SPH embraces the digital disruption wave and evolves business

How has SPH evolved its business?

SPH has always been at its core a media organisation using platforms that allow it to best reach its target audience. Although predominantly print-based, it was the pioneer in digital news in Singapore with Zaobao.com and straitstimes.com in 1995. AsiaOne was Singapore?s first digital-only news portal launched in 1995. SPH has also used other platforms such as TV and radio stations to allow its content to reach a wider audience. Even though there has been a noticeable acceleration of growth in new digital-only audiences, there is also a sizable loyal print audience that prefers the analog experience of a print newspaper. So our newsrooms have been evolving to meet the needs of our audience.

Everything our newsrooms do today is digital-first. We have created native digital content like live videos, podcasts and interactive graphics to enhance the experience for our digital audience. To do this, our newsrooms underwent significant changes to our workflows, which are now designed for first-to-digital delivery of content. Our journalists are equipped and trained to deliver content on various platforms seamlessly and they have access to real-time data to monitor the performance of our online content, which feeds back into the editorial planning.

To cite a specific example, the Straits Times (ST) has also been experimenting with personalised content recommendations. With AI, the ST homepage can display a customised set of stories and videos that the individual user will more likely engage with, given his or her past reading habits. Similarly, The Business Times (BT) and Lianhe Zaobao (ZB) are also making use of these machine learning tools to deliver personalised audience experiences on their websites and apps. This audience-first approach enabled by data allows us to give our audience a better experience by recommending relevant content to them based on their revealed preferences.

The various papers have all been around for a good number of years. How do they remain competitive?

The key is to be audience-centric regardless of platform. And of course, to continue to produce the best content and maintain the highest levels of journalistic integrity. For our online products, the real-time data provides a key input to help us understand how we are performing, vis-a-vis our competitors. Better personalisation and employment of digital storytelling tools like visualisation, AR/VR, voice and videos will allow us to remain relevant to our target audience. Our product managers and UX/UI designers employing design thinking methodology also take lessons from the best in class digital consumer products to make sure that our products continue to meet the high expectations of our users, both in terms of functionality as well as intuitiveness.

We are also employing means to engage our loyal print readers. Although we do not have an equivalent of a data dashboard to track the real-time readership habits of this segment, we have used proxies. Through surveys, focus group discussions and user test interviews, we are also continually getting inputs and feedback on how our print products can be improved upon. The newly launched SPH News Tablet product which allows us to deliver the print newspaper experience digitally also allows us to monitor reading habits in real-time. As the installed user base grows, this will allow us a credible real-time alternative to measure reading habits amongst the print readers to the traditional Nielsen media survey. This will allow us to be more responsive to the needs of our print subscribers, as well as provide more real time ROI information to our advertisers.

Each paper is always looking at how to enhance their offerings not just in terms of content, but also in the ways that they can engage their audience, from on-ground events, social media, videos and more. One very recent example is our new English-language e-magazine, ThinkChina. ThinkChina curates and translates China-related content from Lianhe Zaobao, which has been covering China for decades. This way, readers who are interested in getting unique insights and perspectives into developments in China but cannot understand Mandarin can still have access to this content. The Business Times has also leveraged its editorial strength with BT Garage, which caters to the startup category with deeper insights, more thought pieces and trend analyses.

Our vernacular papers Berita Harian and Tamil Murasu have also introduced new digital platforms using the same methodology outlined above with good response, growing a new audience beyond the traditional print medium. The publications, which reach our Malay and Indian communities respectively, are also augmenting their multimedia efforts. Both publications are also adopting a data-driven approach to the newsroom and curation of content and actively reach out to their communities ?in real life?, with events that resonate with them such as literary workshops, mass workouts and more. Tamil Murasu revamped its digital identity and unveiled its new website, which boosted its readership and key metrics. This is due to the fact that they implemented audience-centric changes gleaned from extensively researching their readers? habits and consumer behaviour. Over the past four years, BH has been producing videos that raise awareness about issues facing the community. It also launched two podcasts recently: #NoTapis and Cakap Masjid. In July, #NoTapis climbed to No 3 on Singapore?s podcast chart. Currently, BH is undergoing a revamp of its website and app, also with the view of improving its offerings for its audience.

