SPH Media Trust formed with mission to be trusted news source

Refocus on quality journalism will ensure continued relevance, says SMT chairman Khaw Boon Wan

Singapore's local media landscape turned a page yesterday with the formation of a new not-for-profit entity spun off from newspaper publisher and mainboard-listed company Singapore Press Holdings (SPH).

In a statement announcing its launch, the SPH Media Trust (SMT) stated that its mission was "to be the trusted source of news on Singapore and Asia, to represent the communities that make up Singapore, and to connect them to the world".

Said SMT chairman Khaw Boon Wan: "This marks a critical milestone as we refocus on our mission of producing quality journalism as a public good. This will also ensure the continued relevance and sustainability of SPH Media."

"We thank SPH for its stewardship of SPH Media over the years," added Mr Khaw. "We look forward to working with everyone in the incoming team to strengthen SPH Media as a trusted multimedia organisation."

All relevant media-related assets and 2,500 employees have been transferred to SMT, including the News Centre and Print Centre leasehold properties, as well as related intellectual property and information technology assets.

This comes after SPH first expressed intent in May to transfer its media business - which includes The Straits Times - to a company limited by guarantee, to help secure funding from public and private sources.

The move was approved in September by shareholders of SPH, which, like other media companies globally, had struggled with falling advertising revenues in recent years.

The SMT's interim chief executive officer, Mr Patrick Daniel, told reporters from ST and vernacular papers Lianhe Zaobao, Berita Harian and Tamil Murasu on Tuesday that the aim was to arrest this "downward spiral" and grow the business to become financially sustainable.

The Singapore Government has said it is prepared to provide funding support to the new SMT in its capacity-building efforts as it pushes ahead decisively with digitalisation, he added.

Asked if this might affect the SMT's editorial independence, Mr Daniel, a veteran journalist and former editor-in-chief of SPH's English/Malay/Tamil Media Group, said: "It is not in the Government's interest for us not to be independent and to be a media mouthpiece."

"They are funding it because they believe in the mission of being a trusted source," he added. "If you give only one side of the story, you will never be a trusted source."

Still, Mr Daniel acknowledged that public perception of government interference was an issue, and that the SMT would have to prove to its audience that it was trustworthy.

FUNDING NEEDS

In May, then Minister for Communications and Information S. Iswaran told Parliament that the Government was mindful that local news media must remain credible institutions trusted by Singaporeans.

He also announced then that the SMT would be chaired by Mr Khaw, a former Cabinet minister, as he highlighted in a ministerial statement how technological advances and the Internet had severely disrupted a traditional media model reliant on print advertising revenue.

In his interview this week, Mr Daniel said SPH's media business had gone from raking in billion-dollar revenues to around $400 million in recent times.

SPH's media business also recorded first-ever losses of around $40 million in each of the last two financial years, excluding grants under the Government's Jobs Support Scheme in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

"If nothing is done, and SPH continues business as usual, the revenues will continue to drop; the losses will continue and will grow for sure. And there will be continued pressure to cut costs, cut products, cut staff, retrench," said Mr Daniel.

The alternative was to form the SMT - a not-for-profit company limited by guarantee, comprising not shareholders but members, and where profits are reinvested in the company.

The nine founding members are among SPH's key management shareholders: DBS Bank, Fullerton, Great Eastern Life Assurance, Nanyang Technological University, National University of Singapore, NTUC Income, OCBC Bank, Singtel and UOB.

SPH will also provide an initial injection of support, including $80 million cash and $30 million worth of shares.

On top of commercial revenues including from advertising and circulation, the SMT will seek to grow new sources of funding, to allow it to invest for the future.

Citing the Government and philanthropic organisations as potential sources, he said it was too early to disclose how much support to expect from either, though the amounts were unlikely to come close to the SMT's own revenues.

Mr Daniel expected that government funding for the SMT would likely come up as a topic at next year's Budget debate.

He also revealed that since May, other organisations have, without being asked, expressed interest in supporting the hived-off media unit - and he would leave it to them to make any announcements.

MISSION SUPPORT

Meanwhile, the SMT is in the midst of budgeting and reviewing the staffing requirements for its newsrooms to enable them to deliver on their mission.

These are part of a transition that Mr Daniel, as interim CEO, was coaxed out of retirement - and initial reluctance - to oversee, while the SMT continues its search for a full-time leader to take the business further.

Noting that he might still occupy the seat for a few more months, the 67-year-old echoed what Mr Khaw had said in May: That the CEO should ideally be a Singaporean and possessing an understanding of local milieu and culture.

"That doesn't mean that we don't welcome foreign talent at all. If they can't find a local, then let's see what they do next," said Mr Daniel, adding that he would continue to serve on the board after a new CEO is hired.

The SMT has also identified digital transformation as a main area needing investment, he said, citing the need to bring the organisation up to speed in tech capabilities, being data-driven, attracting and training talent, and reaching out to new audiences.

The planned SPH Media Academy would be an example of what the SMT could put up as a proposal to the Government or other organisations to get support for.

"The improvements must happen quickly, in Year One. We cannot wait too long," Mr Daniel said.

He also emphasised that the SMT's mission - to deliver news as a trusted source and as a public good - forms the grounds on which it is seeking funding.

Government funding would not get in the way of the SMT being an independent and trusted source, he said.

Mr Daniel admitted that the public relations issue, of the public seeing the Government as exercising editorial influence on the SMT, was something the team had thought hard about.

"But it's foolish of us to say 'no, I don't want your money'," he said. "I say 'you want to support, fine. Support the mission... (and) don't damage the brand'."

Mr Daniel pointed out that either way, there was no hiding or running from the reading public. "Let them judge us... You read the story, you can tell whether it's good, well researched, accurate or not," he said. "But if you go out and ask for an objective opinion of whether we are trusted media, I would say the majority will (answer) yes."

The assignment is to increase this majority - and while not an easy one, the SMT is starting on a strong enough footing, said Mr Daniel.

"It's not as if we are broken," he added. "We just need to stop that downward spiral and start growing again; and if we get more resources, we can deliver... I'm confident."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 02, 2021, with the headline SPH Media Trust formed with mission to be trusted news source. Subscribe