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Some SPH staff concerned about editorial independence of non-profit funding model, as worries over job security ease

SINGAPORE — After the bombshell announcement that the Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) would be cutting off its media business arm to form a not-for-profit entity, there were initial fears by employees over their job security and wages.

Some SPH staff concerned about editorial independence of non-profit funding model, as worries over job security ease

Staff members at Singapore Press Holdings were told at internal meetings on May 6, 2021 that there are no plans to retrench workers.

  • Employees in SPH newsrooms were concerned about job security and wage cuts
  • This was after the company said it will be letting go of its media business for it to form a new entity
  • At company-wide meetings the same day, its management tried to answer employees' questions
  • A few things still remain uncertain such as the future editorial independence of the new venture

 

SINGAPORE — After the bombshell announcement that the Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) would be cutting off its media business arm to form a not-for-profit entity, there were initial fears by employees over their job security and wages.

The worries were somewhat assuaged after several reassurances from the company’s upper management. What lingered were concerns about how the change would impact their day-to-day reporting.

This was the feedback from some staff members of SPH’s media business, who spoke to TODAY on the condition of anonymity as they were not authorised to speak to the media. 

With the ongoing challenges of falling advertising revenue, SPH announced on Thursday (May 6) that its media business will be first housed under a new subsidiary, SPH Media Holdings, and eventually become a company limited by guarantee. This is expected to happen by October, subject to shareholders’ approval. 

While restructuring it into a company limited by guarantee will allow its media business to get funding from private and public sources, including extra financial support from the Government, employees there told TODAY that it is anyone’s guess who would choose to fund the new entity. 

One staff member who has worked in one of its newsrooms for four years said: “Who it gets its funding from... would dictate the direction SPH is taking. That’s the clarity people are asking for right now.” 

TODAY learned that SPH held two town hall meetings on Thursday evening with its employees. 

Mr Warren Fernandez, who is the editor-in-chief of English daily The Straits Times, fielded several questions from the floor on whether there would be any retrenchments or pay cuts. 

Staff members who attended the town halls said Mr Fernandez reassured them that there are no such plans to retrench workers and that moving SPH’s media business into a company limited by guarantee was to ensure the longevity of the newsroom. 

One newsroom employee told TODAY that he felt more assured after the session because it allayed people’s concerns on job security. 

“That said, there is still uncertainty. We are not sure how roles might change, whether there will be re-organisation,” he said. 

The employees interviewed said that there were already uncertainties in the newsrooms even before the announcement on Thursday morning.

SPH said slightly more than a month ago that it was undertaking a “strategic review” and there was plenty of talk on the possible outcome. 

One staff member said that he never expected the option to turn the media arm into a not-for-profit entity to be on the table.  

However, he understood the rationale behind it with the news industry being in decline over the past few years. 

Another employee’s first thought upon hearing about the changes was whether this would have any impact on the goals and objectives of the SPH newsrooms. 

“Would we still be looking to readers first, where what they want is our first port of call and what we report? Or would we be looking to the Government, since the Government is likely going to be the largest source of public funding?” he asked. 

Hours after the announcement, the Ministry of Communications and Information said that the Government is prepared to provide funding support for the new proposed entity.

Dr Liew Kai Khuin, an independent media and culture researcher, said that the move is akin to nationalisation because he does not foresee how the newly formed entity would be able to get huge non-government financial support and donations. 

“Unless the big foundations take over, like Temasek Foundation… (but this) would also be linked in some ways to the Government, so it's a kind of ‘default’ nationalisation,” he said. 

Dr Liew also said that the move would likely not change the media landscape in Singapore, which is seeing greater competition with the setting up of smaller media outfits that provide articles for free.  

“I think (it’s more of) SPH going into a changed landscape instead," he added. 

A major contention would be whether the new entity would be able to maintain editorial independence from its funders. 

Journalism professor Cherian George from the Hong Kong Baptist University said in a Facebook post that one way is to erect a “firewall” between the funders and newsrooms. 

Communications professor Ang Peng Hwa from the Nanyang Technological University said that this could be done by appointing a third party to receive and distribute funds to news organisations, such as how Scandinavian countries do it.

A framework of principles may also be set up to ensure independence, but Prof Ang noted that whether these principles are practised in the day-to-day operations is another question, because it also depends on whether it has the support of the people being governed and the cooperation of agencies enforcing it. 

The experts said that the intense competition in the media space and the small Singapore market make it particularly hard for news organisations to remain financially viable here. 

As it is, many publications in the United States have shut in tandem with the emergence of internet giants that have drastically disrupted the traditional business model of news companies, which typically earn their revenue through advertising dollars. 

Recounting the heydays of The Straits Times when it occupied a bigger space in public discourse and could even reject advertisers, one of SPH’s employees said that he felt “a certain kind of sadness” at how things have reached this stage. 

“It’s not an enviable position. Media businesses around the world are failing… It’s good we are doing something about it. But it remains to be seen whether it is the right thing to do,” he said. 

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SPH media business government funding employees Jobs

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