OPINION: Painful days as media grapples with disruption

Warren Fernandez

SINGAPORE (The Straits Times/ANN) - ​Like others abroad, The Straits Times is facing up to a new media age, by focusing, collaborating and growing its reach.

The purple $1,000 Singapore bill in a corner of the smart book cover caught my eye.

Titled The Objects That Power The Global Economy, the book was launched recently by Quartz, a digital native website set up five years ago to target an international audience of business executives, mostly on their smartphones and tablets.

Puzzled by this, I asked the young Asian-American editor I was meeting in New York City why they had chosen to feature the Singapore note so prominently.

She replied, matter-of-factly: "We wanted to show how the flow of capital is reshaping the global economy. We used Singapore as Singaporeans are one of the biggest groups of overseas readers for us." Quartz, she added, had relied on social media to promote its edgy content around the world.

Earlier, I had sat through a similar briefing in The Wall Street Journal's newsroom in downtown New York. The WSJ recently decided to cease print deliveries in Singapore and Asia, so I was interested to hear about its new campaign to grow its digital subscriptions instead.

The WSJ's business executive, an Irishman, smiled and said in a broad drawl: "You will surely see our new ads very soon. Singapore and Asia are among our key targets."

And so here they were, the stark realities of the global media industry staring me in the face during my recent trip to the United States.

Put simply, the competition in the media industry is now increasingly digital, increasingly social, and increasingly global.

The competition is also relentless, with new players, platforms and technologies rolling out constantly, a new hurricane hitting even as we contend with the previous waves of change.

None of this comes as a great surprise to those of us in the industry who have been grappling with the multiple challenges facing us - more people are consuming news on digital platforms, especially the smartphone; digital advertising is growing, but it cannot make up for the fall in print advertising revenues that have sustained major media organisations for decades; and besides, much of the advertising online is being mopped up by Google and Facebook.

The response has been a rush by media groups to try to grow other sources of revenue, through digital subscriptions and memberships, events, e-commerce, and even plaintive appeals to readers to donate and support good journalism.

The issue this poses for the survival of media organisations with a mission to serve society's need for reliable journalism has been well canvassed, including by my colleagues and me in these pages.

The best summary of this I have come across is a speech delivered at the St Gallen Symposium in Switzerland in May, by Professor Timothy Garton Ash, an Oxford thinker and historian.

"Very simply, the Internet is destroying the business model of newspapers," he said.

"For at least two centuries, we have had a public good - news, the information we need for democracy - delivered by private means.

"A.J. Liebling, the great writer on journalism, said the role of a newspaper is to inform, but its function is to make money. Our good fortune was that, for nearly two centuries, that model worked because people would pay for a newspaper, and (there was also) advertising revenue. The Internet has just knocked away both these pillars. So the newspapers produce the information. Facebook and Google get the profit.

"And this has a very negative effect on the newspapers on which we have relied for our news... The amount of serious news, investigative journalism and foreign reporting is going down, because that's expensive. This is a real problem for the journalism we need for democracy. What we have here is potentially a market failure in the marketplace of ideas."

Singapore is not immune from these trends, especially when the readership here is highly educated, hyper-connected and hugely aware of the many options available to them.

My colleagues and I are alive to these challenges, and minded to do all we can to secure the future of our newsrooms. And so we embarked recently on a major effort to figure out how best to ensure that our products, including the 172-year-old The Straits Times, remain relevant and viable for the years ahead.

We decided that we should focus on our strengths and build on them, rather than spreading our resources thin.

We would find ways to collaborate more and cut costly duplication of efforts, so as to take on the competition, both at home and abroad.

And, we would strive to grow our reach beyond Singapore, tapping the demand for objective reporting and analysis on the major social and political changes unfolding all around Asia.

Already, surveys by independent researchers have told us that 30 per cent of the readers of The Straits Times online come from abroad, not just in our own region, but also in the United States, Australia and elsewhere.

To grow this market, we would have to beef up our network of correspondents around the world. These are mostly experienced Singaporean journalists, deployed to the field after several years in the ST newsroom. They bring a unique Asian voice to the discussion - writing objectively about China, Japan, South Korea, India and their relations with the US and the West - that is valued by a growing segment of our readers.

At the same time, we would also have to deliver compelling digital content on local and global issues that are of interest to our readers. This meant having to speed up the process of training and equipping our teams with new skills and abilities.

To do all of this on a sustainable basis - and we are in it for the long haul - meant we had to make some tough decisions on where we focus our energies, to free up resources and capacity for the new areas we need to invest in.

Thus, we came to the painful decision that some cuts would have to be made to establish a leaner, more focused and more viable team.

This is the backdrop against which the difficult days of the past week unfolded, with Singapore Press Holdings (SPH), our parent company, deciding to reduce the headcount by 230, including many in our newsrooms.

The 230 people included 130 across SPH who were retrenched, with the remaining 100 coming from reductions due to retirement, termination of contracts and roles that will be cut as a result of the restructuring of work processes.

Faced with this unpalatable prospect, my colleagues and I agonised for weeks over exactly how and where to make the cuts. And when we finally had to implement our decisions, we sought to do it as swiftly and compassionately as we could, to minimise the anxiety and angst in our newsrooms.

The process was gut-wrenching for all of us, as we met each of those affected in person to break the sad news to them. Lamentably, matters were made worse when we tripped up, with some of our colleagues gathering that they were among those to be retrenched when they were locked out of our editorial system prematurely, before we could get round to speaking with them.

Naturally, this sparked much indignation in our newsrooms. It was not the way we had intended for things to play out. My senior management colleagues and I took responsibility, and apologised to all concerned for the pain this caused.

Throughout these very dark days, I drew some comfort from the professionalism I saw all around me. Despite the anguish at all that was unfolding, our newsrooms continued to put out our products, in print each morning and around the clock on our websites. We did so simply because we know full well that millions of readers, in Singapore and abroad, continue to turn to us each day, and pay to read our products. We must not fail them.

We have to strive to live up to the ever-rising expectations of our readers. And we have to do this day in and day out, even as we grapple with the longer-term issues arising from the digital disruption that is hitting not only the media industry but also just about every other sector, from airlines to banks and hotels, and also taxi operators, around the world.

Thankfully, because of all the efforts we have made to transform our print and digital teams into fully integrated multimedia operations over the past few years, we are now much better placed to deal with the challenges at hand.

For all the negative talk of the mainstream media's inexorable decline put out by some on social media, the reality is this: Our readership continues to grow, across print and digital platforms, with more people turning to our products to stay informed throughout the day.

Our adjacent businesses, from events to e-commerce to education, are also growing.

Our newspaper titles are generally well regarded, at home and abroad, offering many opportunities for growth - provided we seize them.

All of this is happening as more people around the world are coming round to the view that the scourge of fake news has to be countered by supporting media groups that have a mission of keeping societies - and voters - well informed, so that they can make critical decisions when called upon to do so.

So, the bottom line is this: Like media groups everywhere, our newsrooms face some serious challenges. There is no room for complacency. But neither is there need for us to descend into despondency and despair.

We have the people, the resources and the will to rise to the challenge of this new media age, just as our predecessors have faced off previous waves of competition and change over the past 172 years - and counting.