Start-ups, SPH wants to be your partner of choice

The digital newsroom of the future is here. That's the message from Patrick Daniel, Editor-in-Chief, English/Malay/Tamil Media Group, Singapore Press Holdings, at the EMTM Annual Awards ceremony yesterday

Mr Patrick Daniel said that while print and digital news products will be the EMTM Group's core business, it wants to aggressively develop media adjacencies to augment its revenues and profits.
Mr Patrick Daniel said that while print and digital news products will be the EMTM Group's core business, it wants to aggressively develop media adjacencies to augment its revenues and profits.ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG

The death of Mr Lee Kuan Yew on March 23 was a remarkable, once-in-an-era event for everyone in Singapore, including for us in the media.

It was an event that actually made grown men cry, even though we knew it would happen soon.

When some of our editors first learnt about the two-day private wake for Mr Lee followed by five days of lying in state - actually it was only four days in the end - some of us had a sense that this was not going to be sufficient.

But none of us anticipated the outpouring of emotion and grief, even among young Singaporeans.

We in the media had to report this effusion - the combination of grief, gratitude, respect and hitherto hidden love for the man, and for the values he espoused and the principles he upheld.

I know one senior executive here who queued up from 9.45pm in the evening and got to pay his respects at 4.15 in the morning. That was a good measure of what happened.

We also had to cover the flood of tributes that came from far and wide, and also recap everything Mr Lee achieved, and led us to achieve, from self-government, then merger with Malaysia, and 50 years as an independent nation. It was a huge job.

I'm proud that we rose to the challenge, led by our flagship, The Straits Times. We received many compliments and praises from readers for our coverage. In fact, I can't recall any event where we had so many compliments for our coverage. The one I was most pleased with was from our external consultant who led our digital transformation project last year.

He wrote to (managing editor) Ignatius Low, who was our point man for the project which we called "The Newsroom of the Future", and here's what he wrote, and I'd like to quote:

"Just wanted to drop you a note to let you know how impressed I was by the cross-platform coverage of LKY. The website was amazing starting with the fade to black and white, and then extending into multimedia and real-time coverage. And most importantly, the content was outstanding. Learned a lot.

"Seems like the newsroom of the future is coming into the present? Congrats!"

Print and digital

IT WAS truly a test of our transformation. But for The Straits Times and our other newsrooms, we demonstrated that we're already there, and quite ready for a multimedia, multi-platform future.

And the numbers we achieved tell the story. This chart shows incremental sales, from day one. The first day, ST sold 24,000 copies more. TNP (The New Paper) did very well too, 12,000 copies more. BH (Berita Harian) and also Tamil Murasu (TM) had a bigger lift.

And if you look at the last day - March 30 - the day after the funeral, ST sold 41,000 extra copies. That's pretty amazing.

Over the seven-day period, ST put out 21,000 more copies on average, BH 960, TNP 5,700, TM 1,392. The special edition (put out by ST) did 160,720.

Our digital editions also saw a big spike. Visitor numbers more than doubled, and page views more than trebled. The peak was on the day after the funeral at 1.1 million unique visitors. The peak was five million page views just on one day.

So that's pretty awesome numbers, and what it illustrates is that we are now reaching more people than ever before, and across all our platforms.

In fact, in response to reader requests, ST allowed free downloads of all seven days of our PDF editions - sponsored by DBS Bank, I'm happy to say.

Our e-books have also had record numbers. Our The Man And His Ideas e-book had 120,000 downloads. Never had those numbers. The latest one was Lee Kuan Yew: The Final Journey e-book that (ST deputy editor) Sumiko Tan and her team launched over the weekend. I think they did a terrific job. That has already had in a few days, not even a week, 57,000 downloads.

When ST Press, our book publishing company, held an in-house sale of Lee Kuan Yew books, after we had our in-house remembrance ceremony, I knew we were going to break records because the queue went all the way to the ATM machines.

The best seller was the new Lee Kuan Yew picture book, A Pictorial Memoir, which picture editor Stephanie Yeow rushed out. At last count, that has sold 15,000 copies.

We had six other Lee Kuan Yew books - Hard Truths, One Man's View, others - collectively, those books have sold a further 21,900 copies.

ST Press is planning other Lee Kuan Yew books in the pipeline.

This past fortnight has really been a high point in our media history, and one that I will long remember. I must commend everyone in EMTM, and especially (ST editor) Warren Fernandez and the ST team, for the superb job they did.

