Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) has appointed former deputy CEO and editor-in-chief, Patrick Daniel, as interim CEO of SPH Media Trust. Khaw Boon Wan, who is set to be chairman of the new entity, said in a speech today that Daniel has a strong interest to see SPH Media succeed and that a search for a CEO has begun. Earlier this week, Khaw was named chairman of SPH Media days after SPH said it is shifting its media business to a non-profit entity.
"Practically all 2,500 media and media-related staff of SPH will move over to SPH Media Trust," he added in his town hall speech today. Khaw also listed three main challenges during the town hall: how the company can enhance its current digital products; how it can grow readership especially among the younger audience; and how SPH Media can grow digital revenue to counter the decline in print revenue.
Khaw said he will work with the Media Trust team to settle the strategies and to carefully execute them. "We will seek expertise where we lack. We will draw on the lessons of successful digital media transformation efforts elsewhere. We will tap on funding support from the Government for capacity building," he added.
The nine management shareholders of SPH have been sounded out to form SPH Media Trust and will be the founding members of the company limited by guarantee (CLG). Khaw said they have "agreed to be the founding members of the CLG, to continue their mission of supporting quality journalism".
In his speech, Khaw said SPH Media needs to develop a model which is both financially sustainable and will enable it to continue delivering high-quality trusted products to its readers. He added that the listed company model is no longer the best business structure for quality journalism.
"Even if the resources are available, shareholders do not have the appetite to sustain investments in capacity building and digital transformation. Without a radical restructuring, newsrooms will continue to be squeezed; their products’ quality and circulation will eventually decline," Khaw said. According to him, the "first casualties" will likely be SPH Media's vernacular papers, which will be detrimental to Singapore's multi-racial society.
Without regular and substantial financial support from the government, Khaw said that SPH Media "will soon be insolvent" and it will be a struggle to sustain quality journalism as a public good. Last week, SPH said it will provide the initial resources and funding by capitalising SPH Media with a cash injection of SG$80 million, SG$30 million worth of SPH shares and SPH REIT units, as well as SPH’s stakes in four of its digital media investments. The government also said it is willing to offer funding support to the company to help build up capabilities for the future.
Moving forward, the strategic objective for SPH Media remains the same, which is to preserve quality newspapers in all four languages trusted by readers, and to sustain them over the long term, Khaw said. He added that the values and principles underpinning its brand of journalism remains unchanged: integrity and professionalism of its journalists and independence of its newsrooms.
When asked how a subscription model would still be beneficial to SPH Media since it will be taxpayer-funded, Khaw said the paid model forces the newsroom to ensure that it is a lot more analytical and can offer deeper analysis as well as original insights which cannot be obtained from competitors. "Much of the news out there is already for free. If you insist on paid and your products [are] just ordinary breaking news without much analysis or insights, then why should people pay to buy your product," he added.
SPH Media's editorial independence was up for debate in parliament recently, with leader of the opposition Pritam Singh asking communications and information minister S. Iswaran about the structures the government will put in place to foster editorial independence. In response, Iswaran said the culture of editorial independence already exists in Singapore in the news media and we are doing "a disservice to journalists and editors" to suggest anything to the contrary.
At the same time, Iswaran also said it is "premature" to specify the exact numbers of the government funding to be provided for SPH Media as the restructuring plan will need to be approved by SPH's shareholders.
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