trackside hotels for their poor bookings, which was unbecoming to say the least. And stupid. Gloating should never be done prematurely, because the F1 race hasn’t happened yet, and bookings could still flow in, which would let the hotels have the last laugh. If you enjoy schadenfreude, always gloat after. Otherwise, you’re like the villain caricature who enjoys monologue-ing.

Separately, if the hotels were “cocky” in setting “astronomical” rates and believing in the F1 hype, then the editorial is being condescending and arrogant by calling them on it without mentioning the pre-emptive windfall tax (obviously the hotels have to charge more in such a case). When the F1 event was being bid on, hotels were undoubtedly graciously called “partners” in the event. Now they’re just the clowns unable to fill their books.

This is the second time this has happened, the first being the IMF and World Bank meetings. Third time’s the charm. The editorial team at the rag shouldn’t be so arrogant. I foresee that there’s a chance that they’re going to have to manage newsflow again sometime soon: The Integrated Resorts are due to open in 2009, at the height of a probable global recession, when casinos now are already losing money. And the Youth Olympics could turn out to be a bummer as well.

[News that you don’t read about in the rag is also indicative of managed newflow. Singapore already has millions, if not billions of dollars in paper losses from investing in the large investment banks that dabbled with subprime securities. Rest assured, UBS and Citigroup will continue with their write-downs of Level 3 assets in a few months. And we haven’t even seen the CDS death spiral begin yet.]


runmondeo said...

Could investments in UBS or Citibank be errors in their own right? Maybe, as individual investment decisions they are perhaps the riskier ones that the govt have ever made, and may eventually go south. But you've got to admit that they (i.e. GIC and Temasek) have had a pretty reasonable batting average over the years. On the whole, as someone who has a stake in the nation, I would prefer that they take some risks than play it entirely safe all the time.

mjuse said...

whether they are good investments or not is of course debatable and can only be answered retrospectively. they could indeed be great investments eventually although as i have amply noted, i have serious doubts about them.

my main point is that the media has been notably silent on the precipitous decline in the value of these investments, when tensions over the current credit crisis remain high globally. the mainstream media has been studiously neglecting to report on this, when this has every indication of being newsworthy.

runmondeo said...

I think part of the reason why the media do not find it newsworthy, is because the average singaporean also does not find it newsworthy. Although I was slightly startled when UBS (or was it Citi?) went cap in hand to the markets for a further capital injection very shortly after the S'pore investment, I didn't feel that any second guessing was in order. Its like stocks, not possible to time the bottom. If you've done the due diligence and made up your mind, then just go with it for the long term. I don't think many Singaporeans feel a lot of drama or angst that the value of the govt investments have dropped significantly in a short period, I certainly don't. Hence the media disinterest, I guess.

mjuse said...

i would consider the sharp decline in the value of investments backed by government reserves, even in the short to midterm, to be significant and newsworthy to singaporeans.

if relevance to the average singaporean and what the average singaporean considers newsworthy is a criterion for what gets published in the local paper, then you could argue that the local paper shouldn't cover elections in zimbabwe, the more minor variety of foreign natural disasters or some of the more sensationalist type foreign human interest stories (typically involving gory details). but the paper does consider these stories newsworthy, regardless of what singaporeans feel about how relevant zimbabwe and morgan tsvangirai is to their daily lives.

part of a newspaper's job is to decide on what's newsworthy, and also to aggregate stories together to present a unified view.

there is a good parallel story to consider if you wish to debate the newsworthiness of recent declines in GIC's investments. i'm referring to china's rather dramatically bad investment in blackstone at the peak of the market. many many newspapers picked up on that story. bloomberg recently published a story on blackstone's "perfectly timed" IPO and how investors are going to have a long wait ahead.

if that story was considered newsworthy by the mainstream financial press, i can't see why our paper can be silent on investments made by our government with our taxpayers money.

runmondeo said...

Ok, we agree to differ then :)

So lets say it makes it "newsworthy " and splashes big headlines for a few days then? What purpose does it serve? Pressure the govt to withdraw? Cast the decision makers in bad light? Sensationalising the event can only serve those aims, which is exactly what we should be trying to avoid, if we wish for our leaders and decision makers to be making sound decisions and not playing to the gallery, as they have to in certain countries. By the way, the newspapers were NOT silent on it, there was at least one article and the topic was floated on at least a few internet forums. They basically chose not to be sensationalist about it. It that is perceived to be "newsflow management" by some parties, then I think its no skin off their backs. And what's the harm in a little nation building ;)

I have no love for our local press, but having read some of the insipid publications in western climes trying to pass off as newspapers (talk about deciding on newsworthiness, try Barry Bonds on front page for days on end), I don't think they do too bad a job.


mjuse said...

You make some reasonable points. Under ordinary circumstances, price action is probably less significant than the media frequently makes it out to be (otherwise they would have nothing to report on).

That's not to say I agree with everything else you've said. :o) And I note that you've shifted the debate from what should be considered newsworthy to whether the negatively sensationalist aspects outweigh the newsworthiness of a story.

Leaving that point on financial markets aside, I still stand by the main premise of the post that newsflow is heavily managed by the mainstream media, and not always in the best interests of the readership, average Singaporeans.

I appreciate the comments nonetheless. But please, let's move on. :o)