What are the changes the papers have adopted?

The newsrooms now have the capability to produce content that can run on multiple platforms. Underpinning that is a data-focused approach where real time audience data is fed back into subsequent editorial decisions on which stories to chase as well as which platforms will help reach out to additional audiences.

With the increasing consumption of video, we have also started increasing our video output across the newsroom. Both The Straits Times and Lianhe Zaobao have daily live broadcasts - The Big Story and Live@The Newsroom - with journalists discussing the top news of the day. A number of journalists from the different papers have also been producing podcasts since last year, with monthly downloads already seeing 4x growth since they began. Apart from the conventional editors and journalists, we also now have video and audio specialists sitting in the newsroom, alongside roles like audience development managers and product managers.

How has SPH expanded its engagement with its audience?

We are constantly looking for the best ways to engage our different audience segments. For instance, to reach out to our younger audience, The Straits Times has been exploring innovative ways of telling a story such as through augmented reality and through NewsEd, a news portal and app that curates ST?s content and news articles specifically for students and teachers. These curated articles can be easily transformed into engaging bite-size activities by teachers while the students can use these lessons and activities for self-directed and collaborative learning.

Our papers are also cultivating their social media presence, and the strategy of curating and repackaging content that works for the platform has seen significant organic growth in their followers. As part of an ongoing strategy to make it more convenient for our audience to access SPH media assets, we also launched six news programmes on the Google Nest Hub. This is based on usage trend reports of voice-assisted smart devices and media consumption habits. User experience is also a key consideration, which is why we?ve implemented a unified and seamless login experience across publications to make it easier and faster. Our SPH apps are also equipped to recognise biometric login using Touch ID and Face ID to improve usability as well.

In March this year, we launched our SPH News Tablet for the Chinese papers. A subscription will give our readers access to the e-paper edition of all three papers: Lianhe Zaobao, Lianhe Wanbao and Shin Min Daily News. These tablets give our subscribers a seamless digital experience as the content auto-updates without the need for log-ins. So we are trying to remove obstacles for our elderly readers who don?t read English and may not be as digitally-savvy as the younger set. In September, we released a similar offering for our Berita Harian readers, and there are plans to extend this to our other publications as well.

ZB has also built and launched gamification features and micro-transaction capabilities which allow more people access to subscriber-only articles. So we are not just engaging our users, we are also rewarding them for their loyalty as well.

Has there been any integration across the publications?

Some of our video shows are converted into audio files, which are then shared with SPH Radio to incorporate into its programming, or used in our various podcasts. Many of the videos with engaging content that would appeal to audiences across our products are now subtitled and cross-carried on each other?s platforms. This allows the content to reach out to a larger audience.

Our magazines portfolio which is strong in lifestyle and entertainment content is also stepping up its partnership with our news titles. This allows the lifestyle sections of the news titles to be beefed up, especially in the digital space. This leverages on the advantages the group has to bolster our titles.

We also have events co-hosted by two publications such as the Cutting Edge Forum by The Business Times and The Straits Times, and a bilingual health seminar organised by The Straits Times and Lianhe Zaobao. We take relevant opportunities such as these to enhance our audience?s experience with us across the various publications.

Life writers (from left) Melissa Sim, Anjali Raguraman and Akshita Nanda.

How does SPH see itself staying relevant in the future? What can clients look forward to from it?

When it comes to staying relevant, we will always go back to the basics. And for us, that means being audience centric and data driven. We also need to enhance our partnerships with digital platforms and technology partners to use innovative technology to expand our reach, which can be international as we are not bound by the logistical constraints of the print medium.

The technology may change, the formats may vary, but we believe that as long as we listen to our audience through hard data, we can steer our course with the right mix of content and platforms.

Naturally, our offerings will be optimised to provide our advertisers a comprehensive media solution, which will allow them to tap on our strengths in both commercial and editorial content to reach their desired audience across our display, audio, video and experiential platforms.

This article is written by?Anthony Tan, deputy CEO, Singapore Press Holdings, for the Media of the Year 2019 series.