In fact, it has capped a tough year for us, which saw the continuation of the wider trends we've had to confront.

Unlocking synergies

2014 saw the print circulation of our papers fall further but happily this was more than offset by our paid digital subscriptions.

But revenues and profits from our news products have fallen further, despite all the efficiency gains and significant cost cuts we made last year.

So we will need to continue keeping a close eye on costs - I'm afraid that's the karma of our newspaper business - but we must make a new effort to also grow our topline revenues.

This is why we have reorganised ourselves into the English/Malay/Tamil Media Group. This is not merely a name change. We are now no longer just a newspaper division.

We are now a business group comprising both newspapers and digital products - which remain our core business - but it's supplemented by a book publishing subsidiary (ST Press), a radio subsidiary (SPH Radio), a data services unit (SPH Data Services) which commercialises The Straits Times index, and an investor relations and share data subsidiary (ShareInvestor).

So while print and digital news products will be our core business, we want to aggressively develop media adjacencies to augment our revenues and profits. The idea is the more profits we bring in, the less cost cuts we have to make.

By media adjacencies, I mean activities that have synergies with our news products which synergies when unlocked can create a commanding competitive position in new business areas.

Our current adjacencies - radio, books, data services - are all profitable and doing well, and should turn in 15 per cent growth in contribution to EMTM this year,

If I can cite SPH Radio, after its successful launch of Kiss 92, which shot to No. 1 in terms of share of English listeners, we relaunched recently 91.3 FM as One FM. The early results are very promising and we expect to make further gains.

ST Press, which is now helmed by Susan Long, is set to have another banner year. LKY books aside, what we want to do is unlock the wealth of content we have, as well as writing talent, and generate an additional profit stream.

But aside from these existing subsidiaries which we've now grouped under EMTM, we must move into new areas, and we've already begun to do this.

Let me cite some examples. TNP has commercialised its award-winning art department. Led by Ken Jalleh, the team now provides art and infographics services to clients who want to convey messages in a creative way, anything from graphics, cartoons and comics etc. And they're already doing quite well with a good flow of clients.

Last week, we formed SPH Golf, a new unit that will produce golf specials that will run in TNP, Business Times and The Sunday Times. Our launch issue last week made a great start and we hope to grow it from here.

SPH Golf is run by a team from TNP and SPH Marketing. It's helmed by S. Murali. It will also organise golf events, starting with the BT Corporate Golf League. The unit has several other new ventures being lined up to serve the golfing community. And they will be profitable.

While TNP has paved the way, all our other papers are also finalising several new ventures. ST, BT, BH, TM, all have got their new ventures.

In addition, we also made several investments in start-ups, such as Handshakes and InvestNote, by ShareInvestor, and there are several more in the pipeline. We will announce all of them when they are finalised. By this time next year, I hope our media adjacencies will have grown further into a substantial profitable segment of EMTM.

I'd like to invite all staff to think of ways we can develop new adjacencies. And if you know of a good company or a start-up that might have synergies with our media business, please let me know. I can tell you that at least one of the recent start-ups that we invested in was the result of a staff recommendation. So it does work.

My aspiration is that, in the coming years, dynamic young start-ups in the media area will come knocking on our doors. We must aim to become their preferred partners because of the value that we can bring to them.

But even as we do this, I cannot stress enough that news is and must remain our core business.

So for the majority of you, majority of our staff, news will remain your sole focus. I need only a few people to multi-task and help drive our adjacent businesses.

For the next few years at least, I hope more than a few years, our newspapers will remain the top profit generator for the whole group, led by The Straits Times - and long may this remain.

I'm happy that the ST - which celebrates its 170th anniversary this year, an awesome milestone we can all be proud of - will soon relaunch in July with a brand new look across all its products - print, online and mobile. Its online edition will have a new metered paywall. This is going to be a comprehensive revamp which will take ST to an altogether new level. All its apps will be redesigned, rebuilt from scratch, so look out for it.

But the next mountain to climb is to innovate new ways to reach the young, our students in all categories - primary school, secondary school - we've lost many of them. We need to think of ways to create curated news, bundled with e-learning, a whole bunch of new ideas, and customised packages for different age groups. We need to choose the best way to deliver these products in a commercially sustainable way. So that's the next mountain to climb.

If done right, this can become a significant new endeavour for us.