SPH Media Trust chairman Khaw Boon Wan sets his sights on accelerating digital transformation in newsrooms

Resources in ST newsroom to be expanded; TNP to go fully digital; BT newsroom to lead in transformation.

SPH Media Trust will house more than eight news titles in English, Chinese, Malay and Tamil, including The Straits Times, The Business Times, Lianhe Zaobao, Berita Harian and Tamil Murasu. ST FILE PHOTO

Accelerating the digital transformation of newsrooms is top of the agenda for SPH Media Trust, which will take over the media operations of Singapore Press Holdings.

"We are challenging ourselves to innovate, to design and deliver a richer reader experience, fully leveraging the capabilities of digital technology," said Mr Khaw Boon Wan, chairman of the trust.

The newsrooms have already embarked on going digital, he noted. "We are not starting from zero. My job is to give them a greater push, with clear direction and serious financial support."

Newsrooms will be strengthened with more talent and resources, especially in digital media creation, he said in an interview with The Straits Times.

"Years of cost cutting have weakened our newsrooms; we will rebuild them systematically. We will consolidate resources, in favour of digital media," he said.

"I have urged the newsrooms to set our sights high and focus on growing digital subscriptions aggressively."

SPH Media Trust, a company limited by guarantee (CLG), will take over SPH's media business in December. The CLG is a profit-making commercial venture with profits reinvested in the business.

In May, mainboard-listed SPH had announced that it planned to hive off its media business to a CLG as part of a company-wide strategic review.

Mr Khaw, the former coordinating minister for infrastructure and transport who had retired from politics in June last year, was named chairman of the CLG. Former SPH deputy chief executive Patrick Daniel was named its interim chief executive.

On Sept 10, SPH shareholders approved the plan. Details of the transfer to the CLG are now being worked out.

SPH Media Trust will house more than eight news titles in English, Chinese, Malay and Tamil, including The Straits Times, The Business Times, Lianhe Zaobao, Berita Harian and Tamil Murasu.

SPH Media Trust chairman Khaw Boon Wan said in an interview that newsrooms will be strengthened with more talent and resources, especially in digital media creation. ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

Mr Khaw said he has been spending the past few months learning more about the media industry and talking and listening to employees across the various divisions.

Delisting SPH's media business is not a silver bullet, he stressed.

"But it is a critical first step, without which the newsrooms will continue to shrink, ultimately failing in their mission of producing quality journalism," he said.

"We do not underestimate the challenges, as the digital disruption of the media business continues unabated and we have lost precious time. We have much to catch up, and we are determined to close the gap. There will be resource constraints. We will have to prioritise and focus our efforts."

He sketched out three major initiatives for the English-language newsrooms.

First, resources in The Straits Times newsroom will be expanded.

"We will push it ahead to be a fully multimedia news operations that delivers content on all platforms for our audience through the day," he said.

Second, The New Paper will go fully digital, with a revamped website to launch on Oct 25 and its last print edition on Dec 10.

Launched in 1988, TNP started as a lunchtime paper big on sports, crime and entertainment, and also famous for its TNP Big Walk event. It became a freesheet in 2016, targeting the commuter crowd.

Going fully digital will allow SPH Media Trust to serve TNP readers better, he said.

Third, the CLG will speed up the digital transformation of The Business Times (BT).

"The BT newsroom will be digitally driven, with new processes and culture of working together, across editorial, technology, data and product development," he said. BT's transformation will pave the way for the larger newsrooms in the CLG to do the same next year, he added.

In parallel, Mr Khaw said, the CLG will work tirelessly to enhance digital customer interface and customer experience, and to make its content more engaging and relevant to its digital audience.

Resources in The Straits Times newsroom to be expanded. ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

Talent is key, he noted. "We welcome talent to join our mission in all domains - those who care about the future of journalism in Singapore; who want to work on challenging problem statements; and experiment with new ways of digital storytelling."

But changes and improvements will take time, given legacy issues. "We seek the understanding and patience of both our subscribers and our colleagues," he said.

Mr Warren Fernandez, editor-in-chief of SPH's English/Malay/ Tamil Media Group, said: "The transition to the CLG presents our newsrooms with a new and hopeful opportunity to take things forward. It allows us to stay focused on our core mission - delivering quality news that people feel they can rely on and trust, across all our platforms."

Mr Fernandez, who is also editor of The Straits Times, added: "Mr Khaw has set clear directions, challenged us to aim high, and push for growth. That is inspiring, and our newsrooms will strive to deliver to serve our community better."

Mr Lim Han Ming, editor of The New Paper, said the TNP team will focus its resources on delivering human interest and heartlander content that is lively and engaging on its website - tnp.sg - to better serve its readers and maximise its readership.

BT editor Wong Wei Kong looks forward to the challenge of pushing BT further forward as a digitally driven newsroom, "not just in products but also in culture, processes, and working cross-functionally, and doing so in a sustainable way".

SPH restructuring - the backstory

SPH News Centre in Toa Payoh. The SPH Media Trust move would enable the media business to focus on quality journalism and invest in talent and new technology to strengthen its digital capabilities.ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

On Sept 10, 97.55 per cent of shareholders of Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) voted in favour of a plan by the company to hive off its media business, paving the way for the formation of a company limited by guarantee (CLG) called SPH Media Trust.

The plan was first announced by SPH on May 6 as part of a strategic review of the group's businesses, which include property, malls and student accommodation.

Explaining the rationale for the move, SPH said the media industry has faced unprecedented disruption in recent years, with SPH's operating revenue halving in the past five years largely due to a decline in print advertising and print subscription revenue.

SPH's media business recorded its first-ever loss of $11.4 million for the financial year that ended on Aug 31 last year.

The transfer would enable the media business to focus on quality journalism and invest in talent and new technology to strengthen its digital capabilities.

Under the restructuring, all the media-related businesses, including relevant subsidiaries, employees, the News Centre and Print Centre along with their respective leaseholds, and all related intellectual property and information technology assets, will be transferred to SPH Media Trust.

The CLG will operate as a revenue-seeking business but any profits will be reinvested into the media operations rather than distributed to shareholders. Examples of such enterprises in Singapore include the universities, The Esplanade and Gardens by the Bay.

The CLG structure will also allow it to seek funding from public and private sources. The Government has said it is ready to support the CLG with funds for initiatives such as digital innovation and capability development.

The new CLG will initially receive financial help from SPH, comprising $80 million in cash and $30 million in shares.

With the hiving off of the media business, SPH will no longer be subject to the provisions of the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act (NPPA), which limits each shareholding to only 5 per cent.

Keppel Corp, meanwhile, has proposed to acquire SPH through a privatisation offer after the hiving off of the media business. The offer, which values SPH at $3.4 billion, will see SPH delisted and become a wholly owned subsidiary of Keppel. Keppel's share of the deal is about $2.2 billion.

Under the offer, SPH shareholders will receive 66.8 cents in cash per share, as well as 0.596 Keppel Reit units and 0.782 SPH Reit units per share. SPH shareholders are expected to vote on this next month or in November.

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