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The Ministry of Communications and Information (MCI) is giving SPH Media Trust (SMT) up to S$180 million a year, over five years, to sustain its current operations and to invest in the future.
The total amount comes up to S$900 million over five years in foreseeable funding if SMT meets its key performance indicators.
This was announced by Communications Minister Josephine Teo in Parliament on Feb. 16 in response to MPs' queries about the government's role in SPH Media Trust, which completed its restructuring two weeks ago.
The money is to help sustain the restructured media business of Singapore Press Holdings as a not-for-profit entity.
Singapore Press Holdings Limited (SPHL) announced the restructuring in May 2021 after years of dwindling profits.
Teo said "the direction that SMT is charting is promising, but it will require significant investments over a period of time".
"During the transition, it will likely be loss-making," she said.
Won't influence editorial independence
She added that government funding will not alter SMT's exercising of its editorial independence.
Teo said: "SMT has exercised editorial independence since its establishment in 1984 as Singapore Press Holdings."
She pointed out that government funding support since 2011 did not change Mediacorp.
Teo also said the funding is to help SMT digitalise.
She said: "In its initial years, we expect SMT to spend approximately 40 per cent of the funding on tech investments and digital talent."
She added that the remainder will be spent on newsroom capability building and training, in particular the vernacular newsrooms.
Teo, in the latter half of her response, said MCI will monitor SMT’s performance closely through key performance indicators.
These KPIs 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.
SMT is required to provide progress updates to MCI on a half-yearly basis, Teo said.
She added that MCI will review the funding quantum after the first five years based on the progress SMT has made.
Question raised about political influence
Following Teo's reply, Workers' Party chief and Leader of the Opposition, Pritam Singh, asked Teo about how Singaporeans can be assured the ruling government does not influence SMT's coverage.
Minister, with close to S$1 billion of government funding for SMT committed over the next five years, how will the government assure Singaporeans that SMT's content will not be tainted by allegations of political interference?
In response, Teo said:
I am actually not so surprised that Mr Singh put this question up. And if I may, Mr Singh's question, again asking about influence on editors, journalists is too predictable, if I may put it this way. His question seems to suggest that he does not trust the journalists and mainstream media to be objective in reporting, to apply their minds to be discerning, or to have a sense of responsibility to truthful reporting for the public. I hope I'm wrong in thinking that this is what Mr Singh is suggesting, but that's what came to mind when he spoke those words. Regardless of what I say, or what Mr Singh may suggest, the true test is whether the public trust the media and how they exercise their choice on a day to day basis in consuming news media, when so many alternatives are available to them at zero cost. And fortunately for us, for all of us, our local mainstream media are trusted by people. And we have every reason to keep it so.
You can watch the 3-minute exchange here.
Rationale of government funding
Teo's full response covered the rationale for SMT's government funding, which came on the back of news that SMT had completed its restructuring process and made public its plans two weeks ago.
The reasons for government funding include the need to support SMT's new operations, how funding allows public interests to be served, and how the government will maintain accountability.
Teo said MCI worked closely with SMT to understand the challenges SMT face, despite a seemingly healthy readership.
"In fact, readership and trust in SMT’s journalism continue to be high," Teo said, highlighting that SMT’s weekly reach extends to almost 75 per cent of Singaporeans.
But SMT has to fight with free news online and user-generated content.
With the failure to attract and retain an audience and with online media making gains, print advertising has fallen precipitously, at a rate of 7 per cent decline year-on-year, Teo also shared.
The minister also highlighted that hundreds of millions of dollars were spent by the likes of The New York Times, which chalked up US$130 million alone in 2020 to invest in improving its digital assets and journalism.
Teo cited these high costs as proof of the "challenging industry conditions", and the fact that SMT produces six daily newspapers in four languages.
Reaching young audiences
Teo said SMT's push into the digital space is to also ensure it reaches the younger audiences, who are no longer reading physical copies of the news as much, as well as those overseas.
The public funds injected into a public-listed-turned-non-profit entity will also see the retraining of reporters to be data-literate, with stints at places such as Reuters Institute at Oxford University.
Money spent will also see SMT retain its vernacular readership, even though it is smaller.
Non-English language news still serve Singapore's multi-racial society and public interests, Teo said.
Provide thought leadership
Teo also alluded to how SMT is an extension of the Singapore brand as a node in the international community and well-placed to "provide deep domain knowledge about the region, with a Singapore voice".
She also said SMT products can be used to counter psychological operations launched from abroad, while providing Singaporean perspectives.
Teo said: "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."
"As a small country, we are especially prone to influence campaigns – overt or covert."
"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."
Top photo via Google Maps
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