Parliament Sitting on 15 February 2022

QUESTIONS FOR ORAL ANSWER

8. Mr Alex Yam Ziming: To ask the Minister for Communications and Information with the commitment of the Government to provide funding support to SPH Media Trust, how will the Ministry ensure that editorial independence continues to be upheld in the newsrooms.

9. Ms Tin Pei Ling: To ask the Minister for Communications and Information (a) whether there are any updates from the Government’s discussion with SPH Media Trust and on the level of funding support that the Government will provide; and (b) how will the Government ensure that the funding provided will be used to achieve the necessary digital transformation.

10. Ms Tin Pei Ling: To ask the Minister for Communications and Information whether the Ministry will require SPH Media Trust to have adequate emphasis on thought leadership content from Singapore’s perspective so as to increase Singapore’s mindshare on the global stage.

11. Ms Hany Soh: To ask the Minister for Communications and Information what steps will the Ministry take to ensure that its funding support for SPH Media Trust will go towards the development of news media on online platforms that are engaging for younger audiences.

12. Ms Hany Soh: To ask the Minister for Communications and Information (a) how will the Ministry ensure that the Singapore Media Academy and the planned SPH Media Academy differentiate themselves in terms of skillsets and avoid an overlap of functions; (b) whether the Ministry has a definite roadmap for SPH’s upcoming media academy to help achieve the goal of nurturing more local talent for the mass communications industry; and (c) whether a collaboration with SG Women In Tech will be considered to attract, retain and develop more female talent in the infocomm workforce.

13. Ms Jessica Tan Soon Neo: To ask the Minister for Communications and Information (a) how will SPH Media Trust remain relevant and sustainable in a highly competitive media industry given digital disruption and declining demand for print news; (b) how can the quality of local journalism keep pace with global standards since audiences can easily access digital versions of international newspapers; and (c) what are the desired outcomes for SPH Media Trust and how will the Government track the progress.

14. Mr Sharael Taha: To ask the Minister for Communications and Information (a) what will be done to ensure the viability of our vernacular news media, given their limited local market sizes; (b) how will the Ministry (i) ensure that our vernacular news media has enough resources, talent and technology to continue to produce good quality news and (ii) create opportunities for our vernacular news media to grow beyond Singapore readership; and (c) how does vernacular news media remain relevant given the declining use of vernacular languages amongst our younger generations.

QUESTION FOR WRITTEN ANSWER

Miss Cheryl Chan Wei Ling: To ask the Minister for Communications and Information (a) whether the Government has plans to support SPH Media Trust in its digital transformation; and (b) if so, in what specific areas. 

Answer:

1. In May last year, Singapore Press Holdings Limited (SPHL) announced the restructuring of its media business to a not-for-profit entity.

2. The restructuring process is complete, and the new SPH Media Trust (SMT) shared its plans with the public about two weeks ago.

3. I thank members for their questions.  My reply is organised around three themes: first, the need for Government support for SMT’s transformation; second, how transformation preserves trusted media for our citizens and serves the larger public interest; and third, how the Government will maintain accountability.

4. Ms Tin Pei Ling and Ms Cheryl Chan asked about the Government’s plans to support SMT.

5. MCI has worked closely with SMT to understand the challenges they face.

6. In fact, readership and trust in SMT’s journalism continue to be high. Based on a survey last year, SMT’s weekly reach extends to almost 75% of Singaporeans. Three in four Singaporeans trust SMT to produce reliable news and content.

7. However, the global digital shift has severely disrupted print business models. Traditionally they have relied heavily on advertising revenue to support quality journalism. But today, the proliferation of free news aggregators and user-generated content compete with newsrooms for eyeballs and correspondingly, advertisers.

8. Globally, print advertising revenue is declining 7% year-on-year. Although digital advertising revenue has increased, a large share of it goes to Big Tech platforms like Google and Facebook, or Meta as it is now known. 
 
9. On top of the cost of producing quality content, newsrooms must also invest in reaching audiences in a crowded digital space. In 2019, German publisher Axel Springer committed 100 million euros in investments for digital growth projects at two of its papers. This is on top of its IT development projects supporting its digital business model, which amounted to another 100 million euros. The New York Times, prioritising its digital growth, has seen its product development costs increase over 25% year on year. In 2020, this exceeded US$130 million.

10. The high costs to achieve success online, even for those who already have significant readership, are testament to the challenging industry conditions.
 
11. As an open, cosmopolitan city-state, we consume varied perspectives from around the world. Nonetheless, preserving local news media remains critical. Our local news media provide a vital Singaporean lens through which citizens can make sense of global events. It is an essential public good in our multi-racial, multi-religious society. In its discharge of its role, SMT now produces six daily newspapers in four languages. 

