Just as Singapore was an accidental nation, the newspaper you are holding in your hands is likely to have been born quite by chance.
The story goes that some 175 years ago, an Armenian merchant bought a printing press as a favor to a business associate who was facing hard times. He planned to use it to publish books for the growing Armenian community in Singapore.
By some chance or circumstance, the Armenian businessman, Catchik Moses, came across a young 29 year-old Englishman, Robert Carr Woods, who had just come to Singapore from British-ruled Bombay, and was in search of a job.
“Woods was always a persuasive salesman, full of ambitious schemes and smooth talk, with a brash confidence in his own abilities. Moses had a printing press needing a purpose, and Woods needed a job,” writes the British historian Mary Turnbull in her history of this newspaper, titled Dateline Singapore.
“He obviously convinced Moses that he could make an English-language paper into a commercial success.”
So, on the morning of July 15, 1845, the first edition of The Straits Times (which then included the Singapore Journal of Commerce within it) – hit the streets.
Published from No. 7 Commercial Square – where Raffles Place now stands – it was a weekly paper of just eight pages, printed with a new type and on what was described as “fine English paper”.
“Good morning to you kind reader!” the young editor declared in his first edition, which is likely to have had a print run of only a few dozen copies. “We proceed to declare our sentiments while we aver the honorableness of our intentions.”
In such grandiose terms, he continued with pledges to uphold the integrity of national institutions, while “laying bare to the eye whatever abuses spring up or exist”, and also safeguarding the rights of the governed against the “innovations or misrule of the governing”.
On its front page of this first edition, The Straits Times proclaimed boldly that it expected to enjoy a wide circulation, especially among the business community.
It added that the “principles on which the publication will be conducted are those that will ever identity The Straits Times with the general interests of the Settlement”.
That was the ST’s mission, and ambition, as set out by its first editor, on the front page of its first edition – to report and interpret the news from around the region and wider world, to help further the general interests of the community it sought to serve.
Some things don’t change. This remains the mission that successive generations of ST editors and journalists have sought to uphold, right through to today, 175 years on.
In anticipation of today’s anniversary, I have been re-reading Turnbull’s very engaging account of the story of this newspaper, the journalists behind it.
One thing that struck me was how the role of the ST has remained largely unchanged through the years, and how successive generations of journalists in the ST newsroom have seen the work that they do as a public service, “ever identified with the general interests” of the community in Singapore they served.
Over the years, ST has changed hands several times. Catchik Moses later sold the title to Carr Woods. He in turn would become more interested in politics and a legal career, passing the paper on to a company in 1860.
ST’s printing plant and assets would be auctioned off in 1900 to become a private limited company. That would go public in 1950, when a Straits Times Trust was set up to safeguard the paper’s editorial integrity, even as its shares were listed.
But, while the form of the company has changed over the years, its mission stayed the same.
And although ST was neither the first newspaper in Singapore – that was the Singapore Chronicle, which first appeared in 1824 and was published for 14 years until 1837 – nor the one thought to have the most promising prospects, ST managed to see off multiple waves of competition from other titles, that came and went, as well as the many changes in technology.
Growing its reach
In its first few decades, ST was fortunate to have been led by several capable journalists and men of vision, such as Scotsman Arnot Reid, who was appointed in 1888, as its first professional editor at the age of 25.
His ambition was to build up the ST into the leading paper in the Far East, and he worked tirelessly to raise the professionalism and reputation of the paper.
“Reid insisted that a newspaper’s function was to report the news, not to tell the governor how to run the administration,” notes Ms Turnbull.
One of his most illustrious successors was Alexander William Still, who would edit the paper for 18 years from 1908 to 1926, during which time it earned the moniker “Thunderer of the East”, after the original Thunderer, the Times of London, for its sharp and insightful commentaries.
“His concept of a newspaper’s role to exercise responsible influence on government and society for the benefit of the country as a whole raised The Straits Times to a status which it had never enjoyed before,” notes Turnbull.
Indeed, over the years, ST would play a growing role in the life of the Singapore community. During World War I, for example, the paper sponsored a war fund, which raised $6 million for the effort.
Then, responding to the hardships that many of its readers faced in the Great Depression, ST provided free advertising space for those desperately seeking employment.
In the aftermath of World War II, a panic broke out after news spread that the British military authorities planned to replace the Japanese “banana” money that was in use, causing a run on shops and a soaring black market.
The ST tackled the issue squarely, devoting the entire front page to it, under the headline “Singapore’s Currency Upheaval”. While criticizing official bungling in the roll-out of the plan, it nonetheless spelt out in detail how the authorities intended for the new currency to reach the people. That helped ease the panic.
“The incident underlined that a responsible independent newspaper could be more useful to the authorities than an official news sheet,” notes Turnbull.
Not just for ‘tuan’
One of the key turning points for the ST took place in the 1930s, when facing strong competition from the Malay Tribune, the ST management decided to cut its cover price to 5 cents. This would make it accessible to the working man, rather than being mainly for the “tuans” in society, as Turnbull puts it.
