Digital News Report 2021: Commercial media financing issues not a priority among the public, but concerns on greater government intervention remain in some countries

COVID-19-related restrictions on movement, coupled with a steep decline in advertising revenue, has likely contributed to the drastic decrease in the popularity of print news publications.

Even countries that usually have had high levels of print circulation such as Germany, Austria, and Switzerland have seen some of the biggest falls in terms of sales, according to findings in the Digital News Report 2021, released on Wednesday (23 June).

Print publications under the Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) umbrella, have not been spared from such a fate in terms of declining print advertising revenue, resulting in the company’s decision to transfer its media business to a not-for-profit entity as part of its strategic review.

The proposed restructuring exercise will entail transferring the entire media-related businesses of SPH including relevant subsidiaries, relevant employees, News Centre, and Print Centre along with their respective leaseholds, as well as all related intellectual property and information technology assets to a newly incorporated wholly-owned subsidiary, SPH Media Holdings Pte Ltd.

The Ministry of Communications and Information earlier said that the Government is prepared to provide funding support to help SPH build capabilities for the future and accelerate its digital transformation.

“It is in the interest of Singapore and Singaporeans that our local media continues to thrive and deliver quality journalism,” the ministry said in a statement.

Among SPH’s flagship publications include The Straits Times, which ranked second highest for trusted media brands in Singapore in the YouGov survey at 77 per cent, just after CNA at 79 per cent.

In its 2021 Digital News Report, the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism posited that consumers’ apparent aversion to print media may stem from the fear of “contamination from printed copies sold at newsstands”.

Exploring the role of government intervention in funding commercial media outlets as one way to keep them afloat, the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism noted that such a topic is a cause for concern for industry insiders such as publishers and other practitioners, major stakeholders such as policymakers, and academics.

However, the public appears to not share similar worries, as only around a third of all the countries surveyed — 31 per cent — were aware that many commercial news outlets were not making as much money as they were around 10 years ago.

The majority, at 53 per cent, are not concerned about such a matter, and only a quarter — 27 per cent — are ready to back any government intervention to help commercial media stay alive, said the institute.

Another three in ten — 29 per cent — did not offer any opinion on the issue.

Source: Digital News Report 2021 / Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism

Objection to the use of taxpayer funds to buttress the survival of commercial media appears to have traction in only “a very small number of countries”, said the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.

Such countries include Portugal, where the media have been especially hard hit by structural change. 41 per cent of the respondents from Portugal did not like the idea of having public money used to assist commercial media.

Denmark and Sweden, both of which have “longstanding government subsidy schemes” in place for commercial media, also demonstrated low support for government intervention in funding commercial media.

Such support appears to be lowest in the United Kingdom, with only 11 per cent expressing keenness on the government having a greater role in funding media outlets, which the institute said “may help explain why a review proposing more funding for public-interest journalism has effectively been shelved”.

“Some governments have offered temporary support for publishers during the Coronavirus crisis in the form of furloughs, handouts, and tax relief, but it is not clear that there is currently public support for larger and more permanent interventions,” said the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.

The institute predicted that pressure to “support many different parts of the economy” will mount over the next few years, especially in terms of health systems and education.

“Given the low levels of public awareness of the challenges facing the business of news, and low levels of support for government intervention – and more broadly low levels of trust in news in many countries – it is not clear that it will be politically attractive to prioritise supporting journalism at the expense of other priorities that enjoy greater public awareness and support,” the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism posited.

The lack of priority for commercial media financing, said the institute, serves as “a useful reminder that, although media financing is undoubtedly an important issue for society, and those connected to the media industry often feel very passionately about it, it is not something that the public spends a lot of time worrying about”.

“This, of course, has consequences for the extent to which proposals and reforms can gather public support, and will perhaps influence the extent to which politicians will see the issue as a priority,” it added.

The relative unpopularity of the issue of commercial media financing among the public, said the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, can be attributed to “a lack of public awareness of the financial challenges faced by the commercial news media”.

“Although the picture is sometimes mixed and comprehensive global data are hard to come by, WAN-IFRA recently reported that the combined total revenue for daily publications has shrunk by around 20% since 2015,” said the institute, particularly for local titles and titles serving poor communities.

The report, however, noted that such debates surface at a time when “trust in the news media is generally low, where some news publishers are very polarising and unpopular with much of the public, and amid real concerns about media capture”.

“Established forms of government intervention (whether public service or direct support for commercial news media) will probably be read in light of these concerns. Perhaps newer, alternative approaches will too, as long as they involve the government as a key actor,” it added.

In Singapore, 46 per cent of respondents reported not being concerned with the issue of commercial media financing, compared to 41 per cent who were concerned and 13 per cent who answered “Don’t Know” on the issue.

Source: Digital News Report 2021 / Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism

Online, however, public opinion and that of even practitioners in SPH’s newsrooms appear to be skewed towards apprehension regarding what greater government funding would mean for the future of editorial independence of the new SPH media entity.

The appointment of ex-Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan as chairman of the new entity also fuelled such concerns, even among alternative party Members of Parliament such as the Workers’ Party’s chair Sylvia Lim, who questioned in Parliament if his appointment was “a missed opportunity” where “someone else who does is not so closely linked to the government could have been chosen” instead.

Singaporean academician Cherian George opined that the Singapore government’s history of showing a lack of “appreciation for the principle of arms-length funding” ought to be taken into consideration when allowing it to fund SPH directly.

Such is why it is crucial to put up a “firewall” between funders and newsrooms, he wrote in a Facebook post on 6 May.

Prof George, a professor at the Hong Kong Baptist University’s School of Communication, said that SPH “points out correctly that the foundation/trust ownership model has a distinguished pedigree: notably, the Guardian in Britain is controlled by the Scott Trust”.

“In Singapore, only the state has the deep pockets to support large newspaper companies. And the Singapore state has shown no appreciation for the principle of arms-length funding in the past,” he added.

Prof George cited the National Arts Council’s stance on projects that are critical of the government, in which the Council holds the view that money from taxpayers should not be used to fund such projects.

To avoid a “de facto nationalisation” of SPH Media, he suggested that SPH’s current management shareholders and similar corporations should continue investing in SPH Media “as a national service”.

Singaporeans’ views, said Prof George, must also be taken into account before SPH proceeds with the proposed restructuring exercise — this, he posited, should be done via public consultation.

The 10th edition of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism’s report was based on a YouGov survey of over 92,000 online news consumers in 46 markets, studied digital news consumption during the COVID-19 pandemic.

It also examined common issues in digital news such as trust and misinformation, paid online business models, and fairness in news coverage.

On a wider scale across all the markets surveyed, the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism found that the use of smartphones for news has grown at its fastest rate for many years, with 73 per cent heavily relying on their mobile phones throughout COVID-19 lockdowns in multiple countries.

“Use of laptop and desktop computers and tablets for news is stable or falling, while the penetration of smart speakers remains limited in most countries – especially for news,” the institute found.

In terms of overall trust in the news across markets, the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism found that trust in the news has grown, on average, by six percentage points in the wake of the pandemic.

44 per cent of respondents said they trust most news most of the time, according to the institute.

“This reverses, to some extent, recent falls in average trust bringing levels back to those of 2018. Finland remains the country with the highest levels of overall trust (65%), and the USA now has the lowest levels (29%) in our survey,” said the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.

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