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SPH’s shake-up: A non-transformative transformation

On the major shifts at Singapore Press Holdings, and why nothing is going to change until we address the press freedom issue.

Kirsten Han
Kirsten Han
9 min read
SPH’s shake-up: A non-transformative transformation

Even before the pandemic, times were tough for media businesses the world over. We’ve watched newspapers and media publications shut down or downsize, leading to figurative bloodbaths as entire teams and departments were made redundant. Just in March this year, Buzzfeed, the new owners of The Huffington Post, announced that they were going to shut down its British national news operation. In 2019, Buzzfeed itself retrenched 200 workers. And that’s just one company; there are so many more similar stories.

Back home, our traditional media outlets have felt similar pain: just last year, Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) retrenched 140 staff from its media sales and magazines operations. This was after previous rounds of blood-letting, such as the one in 2017 and, even further back, in 2003 (citing the difficult business environment post-SARS and the war in Iraq).

Now, the head honchos of SPH have decided that more drastic action is necessary. They’ll be spinning off the media business into a not-for-profit SPH Media, leaving the original Singapore Press Holdings with no press to hold. The new SPH Media (quite annoyed that they didn't go with Singapore Media Holdings, because I see all this and I SMH) will be a company limited by guarantee.

The reasonable reasons

SPH, with the support of the PAP government, has explained the necessity for such a big change. They’ve talked about the “digital revolution”; as Khaw Boon Wan, former PAP minister and new chairman of SPH Media, explained:

“[The media industry’s] economics have been turned upside down. First, platforms like Facebook and Google have taken a huge share of media advertising revenue. Second, there is now a profusion of content online, often for free, competing for our readers' attention. Third, this has changed a new generation's reading habits. They now find out what is happening from their social media feeds and chat groups, and much less from reading a daily newspaper, especially in print.”
Khaw Boon Wan at a townhall with SPH staff on 12 May, 2021.

This, Khaw says, is a “global phenomenon” that “quality newspapers around the world are facing”. SPH’s strategy is not to seek billionaire bankrollers, but to start this not-for-profit company limited by guarantee. The logic is that the pressure to meet shareholders’ expectations isn’t a good thing for a newspaper company, so this new arrangement will open the door to different sources of public and private funding, while freeing the operation from having to pay out dividends on a regular basis. Instead, public funding recognises that quality journalism is a public good that’s crucial to a functioning democracy.

These are all highly reasonable reasons. The shift towards consuming news online has cut into the usual revenue streams (i.e. advertising) of print publications. Social media platforms and the proliferation of online news sources (of varying quality and integrity) has drawn eyeballs away from traditional media outlets. There has been a global disruption that’s caused headaches for many quality newspapers around the world. The consequences have often been to the detriment of both these publications’ staff (through retrenchments, wage freezes, directionless yet energy-sucking “pivots”, or increased pressure to produce work in multiple formats) and its readers (a drop in quality as newsrooms are hollowed out, or entire subject areas that fall off the news conveyor belt completely), although not necessarily to the shareholders. Taking all this into consideration, the move to create SPH Media makes sense, but…

The missing context

…what’s missing from SPH and the government’s story is crucial context. While it’s true that SPH isn’t alone in grappling with digital disruption in the media industry, SPH is still different because it essentially enjoys a monopoly on the newspaper business in Singapore. Sure, it has to compete with MediaCorp and other websites when it comes to online news, but it’s still the largest professional news-gathering force in the country, and owns all the national print dailies.

Let's be honest, this is what passes for competition in Singapore's journalism industry:

SPH might be facing the same struggles that newspaper companies elsewhere face, but it's also been more protected from real competition than others. It's quite something to be the only horse in a pony race, and still faceplant before the finish line.

It's also not impossible to break even or make a profit in these times. The New York Times, for instance, had a good year in 2020. While websites and social media platforms might have undercut advertising revenue, the Internet has also opened up plenty of new possibilities for media businesses. Last year, I was involved in writing a media viability handbook for digital media entrepreneurs, where we profiled media start-ups around the world to ask about how they manage their funds and operate. While acknowledging that SPH isn't a digital media start-up, my point is that it is possible to survive and thrive, even in a difficult media business environment, and that outfits smaller and less well-resourced than SPH are figuring it out.

I don't have a sure-win answer to building and running a profitable media operation—if I did, I wouldn't be running this one-woman show of a newsletter that really needs your support—but what I've learnt from my experience with New Naratif and interacting with various media start-ups around the world is that upgrading the tech and pumping out digital products will only get you so far.

Apart from company operations and structures, media entrepreneurs and outlets have also flagged the importance of trust and the relationship between the media and their readers/viewers/audience/community. Products are important since their quality and innovation can attract users, but trust and relationships can distinguish one media organisation from another, and build loyalty. If it's just about a cold transaction, people can always take their custom elsewhere, or read the news from outlets without paywalls. But if you have a brand that people buy into, if they become not just your customers but your fans, then that's when you have a base that'll stick around. (And if they really love you, they'll give you money even without a hard paywall.)

SPH has been in a prime position to build this sort of trust and community—but has failed, commendable charity efforts notwithstanding. The Straits Times, as Singapore's "paper of record" by virtue of being the only English-language general news daily in the country, could have built itself up as something that every Singaporean could feel pride and a sense of ownership in, regardless of whether we're actual shareholders or not.

