SINGAPORE - Veteran journalist Patrick Daniel will return to Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) to head its media business as interim chief executive after it is transferred to a company limited by guarantee (CLG).
Announcing this on Wednesday (May 12), former Cabinet minister Khaw Boon Wan, who will chair the new CLG named SPH Media Trust, said his immediate priority is to ensure a smooth transition without any disruption to current operations.
Mr Daniel, 66, retired in 2017 as deputy CEO of SPH. He had risen through the ranks in his 30 years at the company, and held various posts, including editor-in-chief of the English/Malay/Tamil Media Group.
In a speech at a townhall with SPH staff, Mr Khaw outlined the challenges facing the media, and sketched out plans to tackle them in what he described as a new chapter for SPH Media.
"The strategic objective remains the same: to preserve quality newspapers in all four languages trusted by readers, and to sustain them over the long term," he said.
"Likewise, the values and principles underpinning our brand of journalism remain unchanged: integrity and professionalism of our journalists; and independence of our newsrooms."
Mr Khaw, 68, listed three pressing challenges: how to enhance SPH's current digital products, how to grow readership - particularly among the young, and how to grow digital revenue to counter the decline in print revenue.
The digital revolution has severely disrupted the media industry worldwide, he said, adding that SPH Media has to improve its digital products to make them essential to the daily lives of young people.
"Good quality content is still critical, but it is not sufficient," he added. "To succeed, we must connect meaningfully with our subscribers and non-subscribers, listen to and understand their digital habits, and customise our content to suit their lifestyle and convenience."
This requires a quantum leap in capabilities, skill sets and attitude, he said.
To that end, he said an SPH Media Academy will be set up to train new hires and help existing staff. Newsrooms will be empowered with skills and tools in areas such as graphics, video, design and data to make the everyday experience of reading the news more accessible, compelling and engaging.
A "first-class digital tech team" will be built to support SPH Media's digital transformation, he said, adding that this will require a joint effort among journalists, IT engineers and online media professionals.
"We will also size the newsrooms adequately so that they have the capacity to engage meaningfully with the audience," he said. "We are working out the additional investments that will be needed for this effort."
To groom the next generation of journalists, SPH will also award more scholarships in journalism as well as digital disciplines, Mr Khaw said. Fellowships and attachments in world-class newsrooms will be arranged for serving journalists, he added.
He expressed optimism that SPH Media Trust will succeed, based on three observations.
"First, we have serious journalists and creative talent in our newsrooms, committed to the mission and raring to go," he said. "I will help them realise their ambition."
Second, the strong support of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and the Government, who know that having trusted sources of news and information remain critical to nation-building.
"While we must offer a range of viewpoints, we must not go down the path of divisive and corrosive media, or clickbait journalism that panders to eyeballs but fails to inform or educate readers. This is the imperative that drives my team," he said.
"Otherwise, Patrick Daniel and I would not have come out of retirement to work on this national project."
Third, Mr Khaw said he believes the business community will support SPH Media Trust, including digital entrepreneurs like Grab chief executive Anthony Tan. He added that he has sounded out some senior professionals from the private sector, and hopes some of them will serve on the Trust's board of directors.
About 2,500 media and media-related staff will move to SPH Media Trust, and Mr Khaw said the transition is planned for Sept 1 this year at the earliest, pending approval from shareholders. SPH had 3,875 employees in FY2020.
Last week, SPH had announced plans to restructure its media business by transferring all media-related assets to a CLG that can seek funding from public and private sources, to free SPH Media from shareholders' expectations and place it in a more sustainable financial position in the long term.
SPH will provide an initial cash injection of $80 million, $30 million worth of SPH shares and SPH Reit units, and SPH's stakes in four of its digital media investments.
Mr Khaw said he will begin a search for a CEO "who can take SPH Media into the future as a multilingual digital media organisation, one who understands both East and West and is Singaporean at heart - and be among the world's best".
He noted that SPH Media has to develop a model which is both financially sustainable and will enable it to continue delivering high-quality, trusted products to its readers.
"Our society will be weaker if local mainstream media becomes diminished and cannot provide trustworthy news and analysis," he said.
"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."
With the digital disruption further widening the gap between traditional media and new media, it is no longer adequate for newspapers to inform, educate and entertain, he said.
"With news proliferating and breaking news round the clock, traditional media's ability to inform is no longer a differentiating factor. Competition is now in the depth of analysis and original insights, and also in their presentation. We need to urgently update our mission for the digital era," he added.
Mr Khaw also thanked readers of the various SPH newspapers, and pledged to continue to serve them in any format with which they are comfortable.
"While we will push our digital products and our apps aggressively, our print products will still be there in all four languages to accompany your morning coffee," he said.
"And we stand ready to help our older readers who want to go digital. If necessary, we will hand-hold them in their digital journey. Nobody will be left behind."