Last Thursday, it was announced that ex-Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan has been appointed as the Chairman of the entity managing the SPH media businesses, SPH Media Trust.
In a speech on Wednesday (12 May), Mr Khaw touched on the “digital revolution” that has severely disrupted the media industry. While SPH’s various newspapers—from flagships the Straits Times, Lianhe Zhaobao, Berita Harian and Tamil Murasu as well as Business Times, Lianhe Wanbao, Shin Min and The New Paper—Mr Khaw said that the company has managed to hold it’s readership. However, he cautioned that “more of the same will not guarantee future success.”
Mr Khaw said, “The Government has been troubled by the writing on the wall for several years now. Our society will be weaker if local mainstream media becomes diminished and cannot provide trustworthy news and analysis.
“Against the onslaught of information—not always factual or accurate, and at times plain falsehoods— trustworthy journalism is a public good and should be supported.”
It is with this in mind that the government has “encouraged” SPH Media to undertake a more serious digital media transformation, he noted.
Mr Khaw said that this would require “substantial investments” which could take a long time to recoup. As such, the gov’t is helping SPH media out to “build capacity, pilot innovations, and scale up to increase impact and outreach”.
Even so, the financial challenge of growing digital revenue to counter the slide in print revenue is major despite the growth of readership.
Mr Khaw noted, “SPH Media needs to develop a model which is both financially sustainable and will enable it to continue delivering high-quality trusted products to its readers. What is clear is that the listed company model is no longer the best business structure for quality journalism.”
“Even if the resources are available, shareholders do not have the appetite to sustain investments in capacity building and digital transformation. Without a radical restructuring, newsrooms will continue to be squeezed; their products’ quality and circulation will eventually decline” he added, noting that the first to go would likely be the vernacular titles.
Mr Khow went on, “The solution is to delist the SPH media business, with the agreement of SPH shareholders, and convert it into SPH Media Trust, a company limited by guarantee (CLG).
“This allows us to retain the financial discipline of a commercial enterprise, and yet have recourse to funding from the Government and other sources for costly investments in digital transformation which listed company shareholders have no appetite for.”
“Public funding will have to be accounted for and will be directed at capacity building,” he added.
The nine management shareholders of SPH are the founding members of the CLG. Membership will be expended to include others in the digital economy. The members will serve as trustees of the SPH Media trust “charged with the critical mission to protect quality and trustworthy news in Singapore, and forge ahead with the mission of fulfilling a public go,” said Mr Khaw.
This would happen by 1 September at the earliest.
In his appointment as chairman of the SPH Media trust, Mr Khaw said his immediate priority is to ensure a smooth transition, noting that “practically all” of the 2,500media and media-related staff of SPH will be retained.
In answering questions from reporters, Mr Khaw also said that they are looking into building capacity in newsrooms by hiring more talents and injecting more resources.
“Instead of talking about staff cuts and retrenchments, it’s just the opposite,” Mr Khaw emphasised.
Former Editor-in-Chief and former Deputy CEO of SPH, Patrick Daniel is serving as the interim CEO.
The thrust of Mr Khaw’s speech focused on the idea of furthering SPH’s digital transformation and turning it into digital media company with print products instead of the other way around.
Mr Khaw stressed, “We will enhance their digital media capacity. We will build a first-class digital tech team to support the transformation. We will empower the newsrooms with skills and tools in graphics, video, technology, design and data to make the everyday experience of reading the news more accessible, compelling and engaging.”
To this end, the trust is also planning to fix and replace the digital plumbing and piping of the current IT infrastructure in the company to allow for this transformation.
In terms of long-term future plans, Mr Khaw said that an award of SPH scholarships in journalism and digital disciplines would be set up next year on top of internships for local undergraduates to expose them to a career in journalism and digital media.
As for serving journalists, fellowships and attachments in world-class newsrooms for global networking and possible cross-border collaboration will be arranged as well.
All in all, Mr KHaw noted that the strategic objectives of the company will remain the same, with the goal of contributing to the higher nation-building objectives to ensure a well-informed population, a united people, and an actively engaged citizenship who knows Singapore’s interest and Singaporean values.
When asked by reporters on specifics of how the Trust plans on ensuring editorial integrity, growing and retaining talent, Mr Khaw stressed the objective of maintaining editorial integrity though did not get in to the nitty gritty of details.
Similarly on how the vernacular newspapers would fit into the transformation, Mr Khaw said that he does not currently have details, and since he is less familiar with the Tamil title, for example, he looks forward to being educated on the matter.
On the question of how the Trust would build a larger readership, Mr Khaw stressed the importance of the overseas markets. Specifically, he noted that SPH’s Chinese title, Zhao Bao, is a positive brand in mainland china and there is a lot of interest there. He added that he would like to pump in more resources to grows its market there.
Similarly for the English title, Straits Times, Mr Khaw said there is potential for readership growth for it as well.
When asked about SPH’s plan for the current subscription models, Mr Khaw noted that making the content free might affect the quality of the journalism and value placed on it by readers.
He explained, “I think a paid model forces the newsroom, so it’s a higher pressure on ourselves deliberately, so that we know are we doing the right thing so that the customers find it valuable”.
He added that pricing is “both a science and and art” and that there is “sophistication” on how to price a product while taking into account that much of the news available is already free.
“So if you insist on paid and your product is just ordinary breaking news without much analysis or insights, then why should people pay to buy your product?”
So this paid model forces us to make sure you are a lot more analytical…and more importantly original insights which I can’t get from the competition,” he explained.
He tied this into assembling high quality talent by offering competitive wage scales.
Later, in response to a question on whether Mr Khaw is familiar with the tenets of journalism, Mr Khaw said, “I don’t know how to be a journalist…I’m out of my depth here. And therefore how can I interfere when I don’t know what I’m talking about.”
He added that he know what he’s coming in for and that he has certain value to add to the CLG but that he will leave the newsroom to those with the relevant experience, such as Editor-in-Chief of ST Warren Fernandez, Head of Chinese Media Group Lee Huay Leng, and others.
“I think my main contribution, I hope is a significant one, that I can help you reflect, reconstruct your products to help us realise a bigger potential and make the SPH media brand even better.,” he said.