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Parliament: MPs question how news media from SPH will achieve digital innovation, retain talent in future

SINGAPORE — The question of how a proposed company limited by guarantee will operate differently to ensure digital innovation and retain talent were among concerns raised by Members of Parliament on Monday (May 10), in a debate over the future ownership of the news media outlets of Singapore Press Holdings (SPH).

Under Singapore Press Holdings' proposed restructuring, a company limited by guarantee will own and operate SPH’s media titles, such as The Straits Times and The Business Times, as a non-profit business.

Under Singapore Press Holdings' proposed restructuring, a company limited by guarantee will own and operate SPH’s media titles, such as The Straits Times and The Business Times, as a non-profit business.

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  • Several MPs asked about the restructuring of Singapore Press Holdings
  • They questioned how the proposed non-profit entity for its news media will be operated and how it will achieve its digital goals
  • They also asked how it will retain talent and if vernacular newspapers will be preserved

 

SINGAPORE — The question of how a proposed company limited by guarantee will operate differently to ensure digital innovation and retain talent were among concerns raised by Members of Parliament on Monday (May 10), in a debate over the future ownership of the news media outlets of Singapore Press Holdings (SPH).

Among them was Ms Jessica Tan, MP for East Coast Group Representation Constituency (GRC), who noted that while digital investments and funding are important to maintain quality news media and publications, the challenge of keeping them viable remains.

After Mr S Iswaran, Minister for Communications and Information, delivered his ministerial statement on the structuring of SPH media business, Ms Tan asked what the company limited by guarantee will do differently to achieve its digital media targets.

Mr Iswaran said that this is an area where the new chairman of the company limited by guarantee and its management will tackle.

“I think the current structure, while there has been a considerable effort on the part of SPH to (go) digital… they need to do more and they need to do it in a more purposeful and quick way,” he said.

Moving the media business out of a listed company structure will give it the opportunity to dedicate the resources it needs for this purpose, Mr Iswaran added.

Under SPH’s proposed restructuring, the company limited by guarantee will own and operate SPH’s media titles, such as The Straits Times and Lianhe Zaobao, as a non-profit business. It will also be allowed to receive funding from private and public sources.

A company limited by guarantee is an entity that does not have share capital or shareholders but, instead, has members who act as guarantors and agree to pay a nominal amount in the event that the company dissolves. Organisations that run under such a model here include Gardens by the Bay and arts centres Esplanade and The Arts House.

TALENT RETENTION

Ms Tan also asked about talent retention among journalists and how the company limited by guarantee will attract the new talent needed for it to achieve its digital innovation goals.

Mr Iswaran replied: "I would imagine as part of the strategic business review, the human dimension is going to be key because ultimately, that is what sustains the news media."

Building on Ms Tan’s question, Ms Mariam Jaafar, MP for Sembawang GRC, also raised the issue of how the new entity will attract not only journalists and editors but also talents in the technology industry to provide and support quality, independent journalism.

She also asked whether the new venture will operate like a startup and whether vernacular newspapers will be retained and their preservation will be an explicit condition for government funding.

MacPherson GRC MP Tin Pei Ling said that being bilingual helps Singaporeans to stay connected with their mother tongue cultures and is strategically important to Singapore's ability to be a cultural and economic bridge. Thus, it is important to ensure high standards of the vernacular newspapers.

To all these, Mr Iswaran said: “Will this company limited by guarantee behave like a startup or will there be just incremental change, I think the best way I would put it is this: You want the zest, the energy, the drive, the invention of a startup, but you do not want to lose the credibility, the trust, the quality, the people that you have nurtured all through these years.

“So we want to have our cake and eat it. We want to be able to do both.”

On retaining vernacular newspapers, Mr Iswaran noted that they are among the first and most at risk of cost-cutting efforts given the stresses that the media industry is under today.

It is still important, however, to ensure vernacular newspapers remain an important part of future media operations because they are important pillars of Singapore's multi-ethnic fabric.

How this is to be done is not something the Government can answer though, Mr Iswaran said.

EDITORIAL INDEPENDENCE

During the debate, other MPs wanted to know whether the Government’s funding will affect the editorial independence of the new media entity.

They also asked what key performance indicator the Government will expect in return for the funding. 

Mr Darryl David, MP of Ang Mo Kio GRC, asked what measures could be put in place to balance accountability with not shaping or influencing how the new entity does its business. 

Mr Iswaran said that the funding given was for a specific purpose such as building capabilities in digital innovation and should be used for that purpose.

This is the means to a “more important end”, which is sustaining and growing the attention, readership and following among Singaporeans, and this is something that both national broadcaster Mediacorp and SPH newsrooms have been doing “with significant success” over the years, he added.

“And clearly it is something that we will want them to continue to strive to achieve, because at the end of the day, if you do not have the eyeballs — the attention of people — then the effort, in a sense, will ring hollow.

“And our objective, when we talk about a trusted professional, high-quality news organisation, the ultimate measure of it... is in how our citizens respond to it and how much attention they give it… and this is especially so in a moment of crisis when the truth and reliability of information become even more critical.”

Mr Iswaran noted that both companies have also been able to pursue their editorial policy in a manner that has allowed them to win the trust of Singaporeans, as indicated by the various studies and surveys on the reading habits of people here.

“So, if I may put it another way, if it ain't broke, don't fix it. We have something that is working.”

Related topics

SPH S Iswaran Parliament media news business

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