May 12, 2021
- SPH’s media publications will maintain its paid-subscription business model
- This is to keep it competitive and keep up the quality of their content, Mr Khaw Boon Wan said
- The incoming chairman of SPH Media Trust added that it is important for newsrooms to have editorial independence
- He said he will try to make a difference in helping newsrooms realise a bigger potential
SINGAPORE — News publications under Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) will continue with their subscription-based business model even when they get substantial government funding.
Mr Khaw Boon Wan, 68, the incoming chairman of SPH Media Trust, its new non-profit media entity, said that this would press the newsrooms to answer a “higher call” to quality journalism and keep them on their toes to produce quality content.
“I have strong views about pricing and subscription because if the objective is just to chase eyeballs (readership), then the easiest is to make it free… What is the objective? The objective is — you want quality journalism, quality content,” the former Cabinet minister said on Wednesday (May 12).
“If it is free… of course, people just take it. Are you sure they are reading it? Or do they just read one line and then throw it away?
“(There is) nothing like content that is so compelling that, yes, I am willing to pay… as in my case for Financial Times or Economist.”
Mr Khaw was responding to TODAY’s question on how he would explain the business decision to readers who might ask why they would have to pay more money to get news content, when the upcoming company limited by guarantee would already be funded by taxpayers.
The question was posed at a press conference that was held after Mr Khaw’s first town hall meeting with the newsrooms at the SPH News Centre in Toa Payoh.
SPH said last week that it was restructuring its media business, subject to shareholders’ approval, such that it will eventually become a company limited by guarantee and will be allowed to get funding from private and public sources.
It was announced this week that Mr Khaw, who was transport minister and coordinating minister for infrastructure before he retired from politics last year, would chair the new media spinoff.
The new entity will be called SPH Media Trust and Mr Patrick Daniel, 66, former deputy chief executive officer of SPH, will be its interim CEO.
Elaborating on the paid model for the media titles, Mr Khaw said that this would put a deliberate “higher pressure” on the newsrooms to evaluate if they are “doing the right thing that the customers find valuable”.
[He who pays the piper calls the tune. Extending his logic, "Customers" are defined as "people who pay", so if you "pander" to paying customers, then your journalism will be what people who can afford to pay, wants to read. So would it be unreasonable to believe that we would eventually have less stories about, say, inequality, and more stories justifying the status quo?]
However, he acknowledged that pricing the subscription for newspapers here would be “both a science and an art”, as it would have to take into account that much of the news can already be accessed for free.
“It is not just (as) simple (as putting) up a toll gate, (charge it at) so many dollars and that’s it.
“If you insist on a paid product, and your product is just an ordinary breaking news (platform) without much analysis and insight, then why should people pay to buy your product?”
The paid model would thus ensure that readers get a lot more analytical content with deeper analysis and original insights that they cannot get from the competition, Mr Khaw added.
To do this, the news outlets will have to attract talent, and to attract these talents, the wage scales must be competitive, he said.
SPH’s media business will first be housed under a new subsidiary, SPH Media Holdings, and eventually become a company limited by guarantee, SPH Media Trust.
Almost all 2,500 media and media-related employees will move to be under SPH Media Trust and this is expected to happen by Sept 1 at the earliest.
In getting extra financial support from the Government, questions have been raised about maintaining editorial independence.
Mr Khaw’s appointment prompted more questions, with Workers’ Party chairman Sylvia Lim asking in Parliament if it was a “missed opportunity” to appoint someone else who is not closely linked to the Government given the concerns over editorial control.
Mr Khaw repeated his point a few times at the press conference that it is “crystal clear” to him that the independence of the newsrooms is as “equally important” as the quality of the newsrooms in achieving his successful outcomes with the new SPH media unit.
“You undermine (independence), you undermine what you are trying to achieve.”
His aim, he said, is to ensure that the news outlets will continue to produce products that people trust and think is credible, and the publications are professional, fact-based and understand Singapore’s interest at heart.
“If the newspaper is only a mouthpiece, a government, or worse, a political party mouthpiece, readers will say ‘sayonara’ to you… One click, and you are out.”
‘NOT A MEDIA MAN’
On some comments made by online users that he is not truly familiar with the workings of newsrooms and journalism, Mr Khaw admitted that he does not know how to be a journalist.
However, what he brings to the table is his expertise in helping to “reconstruct” SPH’s publications and take them to a better level.
In 2017, he had slammed media coverage of train delays and MRT’s resignalling project as “unfair”, saying that resignalling was "a very complex" task but the media "think it's so easy... like holding a pen and writing a few articles, and get the signalling done".
Addressing this anecdote discussed online, he said: “I am not a journalist. I am out of my depth here. And therefore, how can I interfere in a newsroom when I don't know what I'm talking about?
“I know why I'm coming in here for. And I have certain value-add that I bring… and I will make sure I deliver on what I can deliver. And we leave the newsroom to (the editors). It is as simple as that.
“My main contribution, I hope, is a significant one. That is if I can help you reflect, reconstruct your products to help us realise bigger potential and make the SPH media brand even better, why not?”
Mr Khaw told reporters that he intended to defer his retirement for three years when he took on this new position.
When asked to elaborate on why he said earlier that he took up this new appointment “with some anxiety”, he replied again that it was because “I am not a media man”.
“My big worry was, what can I do to help you all? My coming here is to help SPH’s media. But if I cannot make a difference, then it is a waste of time, and a ‘missed opportunity’ as somebody put it,” he said.
“But as I met many of your colleagues, they tried to convince me that I can make a difference. And I'll do my best.”
[If you measure success by paid content, but make no distinction about the source of the payment, then it will be a valid critique that the journalism/paper panders to those who can afford to pay. Or those who can afford to read. Or those who have the leisure and luxury to read.
There are many ways Singaporeans can be grouped. In labour relations we have the Tripartite arrangement - representing the Government, the Employers, and the Workers. I can imagine in Journalism, there are many more ways to slice the pie. In crime reporting, we have the criminals, the victims, the law enforcers, and the justice system. In housing, we have the government, the private seller, the buyer, the banks/financing, and maybe the Strata title managing agent. In healthcare, we have the patient, the doctor, the hospitals, the pharmaceuticals, and the government. There are many sides. Broadly, we can have the government, professional bodies (representing professionals in the field), the lay person or member of public, and maybe, the public good. How do we ensure these interests are represented or reflected in the news media?]