Ready to ride wave of change

A readiness to evolve with the times has helped ST thrive

It was asparagus season in Germany and as I sat down to dinner I noticed the menu featured my favourite vegetable in several starter dishes, for the main course and even dessert.

Some around the table began taking pictures of the creative things the chefs  in Hamburg had done with it, but even as I savoured the fare, my mind was reeling with indigestion of a different sort.

I had spent the day discussing with fellow editors the future of our industry, at a World Association of Newspapers conference. The mood among participants was a bitter-sweet mix of sober awareness of the big challenges we were facing tinged with a sense of hope that perhaps we might find a way to address them.

For some years, newspaper groups, especially in the developed world, have seen circulations heading south, with profit margins squeezed, even if these remain pretty healthy for some.

Technology and a new generation of digital-savvy readers are causing eyeballs to drift online, to websites, and increasingly smartphones and tablets, even though many readers continue to enjoy sitting back with a good newspaper.

Clearly, there were amber lights flashing of dangers ahead, even if wehad not been hit as badly by these trends in Singapore.

That was in May 2012, soon after I had returned to helm The Straits Times after a four-year stint at Royal Dutch Shell, where I had spent my time thinking about the future, not of newspapers, but of the energy industry instead.

Not long after the conference, I sought out my boss, Mr Patrick Daniel, the head honcho of all English, Malay and Tamil newspapers in our media group, to bounce off him my thoughts on transforming the ST newsroom into a multimedia operation to meet the future.

His reaction was memorable. “Hallelujah!” he proclaimed loudly, taking me by surprise. He had been urging editors to do just that for sometime, and was delighted that I had come to this view, he said.

So began the journey my colleagues and I would embark on, which has culminated in this week’s revamp of The Straits Times, across all its products, to mark its 170th anniversary.

But one other thought lingered from the Hamburg trip. Perhaps to cheer everyone up, a speaker on the final day had shown several slides onhowthe airline industry was faring, in the face of disruption to their business by low-cost carriers.

“As you board your flights to head home, think about how much airlines are reeling from the new competition.The media industry is by no means alone,” he said.

Indeed, disruption seems to be the order of the day for businesses all round. Talk to retailers and you will be regaled with stories about how e-commerce is changing the way people shop for all manner of things, from music to clothes and groceries. Even taxi drivers are now finding their livelihoods challenged by the arrival of transport service apps like Uber and GrabTaxi.

Like it or not, every business leader, worker, parent and student now has to brace himself for the very real likelihood that the future will look nothing like today.

As a new book, titled No Ordinary Disruption, based on research by the directors of the McKinsey Global Institute, notes: “A radically different world is forming. The operating system of the world is being rewritten even as we speak. It doesn’t come in a splashy new release. It evolves, unfolds, and often explodes.”

Authors Richard Dobbs, James Manyika and Jonathan Woetzel add: “Technology–from the printing press to the steam engine and the Internet– has always been a great force in overturning the status quo. The difference today is the sheer ubiquity of the technology in our lives and the speed of the change.”

The upshot of this hyper-speed, hyper-linked and hyper empowered world is that each one of us has to learn to adapt to the new operating system that is unfolding, whether you are a travel or property agent (think online transactions), a radiologist (medical reports processed across time zones), a factory worker (goods produced by 3D printing) or a schoolboy (better bone up on coding).

Set against this context of change all round,why should journalists and media groups expect the way we operate to remain unchanged?

Recognising this, my colleagues and I set out to ride the waves of change. First, we tore down– literally–the physical wall that separated the workspaces for our print and digital teams. Next, we brought down the mental divide that separated print and online content, with each editor in the ST newsroom now taking charge of their subject across platforms, rather than just for print.

Last October, we took this another step further, throwing out old work processes which we have had for decades, based on the news-cycles of a print publication, with editors meeting to discuss stories at a morning news conference each day at 11am, and then again to settle the line-up for the paper at 4pm.

This came to seem increasingly absurd,when our readership data was showing that readers were coming to us at several points during the day: traffic to our website spikes around 9am, lunch time and again after dinner. To meet this demand, we had to change the way we worked, including how we thought about content, and when to deliver it.

We made these changes without fanfare, quietly developing new skills, from how to produce videos and e-books, to how to package content in novel ways, such as listicles or long-form reads for a Web special. We tried things out when big stories broke, such as the Boston marathon bombing in April 2013, the Kovan double murder in July 2013 and the disappearance of MH370 in March last year.

So, when the out pouring of grief over the death of founding father Lee KuanYew unfolded in March, the ST newsroom was able and ready to cover the moving events round-the-clock and across platforms.The “newsroomof the future” that we had spent hours brainstorming at many a management meeting was plain to see before our eyes.

This process of change, of course, remains a constant work in progress. There is still much to do, to keep improving, and to stay abreast of the relentless changes in technology and consumer preferences.

Yet, in a sense, this is what successive corps of ST editors have had to do over the years– adapting to change, embracing it and making a friend of technology. When the telegraph was introduced and made it possible to get news from abroad much faster than relying on letters arriving on steamships, ST led the way and signed up for a wire news service. When television came along,we made this new form of entertainment a part of our coverage.When Singapore fell to the Japanese, the occupying forces used the ST premises to produce a newspaper. Thankfully, Japanese officers later handed the presses intact to former ST staff, who returned to work and put The Straits Times back on news stands just days after the war ended.

Having survived waves of change in technology, political regimes and economic ups-and-downs, there seems good reason to be confident about the future as ST marks our 170th anniversary.

For today, unlike the past, when ST had just one point of contact with its readers in the mornings, more people than ever before are connecting to ST in many more ways. They do so from the time they pick up their phones the first thing in the morning, reach for the newspaper over breakfast, check their smartphones on their way to the office, or on their desktops while at work, dipping into our apps or website on the go during the day, and sometimes sitting back with their tablets in the evening. Our all-in-one subscription package of print and digital content has become our most popular offering, and this continues to grow our overall readership.

These days too, readers seem increasingly keen not just to read about but to engage with newsmakers and journalists, both online and at face-to-face forums, such as the ST Education Forum last month, which drew an enthusiastic sell-out crowd.

Beyond all this, I would also argue that a robust and realistic sense of optimism about the future is both helpful,and even necessary, to survive and succeed in the future.

I once asked a top leader at Shell what would happen when motorists were no longer keen on petrol-driven vehicles, but opted for greener options instead. Without skipping a beat, he replied: “Well, then we will sell natural gas. Or batteries. Or we will charge or change them faster and better than our competitors. Whatever, but we will not roll over and fade away.”

That, it seems to me, is the kind of robust resilience that every one of us will need to face the future. So, to help our young prepare, schools will have to equip them not just with reading, writing and arithmetic skills, but with these new3Rs: robustness, realism and resilience.

Or as the authors of No Ordinary Disruption conclude in their book: “We believe that optimism will still win the day... Thanks to the forces at work, the world we inhabit 10 or more years from now will be a better one. Those who understand the magnitude and the permanence of the changes we are now witnessing, reset their intuition accordingly, and see the opportunities, will shape thisnew world– and they will thrive.”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 05, 2015, with the headline 'Ready to ride wave of change'. Print Edition | Subscribe