“The effect was instantaneous,” she adds, with the paper’s circulation nearly doubling to 15,000 in 1939, fending off the challenge from the Tribune.
This move, however, would change the “character, aims and ambitions” of the ST. “The newspaper was not vulnerable from quality competition, because the market for a quality paper was limited and remained so. The challenge came from popular appeal, and henceforth The Straits Times had to maintain a delicate balancing act, between keeping up its quality and making the paper a lively read.”
That seminal move would turn the ST into the mass market broadsheet that most Singapore readers know today.
This delicate balancing act between quality and popular fare would remain as the paper grew its reach over the years, with circulations rising as the population rose and became more educated, in line with Singapore’s progress over the post independence years.
Other similarly complex balances had to be struck, as Turnbull notes, such as between the newly installed popular government under Mr Lee Kuan Yew, that wanted a reliable source of news to help in nation building and the independence that was required if it was to be credible, and read.
There were also the inevitable tensions between the paper’s public service mission and its commercial and financial viability.
The ST’s chairman in the 1970s, Mr C.C. Tan, would stress this repeatedly in his annual message to shareholders, reminding them that “the press is not only a commercial undertaking but also a public service, and in the long term, a potent educational force in the country.”
The need to uphold quality, and recruit and retain talented journalists to do so, would be a recurring theme he and other ST leaders would emphasize over the years, Turnbull notes. That remains a key challenge to this day.
With considerable prescience, Turnbull concludes her book, written in 1995, this way: “The continued expansion of the economy is creating a more open society, accustomed to affluence and not prepared to accept restrictions. A free market means more general freedom.
“But the great impetus for change is likely to come from technology involving competition from multimedia, which could mean that any restrictions on the foreign press will become irrelevant. Indeed this poses the threat that newspapers themselves will become irrelevant, or at least no longer the chief source of news.”
Having all the world’s newspapers, including the Straits Times, available freely on the Internet, she notes, would be “the big editorial challenge with the approach of the new century”. Yet, this could also be a window of opportunity that the ST was in excellent position to respond to, she adds.
Indeed that was so, and since then, but especially in recent years, the ST newsroom has been undergoing a major transformation, moving from being focused entirely on the print product to becoming fully multimedia operation.
Today, ST journalists produce content in new ways to engage audiences in visual and video formats, on their smartphones, tablets or laptops, online as well as on social media and the radio, and, of course, print.
COVID-19 strikes newsrooms
Similar transformation efforts have been under way in newsrooms all round the world, in the hope of regaining the glory days of newspapers in the late 20th century.
Although much progress has been made, the central challenge has been not so much one of readership, as revenues, with the big Internet platforms increasingly mopping up advertising revenues online, gutting many newsrooms of the resources they need to produce quality content, which the platforms then aggregate and monetize.
Change, as in so many cases, first came slowly, then suddenly. Out of the blue, the coronavirus struck this year, with Covid-19 accelerating the digital shift, hitting all newsrooms hard.
A recent review of the impact of the pandemic on the industry by the World Editors Forum (WEF), which I lead, found that many newsrooms were reeling from plunges in advertising revenues, of up to 80 per cent, as well as drops in takings from events, conferences, e-commerce and other revenue generating projects as well.
Some, alas, will not survive this crisis. Yet, ironically, the pandemic – and the proliferation of fake news along with it – has also shown the vital importance of professional newsrooms, with experienced and authoritative correspondents, trusted by readers and newsmakers alike, to communicate complex issues in a credible and compelling way.
In the light of a potentially existential challenge, media groups have responded by seeking out other sources of revenues wherever they could find it, as the WEF review found.
Some have turned to wealthy billionaires for support, but this has a clear downside of putting the considerable power of the press in a few, not always benign, hands.
Others have sought to draw more revenues from readers through subscriptions and memberships, as this newspaper is doing. A few big players have made progress with this, but many smaller, local ones will struggle to do so.
States have also stepped in with grants, wage support schemes and advertising revenues to help newsrooms survive.
Then there are those which are seeking to become public trusts, which has the advantage of allowing the newsroom to focus on its core public service mission, with support from the community, to continue to playing this vital role.
Some media analysts have warned of the risks of a rise of “news deserts” – whole communities unserved or under-served by any newsroom reporting on them – or an emerging “news divide”. This could see a paying elite audience, small and well-served by quality titles, set apart from a broader public that relies on online publishers or social media players that seek to monetize web traffic, going for sensational, attention grabbing headlines, but with neither the means, nor the interest, to delve deeper in to any public issues.
The upshot of this is sobering. As Oxford University’s Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism director Professor Rasmus Kleis Nielsen lamented to the Financial Times in a recent report, “a lot of communities will lose their local source of news, and a lot of stories will not be covered because there will not be anyone to cover them”.
Put simply, news organizations with a public service mission have played a critical role in the proper functioning of democratic societies over the years.
They will survive only if the communities they serve value them enough to forge the necessary economic and social underpinnings necessary to ensure that they do.
The author is also President of the World Editors Forum, a global network of editors, under the World Association of News Publishers.