There are likely many internal organisational factors as to why SPH has failed to foster this sort of trust and community buy-in. But I'd like to focus on something else that I think has greatly hobbled SPH, only no one in the establishment will admit it.

The lack of press freedom and editorial independence in Singapore's media industry is killing Singaporean journalism. It's hurting independent/alternative outlets via harassment, obstructionism, repression and oppression, but what we're seeing with SPH is evidence of how it's hurting big, traditional media companies too.

As the Workers' Party's Gerald Giam wanted to point out in Parliament, the same Edelman Trust Barometer 2021 survey that (the now replaced) Minister for Communications and Information S Iswaran cited found that, while trust in the media is relatively high, 57% of respondents agreed that "most news organisations are more concerned with supporting an ideology or political position than with informing the public".

From the Edelman Trust Barometer 2021 survey.

How can a paper like The Straits Times build trust and buy-in from Singaporeans if people feel like the paper looks out for the ruling party's interests over theirs? If Singaporeans feel that the local media is more likely to toe the party line rather than ask the hard questions, pursue the important stories, and demand accountability from the powerful on public interest issues, then why does anyone owe papers like The Straits Times their support or loyalty? If SPH titles are too afraid to point out that something a politician says is a meaningless platitude or straight-up BS, why would anyone subscribe to a paper when we can just read the politician's social media posts, or the government press release, ourselves? What are SPH's values, really, and do they even live up to them?

It's not like there's a dearth of talented Singaporean journalists whose skill people can appreciate and support. It's just that, if they're working in the mainstream media, they're being hobbled by an entrenched culture of censorship, fear of repercussions, gate-keeping, and government meddling. If we're lucky, these journalists leave the mainstream media and find positions in other news organisations, where we finally see what they're really capable of. If we're unlucky, they get fed up and ditch journalism as a career, decamping to the much more lucrative fields of PR and marketing, and society is all the poorer for it.

We're wasting talent and potential because we have a political culture where the powerful are petty and thin-skinned, and too used to maintaining control to let go. Until this changes, SPH will find it difficult to improve the quality of their journalistic content, no matter how many print and digital supplements or products they might eventually come up with. The government will probably keep bailing them out because they're too big to fail, but unless this political culture changes, we're likely going to be flushing taxpayer dollars down this hole for quite some time.

The gaslighting

The announcements so far don't fill me with hope: a former PAP minister has been parachuted in to be SPH Media's chairman, and the government is likely going to be SPH Media's major funder. Given the PAP government's track record with funding and influence, I'm not optimistic. It doesn't look as if there's going to be any effort to take a hard look at the state of press freedom and how it's holding SPH back. In fact, we've seen the very opposite: clear gaslighting about Singapore's lack of an independent press.

When Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh asked about structures to be put in place to ensure editorial independence in SPH Media, this is what Minister Iswaran had to say:

“The member asked about structures for editorial independence or ensuring a culture of editorial independence. I would venture that that culture already exists in Singapore in the news media. And I think we do a disservice to our journalists and editors to suggest anything to the contrary.”

To back up his claim, he referred to a YouGov poll and the Edelman Trust Barometer 2021 survey mentioned earlier.

Yeah, this was my face too, when I read Iswaran's comments about editorial independence.

Every single journalist and editor in Singapore—the people who had to transcribe Iswaran's quote, write it into a story, proofread or edit the piece, publish it online, or send it to the printers—knows this assertion of a "culture of editorial independence" is a lie. Even those who are enthusiastically complicit in government propaganda know it's a lie; it's just that they're okay with it.

If we truly had such a culture, the queue of journalists and editors calling bullshit on Iswaran's claim would be longer than the lines at NTUC the weekend before a lockdown.

The fact that a minister can say this with a straight face in Parliament, and that the press will let him get away with it, shows us what a pickle we're in. The term "quality journalism" has been so co-opted and skewed that we might one day no longer know what it even means.

What’s ahead?

The thing about press freedom is that it feels like it's only a problem for journalists... until it isn't. It hurts us all when the media of a country turns into a glorified newsletter for the ruling elite, which is what I'm worried that SPH Media will become. But until people can see resistance and demands for true editorial independence coming from the SPH newsroom, no one is going to come forward to fight for them, because everyone has their own long list of problems to tackle as it is. (And I really mean see; there's no use in assuring us that there are ongoing discussions and pushback "behind closed doors" when all the public can see is the press giving in when push comes to shove.) I wish each journalist working in SPH the best, but I'm sadly not holding my breath.

In the meantime, Singaporeans need to build up alternative institutions that can fill, or at least alleviate, the gap. Just as the PAP's succession debacle highlighted the danger of us having all our political eggs in one party's basket, SPH's woes demonstrate the need for media plurality and multiple credible sources of news and information.

Not everyone is able to set up a media start-up, but we can certainly support the people who do. Donate or subscribe to independent and credible news outlets in Singapore. Participate in discussions with their leadership as much as you can, provide feedback and help them do better. Volunteer if they need extra manpower. Support young up-and-coming journalists who might be running their own magazines, newsletters, or websites. If you have a business with an advertising budget, fight the fear of guilt by association and place ads with independent media outlets. Singapore is not a place where independent media outlets can access philantropic funding or journalism grants very easily, so anything that you can do to support such outlets in their struggle for sustainability is appreciated.

Perhaps SPH will change. It's likely they won't. But we can't afford to just sit around to wait and see.

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Kirsten Han Twitter

A Singaporean independent journalist, activist, and cat slave.