By Joon-Nie Lau

“As a small/medium company, we do not have the kind of resources to go well ahead of the curve, because sometimes audiences may not be so used to that kind of experimentation and formatting,” Tan said.

Yet this self-professed 11-year-old “baby” among the news organisations at Digital Media Asia must be doing something right. It has 48 percent of Reuters Digital News Report respondents saying they accessed Mothership at least once a week, higher than CNA (46 percent) and The Straits Times Online (42 percent).

Getting creative with socio-political content

For Mothership, where two-thirds of its audience is under the age of 45, what differentiates it from the republic’s mainstream media giants is how it gets creative with socio-political content.

“Two of our first employees had very different political views – at the (opposite) ends of the political spectrum. So this incidentally gave us a huge space to cover the in-between. In a way, this mirrored the Singapore media landscape then as it was also divided between the many alternative websites and mainstream media,” explained Tan.

Tan’s team, which only began making videos in 2017, has successfully parlayed a quirky, tongue-in-cheek style of video production into what’s usually a very serious topic in the island state: politics and political officeholders.

For example, one of Mothership’s best performing videos, “We quizzed Mr and Mrs Tharman about their relationship,” features the then-newly elected Singaporean president, Tharman Shanmugaratnam, and his wife, which was made shortly after the country’s presidential election.

Evolving with the winds of change

Tan says culture wars, incidents such as the Parkland High shooting in Florida in 2018 and youth environmental activist Greta Thunberg have forced news organisations to change and evolve. 

“For the first time in 50 years, culture has again permeated back into politics. The last time this happened was in the 70’s. This gave us space to get creative with our socio-political content and we rode the wave with this,” said Tan, showing examples of how Mothership treats political news differently.

Same information for a different audience: instead of simply writing a web article, Mothership put up news cards to inform their 804,000 followers on Instagram. It is the most followed Singaporean news outlet on the platform. Text on these graphics is kept brief and to the lower third of the image – to cater to time-starved audiences with a short attention span.

Over-reliance on social media distribution?

Asked if Mothership was banking too much on social media distribution and how it would adapt to algorithmic changes which deprecate news, Tan said Mothership was a constant work-in-progress and would have to stay relevant, flexible and nimble to adapt and change.

For example, even as Facebook stops prioritising news on its feeds, TikTok, he felt presented an opportunity for news organisations to make their mark.

“There is no fixed formula yet, it’s still open season – we can try, we can experiment. Sometimes we fail, but the key thing is to fail fast and change again,” said Tan, ever ready to roll with the punches as they come.

What is clear from these three publishers – The Spinoff, REV Media Group and Mothership – is that even as they are crystal clear in what they seek to do and how they seek to differentiate themselves in a competitive market, they are equally alert and responsive to persistent and unpredictable changes that continue to shake the news media industry and are primed ready to adapt once again.

While Mothership has built a strong social media following over the past decade, it attracts 1 million visitors to its website daily.

About the author, Joon-Nie Lau is Executive Producer/Managing Partner of Factual TV (Singapore) LLP and a Vice-President of the Singapore Press Club.

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