The future of lifestyle publishing in Singapore

It’s been a dubious honour for me to have witnessed the ebbs and flows of our local publishing industry for over two decades. Apart from this year's Covid-19 pandemic that takes the cake, the two other worst times remain 2008, where the Global Financial Crisis plunged Singapore into a recession and I had to shut down titles due to the sudden fall of advertising revenue; and between 2016 and 2018, where the drastic shift of ad dollars from traditional to new media platforms resulted in the closure of more than 10consumer publications in Singapore. And now here we are, universally battered by a global health crisis.

Will media survive in Singapore? Yes, without a doubt. As long as there are people on the planet, media will always be needed to communicate and disseminate information.

However, the industry will morph once again because people are reassessing how they want to consume content. Eyeballs shifting from traditional to digital? That's old news. Here is a newer, more interesting observation about media consumption:

Even as we scroll our phones with the ferocity of a people consumed with FOMO, we’re overwhelmed by the sheer volume of content coming at us daily, on every platform, in every format imaginable.

This information overload is a crisis that writerMichael Simmons of Accelerated Intelligence on Medium calls the Info-Apocalyse. This crisis is going to force us to streamline our media choices in order to simplify our lives, and that could result in the emergence of the three reinventions below:

1. Specialist content will reign supreme

When general information about everything is readily available (thank you, Google), it means people will start spending that extra available time in search of content that’s aligned with their passions.More niche media products will be launched to meet this demand.

One of the more recent successes is, a Singapore-based site for passionate watch collectors that started as a blog in 2011. Its readership has seen a threefold increase since 2016 and its founder Su Jiaxian confirms that the niche content on his site is what attracts a readership that is loyal and engaged. He believes that “even though the internet is vast and endless, there are small islands or clusters where collectors and enthusiasts congregate”.

Here is where I believe print magazines can thrive.People now casually browse the digital platform for content while, in contrast, they approach print magazines deliberately and with intent. You can’t deny the credibility a print product has. Couple that with high-quality niche content and it’s a recipe for success, especially if there are readers hungry for it. Bo Sacks, an American media veteran, is even more bullish about this. This member of the Board of Directors of the Magazine Innovation Center believes products with niche content will be highly profitable and that the true survivors will be what he calls “niche revenue scavengers.”

2. More brands will launch their own media

For decades, brands with large databases have seen the value of launching their own media products for their own audiences, and it’s going to be more of a thing to do as content marketing becomes an indispensable tool for businesses.  

Consider best-in-class global examples like The Red Bulletin, a digital and print platform with a following of extreme sports fans that first published in 2005 as the brand mag for Redbull; and Thinkmoney, an award-winning, humorous publication about trading and money matters that started in 2008 as the in-house mag of a brokerage firm in Nebraska called TD Ameritrade.

Back here in Singapore, I know I’m not the only one who feels compelled to pickup a copy of Savour every time I visit Cold Storage. Sometimes, I can’t believe this mag is free given its well-shot covers and strong content.

As companies start to adopt content marketing as a permanent business strategy, they'll start to amass a veritable repository of owned content. Using it to launch their own media platform as a customer engagement tool is becoming an option that’s not only exciting, it’s also viable given the publishing tools that are available for novices today, and the growing number of content marketing agencies that you can outsource production to. From a publisher's perspective, now might be the right time to double-down on efforts to develop your custom media and branded content arms.

3. Local perspectives for the win

And that brings us to the third reinvention that
could just be the easiest one for publishers to put into place.

When designer Raf Simons joined Prada as co-creative director in early 2020, The Guardian sent me a digital update within the day, and within 15 minutes of that, I received an in-depth analysis of the move from Business of Fashion.

This is what we're used to. With Singapore having the second highest rate of internet penetration in Southeast Asia (84.5% as of mid-2019), we're getting news fast and furious as it happens in countries halfway across the world.

Given this access, local publications will have to reappraise their content value proposition. We used to be able to get away with gleaning newswires for highlights and re-packaging that content with a dose of our unique “voice”. I'm not sure this would be enough to satiate the well-read, globally-informed reader going forward. Come to think of it, this wasn’t even enough in 1994 to ensure the survival of Vogue Singapore where the lack of local relevancy is what industry experts attributed its short-lived, 29-issue stint to.

No publisher wants its content to be deemed repetitive or derivative but unless you have offices all over the world, you can’t deliver speed and depth of coverage every single time.

But how a lifestyle media publisher can flex its authority is by looking at global information through a unique local lens and presenting it in thoughtful, relevant ways.

According to McKinsey & Company, the global health pandemic will give rise to the“homebody economy”, where individuals feel most comfortable staying indoors and out of harm’s way, even as countries ease restrictions. Extrapolate this behavior to media consumption and you’ll see that the content people value now is content that addresses and impacts their personal circumstances, and that’s usually content anchored in local context.

An extreme example sitting on this end of the spectrum is The Smart Local. This site covers a large range of topics (from food to family staycations, to bars and nightlife) but presents information through a decidedly narrow lens – that of a local consumer who simply wants to be smarter handling daily decisions. This hyper-local strategy seems to resonate with people today, judging from the site's claimed monthly reach of1.1 million unique visitors in Singapore, and their expansion into the Malaysian and Australian markets.

What's Next?

It's no coincidence that all three of the above reinventions have one thing in common - the reader is kept front and centre of all efforts. With the avalanche of information available, readers will become selective with their choices. They're going to judge if your content is meaningful enough to engage with, or impactful enough for them to share with others; put simply, they're going to decide if your product makes the cut or not!

Our media scene has endured disruption and battery over the past 10 years but there's something about the challenge facing it today that feels completely different. This time around, it feels like pivoting won't be enough. A complete mindset shift will be needed where publishers step up to the responsibility of producing useful information and prioritising reader demands over everything else. It's a tall order for an industry currently driven by ad spend and client wish lists but it's a content approach that would ultimately separate the wheat from the chaff. The wheat is what we want to be, and lucky for us, advertising budget always follows the wheat.

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