12. To achieve its mission, SMT must do three things: first, make long-term investments in the capability development of technology and talent; second, sustain and develop our vernacular news media; and third, position itself as a regional thought leader.

Capability Building – Technology

13. Ms Jessica Tan and Ms Hany Soh asked about maintaining SMT’s relevance amidst digital disruption, especially for younger audiences.
 
14. It is vital to understand the media consumption habits of our digitally native audience. Based on an MCI survey, around 65% of respondents access SMT’s digital content frequently in 2020. This is a steep jump from about 40% a year before. In contrast, hardcopy reach declined from about 40% to 30% over the same period, or a single year. 
 
15. The digital pivot of SMT will be key to growing its reach with the young and old, and even with overseas audiences. More will need to be done.

16. In terms of user experience, digital content must be delivered swiftly. Websites must be intuitively designed. Applications must allow for personalisation.
 
17. In the newsroom, content management resources, data analytics, and investments into Artificial Intelligence and machine learning tools can help newsrooms push out news quickly, accurately, and effectively.

18. Continual evolution of content forms will also be key. As with other major publications today, SMT must package complex information in a variety of ways – text, videos, podcasts and interactive infographics. This is especially important for younger audiences, who demand engaging news they can consume on-the-go.

19. At the backend, infrastructure will have to be robust enough to support the digital transition.
 
20. With increasing digital viewership, SMT will also have to ensure resilience and reliability in its news provision.

Capability Building – Manpower
 
21. Ms Soh rightly asked about talent development. In today’s landscape, the skills required of journalists have changed dramatically. For example, beyond covering announcements, journalists have to be data-literate. They need to know when, where and how to reach their digital audiences. This is so that critical news is not buried under masses of information on social media.

22. As part of the transformation, the new SPH Media Academy will update the newsroom’s training programmes for the digital age. They will also partner internationally renowned institutions like the Poynter Institute and the Reuters Institute at Oxford University. They will offer programmes and fellowships to local journalists.

23. To Ms Soh’s question about external collaborations, SPH Media Academy’s immediate focus will be on equipping its own journalists with digital skills and multimedia capabilities.
 
24. We believe that there will be good areas of synergy with the Singapore Media Academy. We will work with Mediacorp and SMT, along with our Institutes of Higher Learning, to promote collaborative efforts.

25. In the long term, SMT can look into extending its programmes to the larger media industry in Singapore and journalists around the region.

26. The newsrooms will also keep pace with the increasingly complex information landscape. SMT will set up a fact-checking service to debunk fake news, and launch media awareness and financial literacy programmes for the public. These initiatives complement the newsrooms’ core strengths, educating readers on identifying misinformation and scams, which are key challenges in today's digital society.

Vernacular News Media

27. Mr Sharael asked about the viability, relevance and growing the reach of vernacular media.

28. Although vernacular readership is smaller and therefore much more challenging to independently sustain, it is critical to provide credible news products that serve our multi-racial society.

29. Mr Speaker in the 1980s, it was founding Prime Minister Mr Lee Kuan Yew who mooted the idea for vernacular press to merge with the English press. He did so because he foresaw that the vernacular press would inevitably come under pressure as English became the language of business, government and education. SPH was thus established in 1984, to preserve the Chinese and Malay media.

30. If we had allowed our vernacular media to wither, Singapore would have been the poorer for it. We would have lost our souls.

31. Even if they were to be unviable business propositions – which they are not – we believe it is in the public interest to do all we can.
 
32. To preserve and develop all the vernacular outlets in both SMT as well as Mediacorp.

33. Government funding for SMT will go towards sustaining vernacular newsrooms, and developing new content formats like videos and podcasts, to reach younger generations.

34. In addition, support from the community is essential to achieve the shared goal of safeguarding our culture and heritage. In this regard, SMT will be partnering clan associations, community groups, and schools, to provide students with greater access to its vernacular products.

Thought Leadership

35. Ms Tin asked about thought leadership content. With Singapore’s position as a global hub, SMT is well placed to provide deep domain knowledge about the region, with a Singapore voice.

36. To boost its capabilities, SMT will expand its foreign bureaus, host more events and forums, and establish more partnerships to build their international audience.

37. Today, a third of the Straits Times’ readers come from overseas. Zaobao’s websites see around seven million unique visitors monthly, more than half of which are from outside Singapore.
 
38. The Chinese Media Group will be partnering Berita Harian, Tamil Murasu, as well as other media outlets in the region to promote mother tongue language media to a wider audience.

