The Straits Times, with its sister papers in Singapore Press Holdings (SPH), looks set to become a part of a public company limited by guarantee, if SPH shareholders approve of the transition. This will allow The Straits Times and other publications now in the SPH stable to operate under a new business model that frees them from working within the constraints that oblige listed companies to maximise profits and shareholder returns. For The Straits Times, a publication that has served this country since July 1845, and seen it through many an upheaval, this transition will mark a significant new chapter in its storied history.
Seeking to maximise shareholder value while performing a public service journalism role has proven challenging, given the need to keep investing in the people, technology and infrastructure needed to provide timely and accurate news and analysis across platforms in an era of digital media. Big Technology platforms which have mopped up the bulk of online advertising have broken the old business model, which allowed media organisations to fund their operations largely through advertising revenues.
The critical thing to note is that The Straits Times' readership and subscription numbers have not declined. Its readership and reach have continued to grow and have never been higher, across its array of platforms today. The challenge, therefore, is not so much one of readership, as revenue and monetisation. The coronavirus pandemic, a crisis like none since Independence, made clear how important it is to have a credible and trustworthy media. ST audience and subscriptions continued to grow, despite content related to the pandemic being provided for free online.
Beyond this, in a multiracial society such as Singapore, a media landscape bereft of titles to serve the various ethnic communities in their own languages is simply inconceivable. Singapore would be a different place, and a poorer one, if that were allowed to happen for short-term commercial reasons. Public support to ensure this does not is well justified, and is the practice in ethnically diverse countries elsewhere.
A decoupling and a move to a new model are, therefore, the best way forward. This will allow the new entity to seek funding from public, private and philanthropic sources. This should not preclude receiving support from the Government to help with its digital transformation and capacity building, to ensure that the media has the tools required to meet the changing needs of its audience. The Straits Times has survived by staying true to its mission of serving its audience with credible news reports they can trust over its 176 years. That commitment remains unchanged, as we begin a new, and hopeful, chapter.