By Howard Lee/
Reading this headline might start some eyes rolling and mutterings of, “So what’s new?” But bear with me while I put out my case.
On 22 October, Sunday, The Straits Times published an opinion piece by editor-in-chief Warren Fernandez that delved into the woes of change happening in Singapore Press Holdings (SPH), most pointedly regarding the latest retrenchment exercise that saw many journalists dumped rather unceremoniously.
Fernandez claimed that the retrenchment was an attempt to “focus on our strengths and build on them, rather than spreading our resources thin”. His grand plan: “to grow our reach beyond Singapore, tapping the demand for objective reporting and analysis on the major social and political changes unfolding all around Asia.” This sentiment was echoed earlier by ST’s opinion editor Chua Mui Hoong, when she said that “The Straits Times… is expanding its regional coverage and is hiring experienced journalists to report on the region.”
In effect, Fernandez and Chua are pointing to ST’s interest in the regional news market, suggesting a fire-local-hire-glocal approach.
For now, let’s sidestep the fact that Fernandez was also trying to cast the retrenchment brouhaha, which saw journalist locked out of their computers the morning they were informed of their retrenchment, as a technical error; or that he tried to paint ST as a poster boy in the battle against fake news. Instead, let’s focus on SPH’s economic woes in its battle to maintain readership and understand if its current direction makes sense.
Newspapers around the world are facing shrinking staff numbers and are increasingly seeking to aggregate news to keep both profits and readership. The is exacerbated by large media conglomerates like Fairfax and News Corp buying up newspaper assets all over the world. In the process, newsrooms have been streamlined, in favour of content sharing in what is supposedly a more globalised world-view of news and the impending threat of social media.
The same cannot be applied to SPH. There is no big media mogul trying to buy out SPH, much less ST – government regulation prevents that.
On the threat of social media, ST cannot claim to be a newbie. The newspaper has a 1.1 million Facebook likes for its page, about 70,000 shy of rivalling Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. Singapore’s most social online news portal Mothership.sg, by comparison, only has 200,000 Facebook likes. After every election season, the Institute of Policy Studies would put out data to show that mainstream media still commands the lion’s share of readership.
To cap it all, Fernandez himself claims that ST’s “readership continues to grow, across print and digital platforms, with more people turning to our products to stay informed throughout the day.”
If anything, a study by the Pew Research Centre gives no clear indication that social media replaced news sources. Instead, it is more likely that news is still consumed, although one among a plurality of information circulating online. Such studies hardly give credit to the hype about the “scourge of social media” following the 2016 presidential elections in America.
So the issue seems to be one of what ST can do to maximise its digital assets, rather than lament about the digital dumbing-down of readers and a near-non-existent challenging new media environment. If anything, given SPH’s near-monopoly of the media market in Singapore and the tremendous resource advantage it currently has to take on the digital realm, there is a need to ask what kind of unfair advantage they now need to have to tip even more in their favour.
On the other hand, Fernandez seems to suggest a completely different track away from tacking the supposed digital threat: have local correspondents in the region to produce content that can be sold to local markets – essentially, to turn ST into the likes of Associated Press, Agence France-Presse or Reuters. This business plan is likely based on the assumption that “our newspaper titles are generally well regarded, at home and abroad”. This is further cemented by, if you buy it, SPH’s mandate to counter “the scourge of fake news” with an unwavering “mission of keeping societies – and voters – well informed”.
One then wonders how ST can hope to do so with its regional and international ambitions. I do not, of course, for one moment doubt the commitment of AP, AFP and Reuters towards journalistic excellence, and many of their locally-based staff have produced reports that are a lot more insightful than what our local newspapers can muster. However, ST is now proposing that the reverse can be true – that is, by having more journalists based overseas, their local coverage can still be as good, if not better.
NTU’s media professor Ang Peng Hwa once wrote about media self-regulation – that if a news market becomes unreliable, it will eventually lead to a downward spiral of an untrusting and reduced readership, withdrawal of advertisers, lower profits, scaling back of resources and impoverish content.
The same theory can be applied ST’s decision to seek its fortunes overseas: reducing its pool of reporters based locally can only affect its connection with the ground in Singapore, turning ST into a poorer source of news locally. It is fallacious of Fernandez to think otherwise, or that ST’s to-be status as a regional or global news aggregator will benefit its local appeal.
Hence, we can assume that the direction that ST is about to take will have little benefit, if not a negative impact, on the average Singaporean reader. On the other hand, a move to become a news aggregator, if ST is successful in doing so, will reap dividends for SPH and its shareholders.
We cannot deny the need for a newspaper to be profitable, but it is saddening to hear Chua lament about how SPH’s “profits come from non-core businesses in property and healthcare”, while Fernandez continues to insist on a “mission to serve society’s need for reliable journalism”. I guess faith in public journalism, where alternative business strategies would have been made precisely to prop up the all-loss public good that is journalism, has finally shed its last feather within SPH.