Singapore is set to see a rare face-off between old and new media, after news emerged yesterday that Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) had sued Yahoo!, claiming that the digital media company had reproduced 23 of its articles without permission from November 2010 to October 2011.
Yahoo! has since denied the claims, with managing editor for Southeast Asia Alan Soon saying yesterday that the company intends to “vigorously” defend itself and that its editorial business model is proven.
The case pits the old against the new. In one corner is SPH, one of the most profitable media companies in the world that publishes a 166-year-old newspaper called The Straits Times; in the other, Yahoo is a “grandfather” of dot.coms but still a relatively young company when it comes to media and content.
More importantly, it highlights the increasingly tough competition facing the online content business in Singapore, especially as established media giants like SPH, which just reported S$1.25 billion in revenues, seek to defend their turf against “over-the-top” or online challengers with leaner operations.
In the past year, Yahoo! Southeast Asia has been publishing stories that often cite articles that have first appeared in SPH newspapers, from The Straits Times to Chinese dailies like Lianhe Wanbao.
By reporting what has been published in the dailies, Yahoo! does not have to employ the same amount of journalists as the hundreds in the newspool that SPH does to cover the news in Singapore. Despite being slightly late to the news, Yahoo! keeps costs low by not having as many roving reporters pounding the streets.
Yahoo! still creates original stories, but often, it can avoid one of the most expensive costs of running a news operation and still get lots of eyeballs for its stories on, say, the Singapore general elections or the bodies found at Bedok Reservoir, by reporting on what its writers have read in SPH newspapers.
This means Internet users can read stories on Singapore without having to fork out money for them on the paid version of The Straits Times website, which offers full stories instead of the snippets that appear on SPH’s free site.
This, however, takes away traffic from SPH sites as well as readers from SPH newspapers. By diverting paying readers away, Yahoo! is a direct challenger to the SPH business model.
Readership in SPH newspapers has been falling for the past two years, and even if this is not as bad as what is happening to counterparts in the the United States, the slight decline is set against a fast-increasing population in Singapore that includes the import of skilled, literate migrants to the country in the past 10 years (read SPH’s 2011 annual report here).
As media consultant and former newspaper editor P N Balji put it in a Yahoo! news story, the drop in readership, if not arrested, could impact advertising revenues for SPH.
To be sure, there is nothing illegal about reporting on what is already in the newspapers. Indeed, if you follow the news on most online sites today, you’d see that the reputable ones often do cite their sources, especially when it comes to news articles that originate from other news outlets.
The question now is in the 23 articles that SPH alleges that Yahoo! had “reproduced substantially” without permission. The Singapore publisher is asking the High Court to stop Yahoo! from further reproducing its articles and pay damages for infringement.
While the case is ongoing, it would not be fair to comment on the claims. But when it goes to court, this could be one of the first such cases of old versus new media, and possibly a landmark one for years to come.
Disclosure: The writer is an SPH shareholder and occasionally contributes articles to The Straits Times. Techgoondu is a content partner of Yahoo! Southeast Asia.