SINGAPORE: Ensuring a smooth transition amid the restructuring, beefing up newsrooms and improving user experience for Singapore Press Holding’s (SPH) media products are among the key priorities for Mr Khaw Boon Wan, who will chair the entity overseeing SPH’s media business when it is hived off.
Speaking at a media conference on Wednesday (May 12), the former Cabinet minister said the new media business, SPH Media Trust, must be able to attract and retain skilled talent to achieve its goals of providing quality journalism.
“I heard that because of several years of cost pressures, some newsrooms … may have been weakened or diminished in capacity or ability to retain good staff. We will use this opportunity to try to beef it up,” said Mr Khaw.
“Pass the word around. If you know good writers out there who left last year or recently, and they are good team workers, bring them back … I’ll find the money to pay them, so we can enhance the newsroom and push on with what we need to do,” he said.
As for user experience, he said that access to digital products must be made more seamless and user-friendly. He also said he wants to “define customers more widely”, adding that he will be working to understand newsrooms’ workflows more intimately.
Earlier at a townhall with SPH employees, Mr Khaw highlighted a few initiatives that will help the media company meet future challenges, enhance its digital products and grow a younger audience.
These include an SPH Media Academy that will be set up to train recruits and existing employees. SPH Media will step up the award of scholarships, which will be in digital disciplines as well as in journalism.
For current journalists, there will be fellowships and attachments in world-class newsrooms, Mr Khaw said in his speech.
During the media conference, Mr Khaw was asked about his approach to ensuring editorial integrity, He said the ultimate goal is to make sure SPH continues to have products that people trust, which are fact-based and “understand Singapore’s interests at heart”.
“There are many factors to achieve this … The quality of the newsroom is one, but equally, it’s the independence of the newsroom.
“You undermine that – you undermine what we are trying to achieve. That is my position. To me, it is crystal clear,” he said.
A reporter also asked Mr Khaw about the role vernacular newspaper outlets will have in the new entity and the kind of resources they will be given.
In response, Mr Khaw said that these titles serve different audiences with varying market sizes.
But he added that “the metrics of measuring success and therefore resource allocation” to these outlets cannot just be seen in terms of dollars and cents, but also in the role they play in nation-building.
“Money will always be important. But it is not just money alone … At the highest level, what are our strategic objectives? We want a well-informed population. We want a united people and we want a deeply engaged citizenship, who knows Singapore interests and Singaporean values” he said.
“So as SPH media, we must think it through and think about how can we help contribute to this higher objective … And from there, I think we can translate into what are suitable metrics that our newsroom can contribute,” he said.
Mr Khaw added that he was confident in SPH titles’ abilities to grow their reach overseas.
This would be key in the business’ success, given that Singapore only has a small domestic market with 1.2 million households.
Even if these were all paid subscribers, it would not be enough to make the business financially sustainable, Mr Khaw said.
He gave the example of The New York Times, which had to grow its subscriber base from one million to seven million, before it could “look at the possibility of making profits annually”.
THE NEED FOR PAYWALLS
When asked about plans to continue with subscription models for SPH titles, Mr Khaw said he has “strong views” about pricing, calling it both “a science and an art”.
“If your objective is to chase eyeballs, the easiest is to make it free,” he said.
But if the objective is to produce quality journalism, requiring paid subscriptions would help the newsroom by putting pressure on it to create content that customers find value in, Mr Khaw said.
“If you insist on paid (subscriptions), and your product is ordinary … without much analysis or insight, why should people pay?
“This paid model forces us to make sure you are a lot more analytical and more importantly, (providing) original insights which I can’t get from the competition.”
“I’M NOT A JOURNALIST”: KHAW
Mr Khaw was also asked about his concerns about taking on an industry that he has no experience in.
He retired ahead of the General Election in July last year, after helming the Health Ministry, Transport Ministry and National Development Ministry over the course of his political career.
“My big worry was what can I do to help you all? My coming here is to help SPH Media, but if I cannot make a difference, then it’s a waste of time, or a missed opportunity, as someone put it,” Mr Khaw said.
“I don’t know how to be a journalist and I am not a journalist. I’m out of my depth here. And therefore, how can I interfere in the newsroom?”
He added, however, that he knows what value-add he brings to the table.
“My main contribution, I hope, is a significant one, which 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?”