The Online Citizen needs to recalibrate funding model

The Online Citizen is shifting towards a subscription-based model. Citing a lack of funds, and the failure of advertising and donations to meet its operational needs, TOC hopes to use subscription fees to meet its needs.

As one of the original members of TOC, I’m sympathetic to TOC’s needs. TOC is at the awkward stage of being too small to go mainstream but too big to be completely volunteer-run. If advertising and donations won’t bring in enough cash, subscription seems to be the only way to go. But as a media professional, I think TOC needs to recalibrate its funding strategy.

Getting your money’s worth

TOC’s subscription model uses three tiers: monthly subscription, annual subscription, and premium subscription. The first, priced at SGD$18 a month, grants access to “special subscriber content, including full-length versions of videos and recordings”. Annual subscription fees are priced at SGD$180 a year for the same privileges. Premium subscribers, for the same fees as an annual subscription, also earn two free months’ of content for every year purchased, a limited edition science and nature documentary, and exclusive invitations to TOC-only events.

The prices are roughly on par with subscription fees offered by specialist technical journals and magazines. Those journals have access to expert knowledge in niche fields, databases, networks of contacts in media and industry, in-house staffs specialising in content and editing, and established reputations. 

What does TOC offer?  Arguably, the only value TOC can bring to the table is its focus on Singaporean matters. In the fields of quality control and content, editing, providing knowledge and networks of contacts, it is doubtful that TOC can measure up. 

But TOC tells the stories of ordinary Singaporeans not covered by the mainstream media. This is a combination of original reporting and commentary, and lately organising events and dialogues. This makes TOC closer to media organisations than specialist trade magazines. 

On first glance, TOC’s prices are cheaper than Singapore’s mainstream media. The Straits Times’ 2-year digital subscription plan charges SGD$26.65 a month, The New Paper $22.10 and The Business Times $26.65. The same applies to foreign media, which have the added burden of currency conversion fees.

However, TOC is exclusively digital, and is heavily reliant on subscription fees to make up for lack of donations and advertising revenue. The mainstream media has multiple viable income streams: print subscriptions, advertising, street vendor purchases. The mainstream media can afford to lose digital customers if the other streams can take up the slack — TOC cannot. 

When compared to digital-only news, TOC’s prices seem unfair. The Guardian prices mobile subscriptions at GBP 6.99 a month, which is SGD$14.72 — and a large number of its content are free-to-read online. SOFREP.com, staffed by Special Operations veterans, charges USD$3.99 a month, or SGD$4.98 a month, in exchange for daily, well-researched articles pertaining to Special Operations and terrorism.

Also, from the subscriber’s perspective, what does the $18 a month or $180 a year pay for? ‘Special subscriber content’, a rather vague term that seems to imply full-length interviews and videos — content that time-strapped people are not likely to consume. TOC promises “full-length versions of special feature articles, interviews and commentaries” in the future, but that is not happening now and so remains vague in the customer’s mind. In my (very cynical) reading, it feels like a politically correct way of saying that TOC will put up much of its regular content behind a paywall. The other long-term benefit is ‘weekly updates of articles sent directly to your email’, which is nice but hardly worth much in an age where social media can provide instant updates of articles when they are published.

Appealing to altruism and providing cost breakdowns may feel good, but most subscribers care about getting their money’s worth. It’s a question of comparative value. Large media corporations charge a slightly higher fee than TOC in exchange for professional staff, contacts, regular news service, a high quantity of articles, and quality control. TOC, on the other hand, is still largely volunteer-run, relies on tips and on-the-ground networking, cannot match the mainstream media’s quantity, and does not have trained professional editors.

Cutting costs the online way

According to its cost breakdown, the majority of TOC’s expenses lie in two areas: manpower ($75000), facilities ($50000) and events ($12000).

There is little that can be done about manpower costs. If the interns were unpaid, the full-timers would earn an average of $2083 a month. That is about 4/5 of what a fresh professional journalist would make — and journalists just need to write; TOC’s full-timers have to edit, post on social media, make strategic decisions and more. Further, as far as I can tell, there is no requirement to hold professional certification in relevant fields, so it seems the full-timers are not as qualified as their mainstream equivalents. If the interns do draw a salary, everybody else’s would be depressed even further. I think it is unconscionable to ask TOC to lower everybody’s salaries even further, especially given the rising costs of living.

Yet ‘facilities’ and ‘events’ together take up a huge chunk of expenses. These are fairly vague, but I am assuming they mean costs to run offline events. In recent times TOC has taken on a more active role in civic societies, organising dialogues and forums about various events. These undoubtedly cost money. But can TOC do without?

The easy way is to scale down or stop such events altogether. Obviously, this will lead to immense cost savings. But TOC has to provide a competitive advantage over the other blogs and the mainstream media, and a signficant fraction of this advantage lies in bringing people together for dialogues.

TOC should start thinking about leveraging the power of digital technologies. For example, the traditional way of holding a dialogue is to book a conference room, bring in guests and people, and talk about things. Now try this: bring the speakers into a small, intimate setting. Just the speakers and the moderator in a room, with some technical staff. if space permits, maybe invite some premium subscribers to sit in. Live-stream the event on the TOC website and other social media. Questions and comments can be crowd-sourced from social media, determined by the number of likes, shares, re-tweets and the equivalents. The video can then be saved and archived for other people to watch, especially if they are unable to physically attend the forum.

Such an approach should shave off event organisation costs. While arguably a virtual experience is different from a physical one, if organising live events presents such a huge drain on TOC’s resources, virtual events may be the more sustainable solution. It also allows TOC to reserve funds for offline events whose significance requires a physical presence, such as events at Speakers’ Corner.

The major problem as I see is that TOC charges $4 to $8 less than its mainstream equivalents, but the difference in value delivered is far greater than the monetary value. The mainstream media delivers tens to dozens of articles a day; TOC manages perhaps two a day in a good week. The mainstream media can deliver news on a huge range of subjects; TOC only talks about a very small range, with a focus on the controversial issues of the day. The mainstream media has large pools of professionally-trained journalists and editors; TOC has seven, four of whom are interns, and the recruitment requirements for interns do not necessarily involve professional qualifications. The mainstream media has
media passes, so they can go where TOC cannot. The mainstream media can gather foreign news and send correspondents overseas; TOC has to rely on the media.

These quantitative and qualitative differences far outstrips the $8 difference. Should TOC put up a paywall tomorrow, a person with limited funds will objectively obtain more value by subscribing to a mainstream paper and getting alternative views from individual bloggers (who write for free!) than by subscribing to TOC.

Recalibration

I am of the belief that $18 a month, or $180 a year, is far too high a price to pay for a digital-only blog that provides just one article a day on average concerning a narrow range of topics. I would be uncomfortable with a double-digit figure, and even the $5 to $9 range would give me pause. And, I suspect, so would a large number of people.

To attract subscribers, TOC needs to significantly reduce its subscription fees. It should also consider living up to the Online portion of its name to cut events and facilities costs where practical. While TOC undoubtedly needs the money to continue, if too few people subscribe to TOC, and if too many people are turned off by the subscription fees, the fundraising model could potentially backfire. That will be the true tragedy.

The Online Citizen needs to recalibrate funding model

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