SPH media restructuring: A new chapter full of hope and promise for newsrooms

Some days, you feel like you have been caught up in a whirlwind.

This past week has felt a bit like that, as a quick-fire series of events unfolded that heralded the most momentous restructuring of the media industry in Singapore since the mid-1980s. How these events play out could shape the media scene here for years to come.

It began with an early morning meeting with the chief executive, when he spelt out plans for the hiving off of Singapore Press Holdings’ newsrooms into a new subsidiary. This would later be moved to a separate not-for-profit company limited by guarantee (CLG). Freed from short-term commercial pressures, the new company would be able to focus on its public service mission of providing credible news that people could trust and rely on.

Although I was privy to much of what he was disclosing, it still seemed somewhat surreal to watch it all unfolding. There were some glum faces and looks of befuddlement around that sunless room where the 20 or so senior managers were holed up.

One colleague spoke up to say her mind was reeling from the references to the new entity being a “non-profit”. How could that work and be more sustainable, she asked.

Yet, this was a misnomer, as the new media company would continue to be commercially driven, minded to grow its revenues from an array of sources – advertisements, subscriptions, sponsorship and even donations – with a view to putting the media on a more viable path.

My phone kept pinging as the session unfolded. Some messages were from people who had heard about the halt in trading of SPH shares that morning and wanted to know what was going on.

One, though, was from an old friend, sending me what turned out to be serendipitous words of support in the form of an article marking the 200th anniversary of the British newspaper, The Guardian. That fell coincidentally on the day SPH was making its own ground-breaking announcement.

The article read: “‘A newspaper has two sides to it… It is a business, like any other… But it is much more than a business; it is an institution; it reflects and it influences the life of a whole community… It has, therefore, a moral as well as a material existence.'”

This quote resonated with me and replayed in my mind amid the flurry of events over the week.

To be sure, for me, and I suspect many of my colleagues, the news of the hiving off was not unwelcome. Rather, it lifted a yoke of uncertainty about the prospects for the media industry in the face of technological change.

This has fundamentally disrupted the advertising revenue-driven business model that has underpinned the fortunes of many media houses, here and abroad, throughout the last century, and until the arrival of the Internet, the iPad and the iPhone (or smartphones).

So, to put it starkly, simply carrying on with the media as part of a listed company is neither viable nor the best way forward.

This vexing issue of media viability was a key topic of discussion at this year’s Unesco World Press Freedom Day conference, held in Windhoek, Namibia, earlier this month.

As president of the World Editors Forum, I joined a virtual panel discussion on this subject, and shared the concerns of my fellow speakers about how a lack of resources and a sound business model threatens the ability of newsrooms to operate independently and professionally.

For many newsrooms, this is literally an existential challenge, one that has been exacerbated by the ongoing pandemic.

Several options to address this are playing out before our eyes. Some are banking on markets, seeking to grow revenue streams through digital advertising and subscriptions, as well as events, a strategy that works best for a few big global players, like The New York Times.

Others are seeking out, or hoping for, millionaires to ride in to their rescue, an option that is not available to us in Singapore, for our laws were designed to prevent local media organisations falling into the hands of any individual or group, to ensure that they continue to serve the public good, rather than private, vested, or worse, foreign, interests.

Then, there is the option of tapping various forms of public funding, in support of public service journalism, as some broadcasters, radio stations and news organisations in several countries around the world, from France to Canada, have done for years.

There are sound reasons for doing so. Several studies abroad have shown that communities that allowed “news deserts” to emerge – where there are no newsrooms with the resources to cover and interpret important, but often protracted and even dreary, public events, from Parliament or town hall sittings to council or school board meetings – have seen setbacks in good governance, a fall in public accountability, a rise in corruption, growing disillusionment among the public, and consequently, falling turnouts at the polls.

Credible content that people trust is therefore a precious – but costly – public good, and all the more vital with the proliferation of fake news and misinformation. Fake news travels faster and further than the real versions, as studies have shown.

To deal with these challenges in today’s fast-moving media landscape, newsrooms must serve up timely, reliable and engaging content. This requires not only good journalistic skills, but also close collaboration across technology, product and customer service teams. Newsrooms will also have to gear up for the arrival of 5G technology, to optimise content for that new age that is now dawning.

In Singapore, with its disparate multilingual society, there is an added need to ensure that all our ethnic groups are well served. To do so, newsrooms must be properly resourced, if they are to stay connected and engaged with their communities, to reflect their concerns and aspirations.

To my mind, a Singapore without the likes of Berita Harian or Tamil Murasu, which would be among the first casualties of a purely commercial calculus given their relatively small local markets, is just inconceivable. It would be quite a different place, and a poorer one for it.

Beyond that, there is the global audience, which looks to Singapore media titles for an objective, neutral and independent reading of key developments in Asia.

The Straits Times, for example, has a significant following in the region and even in the United States. These audiences are interested in its content and perspectives on events in Asia, valuing its insider insights into the region. Malaysian audiences also surge to the straitstimes.com site whenever there is an election, or major political convulsion, across the Causeway.

Likewise, we are all rightly proud of our sister paper, Lianhe Zaobao, with its high standing and readership in China, putting it in a strong position to grow its influence and reach there.

