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It…could be… a new beginning for news media here

The signs have always been there. Over the years, the SPH newspapers have been spinning a positive line about their operations, talking about bigger audience reach and higher digital subscriptions, when the fact was that the moolah has been shrinking despite cost cutting exercises. You have to read that in the bowels of their news reports. 

But there’s no way you can spin the news in its annual report of 2020. They were lit in neon colours when SPH said the media business would have been in the red, if not for the Jobs Support Scheme.

For at least the past 20 years, the SPH group has been figuring out how to keep its coffers bulging with the coming of the Internet age. I was privy to those discussions in the early days when print was king and the newspaper business kept churning out record profits. 

The strategy was usually defensive – and contradictory. The cautionary word was “cannibalisation’’. Going online risks turning readers into viewers, leading to fewer print subscriptions and consequently, lower advertising rates. Putting up a subscription wall might gain some revenue, but also risks people moving on to other free sites. 

Management was clear about protecting the golden goose, print, and “bundling’’ became a buzzword.( You know, you buy this thing, and you get the print version as well.) It’s not working. More and more young people were gravitating to online media – and other news sites – and they weren’t returning. There’s no way that digital subscriptions and online advertising can ever reach the revenue levels of print advertising. 

Management knew this, and the wonder is how long they took to make the decision announced yesterday to hive off the media business. 

Clearly,  shareholders wouldn’t be happy to subsidise what would be a continual loss-making operation – even if pitched as a form of national service. I wonder, though, if they would be happy to part with more than $100 million to start up this non-profit entity that will run the media side. Maybe that’s why the Ministry of Communications and Information made a point of saying in its press statement that it would be consulting the management shareholders (the biggest players with the biggest vote) on this move, including the establishment of the entity, a company limited by guarantee. 

Economists and financial types are probably poring over the numbers and its impact on stock price. I am less concerned about this than what this means for journalism in Singapore. SPH rather blithely stated that the move will improve the quality of journalism as the operator doesn’t have to worry about shareholder demands or commercial pressures. So profits can be ploughed back into investing in talent and technology. I certainly hope that this will happen. 

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We still have to hear about the structure of this non-profit entity and who its major partners will be. SPH gave the example of the Guardian, owned by the Scott Trust, and funded by donors and philanthropic groups. It’s a success, yes, but it should be noted that the Guardian’s key editorial position is independence and freedom of speech. That seems to be the draw for donors and readers. It’s also a news media with a world-wide reach – and sitting on a S$1.7 billion kitty. 

More likely, the entity will take a form similar to that of the Esplanade, which is run by The Esplanade Company *, and funded by the G and the Tote Board. 

My guess is that the SPH media arm was hived off mainly to allow for such funding from the Government. After all, it’s no secret that over the past few years, the G is funnelling money to Mediacorp to pay its journalists better and raise the quality of its news products. 

The worry then is what this means for the independence of the new entity when it comes to reporting and writing the news. Will it be beholden to the G and to other private and public players? 

This is assuming that it is not already the case.

Editors are lying when they say that they have never succumbed to political or commercial pressures. The question is really how frequently they roll over or whether they put up a good fight. When CEO Ng Yat Chung lost his cool over a CNA reporter’s question about editorial independence, I empathised with him. It is a naive reporter, especially from a local media outlet, who asks such questions which can be applied to his or her own employers and editors. 

But the move does present an opportunity for the new entity to draw up its own rules of engagement with newsmakers, donors and advertisers. Hopefully, it will be led by those who understand the value of journalism and what it takes to raise the game. The composition of this core group would be vital to gain public credibility. They must have enough standing to negotiate OB markers with the G and decide on the sort of working relationship it should have with officialdom and donors. They must not all be Establishment types who flinch at any form of official disfavour or try to second guess how the G wants its public messages communicated to the people. I would suggest that its members go on a fact-finding mission to study how, say, the BBC manages to maintain its credibility and what sort of norms to follow. They might even go so far as to investigate the need for an independent Press Complaints Commission to handle complaints about editorial content and uphold editorial values for all who call themselves news media.

There’s no better formula to gain credibility than to focus on news, good and bad, so that readers and viewers would trust that they’ve been given the unblemished facts and what is as close to the truth as possible. This is a chance for The Straits Times to drop its negative political baggage and shore up its journalism standards, which have been declining at a precipitous rate. It’s an opportunity to get new blood to work on a clean slate and infuse it with the excitement of a start-up, rather than port over the same old ideas and ways of working. 

Much, however, would also depend on whether the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act would apply to this new entity. We’ve been told that the holding company will no longer have to abide by it. So with no outsized management shares, the board would be able to invest freely or seek more financing from previously banned quarters. But what about other structures like the need for yearly licences for print or the ability of the board to decide on who should be editor? I suppose some details will be revealed in Parliament on Monday in a ministerial statement. Clearly, the G will want some sort of control over the media. 

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I have no doubt ST will live on and I hope it would still be able to deliver the full suite of news. Will ST still have its network of foreign correspondents or will it be subscribing to foreign wire agencies for content?  I also wonder about the fate of the vernacular papers.  There are three Chinese language papers, one Malay and one Tamil paper. There’s also the Business Times. Then there are online entities like The New Paper and STOMP. I am sure there’s something in a book somewhere about having to maintain news in all four languages. Can we still look forward to having news that is tailored for specific audiences by specific journalists? Or will we be feeding from a buffet trough?

I am sure journalists in SPH are worried about their future, and some are probably regretting getting into the profession. Trust me when I say that the skills acquired in journalism are invaluable. Good luck and best wishes to all of you. Serious. 

*Earlier version of this post said that the Esplanade was run by the National Arts Council. This is incorrect. It’s run by a company limited by guarantee called The Esplanade Company. I apologise for the error.

Written By

An ex-journalist who can't get enough of the news after being in the business for 26 years

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