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SINGAPORE — Competition in Singapore’s expanding media industry is growing more intense as the two rival main players prepare to slug it out, having pumped in millions of dollars to upgrade existing projects and invest in new ones.

While media giants Singapore Press Holdings and Media Corporation of Singapore expect to incur losses in the first few years of the gestation period, consumers will in the meantime have a field day sampling the wide choice of products being put up in the print and broadcast media.

Aside from the period of colonial rule in the 1950s and the earlier period of independence in the 1970s, when there was some form of competition among several newspapers, Singapore’s media industry, has by and large, remained virtually monopolized.

In the print media, this came about after several rival newspaper companies pooled their resources to form one large company, SPH, about 20 years ago.

The broadcast media started off with the TV stations operating as government bodies disseminating information and providing entertainment.

But in the mid-1990s, it was corporatized and privatized to become MCS, which came to monopolize the broadcast media industry.

Like other industries, the media giants had to adapt to the forces of globalization sweeping this economic and political hub. From complementing each other in their respective monopolies, they were now forced to compete when their interests overlapped.

Thus, when the government announced in June that MCS would be given the opportunity to dabble in the lucrative newspaper industry, MCS started up a new newspaper, and SPH set up two new television channels. The rival media giants had put on their boxing gloves and were ready to trade blows.

Being cash rich from monopolies they enjoyed, they had the resources not only to upgrade their existing newspapers and TV stations, but also invest several million dollars in new ventures.

But getting the right people — journalists, administrators and entertainers — to do the wide array of jobs that cropped up proved to be more of a problem.

Aside from recruiting in Singapore and abroad, both SPH and MCS began to scout for experienced talent on each other’s turf.

SPH scored a hit when it succeeded in recruiting Lee Cheok Yew, MCS’s chief operating officer of more than 20 years, to head its $50 million venture to operate two television channels, one in English and the other in Mandarin.

But MCS managed to even the score when it got P.N. Balji, the editor for 12 years of the popular tabloid, The New Paper, to cross over to start its new newspaper, Today.

As well, the departure of several top TV personalities from MCS to SPH was to some extent offset by the recruitment of several experienced SPH journalists to MCS.

In their rivalry, both media rivals have targeted the large crowds of daily commuters at mass rapid transport (MRT) stations, who don’t have time to thoroughly read morning papers such as The Straits Times or Business Times.

Hence the new papers were designed to dole out the news in small digestible nuggets on brightly designed tabloids full of colorful pictures, graphics and the like. The free papers would be placed at MRT stations and it was hoped that advertisements would defray the cost of production.

In this race for the MRT crowds, the SPH was first off the mark. It came up with the free tabloid, Streats, in September, after learning that MCS’s free tabloid paper, Today, would hit newsstands in November.

But MCS is expected to counter this by utilizing the extensive networks of its partners such as public transport operator SMRT and Delgro, to distribute Today when it is ready next month.

While competition between the media giants is expected to lead to the better production and packaging of news, there are also reservations that the rivals may be biting off more than they can chew.

SPH, for instance, has started another tabloid, Project Eyeball, to corner the market in the trendy coffee joints and cybercafes of Singapore.

But to date, the paper appears to compete for the same readership as SPH’s two other tabloids, The New Paper and Streats, not to mention MCS’s Today. Many readers also feel the price of Project Eyeball, at 80 cents, is too high.

The fact that many of the journalists in both the print and broadcast media come from the same stable in SPH and MCS has meant that they work along similar lines, leading to a duplication of news.

Who will eventually win the ongoing media war is hard to predict, especially when you throw in media competitors on the Web. But one thing is certain: having gone thus far, they cannot rest on their laurels.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
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