39. As much as the media is coming under challenge throughout the world, we must be mindful that the major powers are waging a constant battle for hearts and minds worldwide – including our hearts and minds in Singapore.

40. As a small country, we are especially prone to influence campaigns – overt or covert.

41. And as a multi-racial, multi-lingual country we are especially prone to the cultural, social and even political influence that countries like China and India can continue to exert abroad.

42. As open as we must remain to the world – and as welcoming as we are to global media outlets broadcasting and reporting out of Singapore – we must also have Singaporeans reporting on the world from the Singaporean perspective. A Singaporean reporting on China, for example, would afford us a lens very different from an American or a European doing so.

43. Thus, the growth of SMT’s overseas bureaus is an important area of capability development we want to support.

Government Funding and Accountability

44. Mr Speaker the direction that SMT is charting out is promising, but it will require significant investments over a period of time. During the transition, it will likely be loss-making.
 
45. In the UK, The Guardian, which has a highly successful digital subscription model with almost a million paying supporters, has lost millions of dollars since 1998. It only returned to the black in 2019 after years of persistent transformation efforts. Yet, they still had to cut 12% of their workforce in 2020 to stay afloat. 
 
46. The Government is ready to put support behind SMT’s transformation. We are committed to safeguarding the information space for our citizens.

47. Government funding of news media is commonplace in many countries, and has increased in some cases during COVID-19. This underscores the public good that  trusted journalism provides in a complex environment. In 2020, the French government introduced a subsidy package of over 480 million euros to support its news media in weathering COVID-19 losses and moving to digital platforms. In the same year, Norway and Sweden rendered 43 million euros and 65 million euros of aid respectively to their press.

48. Prior to its restructuring, Singapore Press Holdings Limited had invested almost $50 million annually in technology investments and digital talent. This has yielded some success, but from the kind of investments we see elsewhere we clearly need to do more to accelerate the newsrooms’ transformation. The steep decline of print media, and correspondingly, the migration to the digital space, has brought SMT to an inflection point. It will tap on government funding to make essential investments that move it decisively into the digital era.

49. MCI has therefore set aside funding support of up to $180 million annually, over the next five years. This will provide SMT with more capital to invest in the future while ensuring that they are able to sustain their current operations during this critical transition period.

50. In its initial years, we expect SMT to spend approximately 40% of the funding on tech investments and digital talent.
  
51. The remainder will be spent on newsroom capability building and training, in particular the vernacular newsrooms.

52. Ms Tin and Ms Tan asked about accountability measures.
 
53. With such a significant amount of public funding, MCI will monitor SMT’s performance closely through Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) that track: total reach and engagement of SMT’s products, with a focus on their digital platforms; specific reach indicators for vernacular groups and youths; and resilience of SMT’s flagship products to minimise downtime and disruption.

54. SMT is required to provide progress updates to MCI on a half-yearly basis. This allows MCI to track SMT’s progress, and for the Government to help SMT achieve its desired outcomes when necessary. 

55. We will also review the funding quantum after the first five years based on the progress that SMT has made.

Editorial Independence

56. Mr Alex Yam asked how the Ministry will ensure editorial independence continues to be upheld in the newsrooms.
 
57. SMT has exercised editorial independence since its establishment in 1984 as Singapore Press Holdings.

58. Funding support does not change that, as is the case with Mediacorp since 2011.

59. In fact, the 2021 edition of the Reuters Institute Digital News Report indicated that 79% of respondents expressed trust in Channel News Asia.

60. Is such a high level of trust attainable without objective and balanced reporting?

61. The same report indicated that the Straits Times, one of SMT’s flagship products, enjoyed a similarly high level of trust among 77% of respondents.  Would SMT wish to erode this foundation?

62. If nobody is reading Straits Times, Lianhe Zaobao, Berita Harian or Tamil Murasu, if nobody is viewing Channel 8, Suria, Vasantham or CNA, there is no use in funding SMT or Mediacorp.

63. It is precisely because people are reading, viewing and hearing our mainstream media, that they deserve to be supported.

64. It is because the public see them as trusted sources of news, that we must do all we can to keep them as viable propositions.

65. As can be seen also through the KPIs set by MCI, the Government’s key interest is to ensure the reach of SMT’s products.  

i. No one gains if these products lack credibility and are ignored by audiences.
ii. On the contrary, we are funding them precisely because they do have readers who trust them.

Conclusion

66. To conclude, the coming years will be an exciting period as we expect a major digital transformation of our local news media landscape. 

67. MCI will work closely with SMT to ensure that our local news media upholds quality journalism delivered in an innovative and engaging way.
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