These are national assets we should cherish and nurture, as they not only ride on the Singapore brand, but also contribute much to it.

So, as I see it, the support of the public to pursue these objectives is well justified. But it also has to be earned, continually and relentlessly.

Yet, herein lies the age-old conundrum of whether media groups can receive public funding and still continue to do their job in delivering credible journalism.

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It is a legitimate question, both in and out of our newsrooms, as it goes to the heart of journalists’ professional duty to report and interpret the news of the day in a fair, balanced and objective way. Beyond that, members of the public too want to be assured that newsrooms are doing just that, producing content that they can trust, and find meaningful and valuable.

This is critical. After all, for Singapore to continue to thrive as a successful, multiracial, democratic country, it needs informed citizens, a cohesive society at peace with itself, with a deep understanding of its interests and place in an ever more complex world. That cannot be achieved without a good flow of credible information that people can rely on as a basis for sensible societal debates and policy discussions. These are just not possible if we operate in a world of facts and alternative facts, fake news and misinformation.

Much has been said on this question, both during the recent Parliament debate by then Minister for Communications and Information S. Iswaran, as well as subsequently by the incoming chairman of SPH Media Trust, Mr Khaw Boon Wan.

Thankfully, both have made plain that the independence, integrity and professionalism of our journalists will remain central to their mission.

My colleague Chua Mui Hoong has also rightly pointed out in her commentary on Friday that public service journalism is meant to serve the public, not the government of the day, or any particular partisan or ideological interests.

It is also worthwhile seeing the recent developments in a wider historical perspective.

The Straits Times, which marks its 176th anniversary this year, has seen its ownership and business model change several times over its long history. It began with being owned by an Armenian businessman, who later sold the presses to its first editor. Subsequently, it became a private company, then a trust, a publicly listed company, and soon to possibly become a CLG.

Throughout these changes, how has The Straits Times managed to survive, and thrive?

Quite simply because successive generations of its editors and journalists have strived to stay true to their core purpose.

This mission was clearly articulated by the very first Straits Times editor, Robert Carr Woods, in his first editorial, on the front page on day one, July 15, 1845.

The Straits Times, he declared, would report and interpret the news in Singapore and the region around it, to help the community it served stay informed and make sense of local and global developments.

He went on to add that “the principles on which the publication will be conducted are those which will ever identify The Straits Times with the general interests of the Settlement”, or in today’s parlance, Singapore.

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That clear purpose has remained unchanged to this day, and will remain unchanged going forward. Indeed, the new CLG has set out to craft such a mission statement to guide it into the future.

Its new chairman, Mr Khaw, has also challenged our newsrooms to “lift their sights, set their eyes higher, and strive to deliver on those ambitions”.

As I listened to him make those remarks in Mandarin at his first press conference on Wednesday, the thought crossed my mind how many of my colleagues would probably find such a rousing call refreshing.

Having been buffeted by commercial pressures for seemingly endless rounds of cost cuts in recent times, many will be only too pleased, and indeed, ready, able and willing, to take up his challenge, to keep pushing ahead, developing our products, and growing their readership, reach and revenues, at home and abroad.

Certainly, we have much work to do if we are to deliver on this. We are well aware that there is much scope for us to keep improving our products across platforms to meet our audiences’ changing media preferences and needs, in the face of competition from the best newsrooms around the world, all of which are available online at the click of a button.

But I have no doubt that our newsrooms are up to the task, given the committed, able and talented journalists we have, who are lacking in neither skill nor ambition. Having visited many newsrooms around the world, I can say honestly that they can hold their own against their peers anywhere. Indeed, the fact that so many have been poached to work in newsrooms and news agencies here and abroad should make this abundantly clear.

So, a new chapter is beginning for our SPH Media Trust newsrooms, one with much promise and hope.

But before we can move on to that, there remains some important unfinished business from the present one. The focus turns next to SPH shareholders, whose approval of the restructuring deal still needs to be secured.

Some have baulked at the terms, wondering why the new media entity should be endowed with millions in cash and shares. They seem to have forgotten that the malls, hostels and retirement homes that SPH owns were purchased with the boom-time profits earned from the sweat and toil of those in our newsrooms over many years. They too have a rightful claim to a share of that legacy.

But more importantly, and dispassionately, ensuring that our media has the financial wherewithal to succeed in the future is surely the right and decent thing to do.

All stakeholders – from shareholders to management and journalists, as well as newsmakers, the public and public officials – should view this round of media restructuring as citizens first, ensuring that the public good, or what my esteemed founding editor dubbed the “general interests of the Settlement”, continues to be served above all.

Looking ahead, the path forward has now been lit, where once it seemed dark and fraught with danger.

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Indeed, during last year’s anniversary events, I was asked by some colleagues if I was confident that The Straits Times would survive to mark its 180th anniversary in 2025, and beyond. It was a difficult and loaded question, and as always, I tried to stay sanguine even while being honest about the challenges ahead.

Now, with the proposed changes, and a renewed sense of purpose, the way forward seems clearer and more assured. The story continues.

The Straits Times will strive to keep serving our readers well, redoubling our efforts to sustain the trust and support of the public, so that we can set our sights on marking its 200th anniversary in 2045.

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