Singapore: Growing the SPH portfolio amid waves of disruption

In recent years, Asia has appeared among the bright spots of the world’s newspaper industry in terms of traditional, print-based growth, and the view of many in the West might well be that news publishers there aren’t yet facing the same challenges that they are. Nothing could be further from the truth.

by WAN-IFRA Staff | March 9, 2016

As the following post about the transitions being made by Singapore Press Holdings’ English/Malay/Tamil Media Group makes clear, publishers in Asia are facing the same challenges to the traditional business model as well as the disruptions caused by the rise of digital as Western publishers. That these transitions come from SPH should be no surprise to industry insiders, as the group is regularly at the forefront of innovation – globally.

Each year, the English/Malay/Tamil Media Group holds an awards event to celebrate journalistic excellence. It kicks off with a speech by the division’s Editor-in-Chief, Patrick Daniel, who spoke this year about SPH’s efforts to grow its media and related businesses in the face of relentless change.

Daniel is also a board member of WAN-IFRA’s World Editors Forum, and was the keynote speaker at our most recent WAN-IFRA India Conference (pictured). The following are extracts from his speech this past week, which were first published by The Straits Times and are reprinted here with permission.

Last year, change in the media business hit a new relentless pace. Not a week went by without some new global development – ad blockers, for example.

Just last week, I read a new BCG report which said we are entering a third wave of digital disruption, and this one will be the most consequential yet – because it has profound implications not only for strategy, but also for the structure of media companies and the whole industry.

The first wave, the era, seems so long ago. The second wave, Web 2.0, saw autonomous digital natives doing things better and more efficiently than large, legacy corporations. Even as we are still grappling with this, a third wave is upon us.

What’s the nature of this third wave? Big – really big – is becoming beautiful, it seems. BCG calls it “hyperscaling,” and it demands a bold new architecture for businesses.

One change in this third wave of disruption is already confronting us – the rise of news platforms by the digital giants: Facebook, Apple and Google.

Facebook announced recently that, from next month, they’ll open up their Instant Articles platform to all publishers. Up to now, they were selective about who they wanted. Now they want every publisher.

We’ll have to continue watching these developments closely, consider carefully our response and take the right decisions.

While on this, I was amused by one recent piece of news. You might recall in August of 2010, the whole media industry was abuzz when a so-called futurist, Alan Dawson, came up with a “newspaper extinction timeline.”

Newspapers – that is, news on paper – would cease to exist in the US by next year.

For Singapore, it was 2021. By 2040, there would be no newspapers anywhere in the world.

At last year’s International News Media Association (INMA) World Congress in New York City, Dawson claimed he was “significantly misunderstood.” Now, he says, predictions are not worthwhile because nobody knows the future.

He still believes the dynamics of news on paper are not bright. But for news overall, the future is “extraordinarily bright,” he said.

He is currently revising his predictions of five years ago, so let’s see what he comes up with.

SPH’S media business

This is a good point to talk about SPH’s media business. Our story is the same one as our counterparts elsewhere. In a nutshell, print is down, digital is up but can’t make up for the drop in print. So overall, our media revenue and profit have come down.

This week, we raised the cover prices of our newspapers, with the exception of The New Paper. We also offered our all-in-one print and digital package at the same price as the print-only subscription.

We deliberated long and hard over this. It’s been eight years since our last price revision; in the case of Tamil Murasu, it’s been 20 years. I hope our customers will understand why we had to do it and will continue to support us. We’ll know in the coming months.

We’ll soon be starting a new phase of our transformation. One key focus will be on our sales and marketing, which must become integrated across our various platforms. We are also looking to do this based on stronger audience analytics.

I’m confident we’ll achieve good results from this exercise in the coming months. So there’s reason to be optimistic.

But the key challenge is: Can we reverse the slide in our media business? We must try. Even if we don’t achieve a turnaround, we must at least slow the slide. Everything we do must be aligned with this purpose.

This is why we converted ourselves from a newspaper division into a media group. We are no longer just news on paper. We also have award-winning digital products, as well as radio, books, data businesses and more to come.

Growth in related business

Let me give a quick update on these business adjacencies.

Our radio business had a banner year, and the numbers for 2016 look set to hit new records. I must congratulate our superb SPH radio team.

The Straits Times Press, our books subsidiary, also had its best-ever year.

Our data businesses, Shareinvestor and SPH Data Services, turned in growth.

All our newsrooms have also stepped up on events. We’ve done a review of our wide range of events and I’m happy that we are creating value for our advertisers and partners, and also making a good contribution to our bottom line.

We have plans to do much more. For instance, The New Paper, which has already commercialised its art and graphics expertise, will expand this service to become the English/Malay/Tamil Media (EMTM) group’s content marketing hub. I’ll announce more on this soon.

We will be thinking hard how to rationalise our product portfolio, both print and digital. We must bring down some of the walls between our newsrooms and help one another more.

We already have an EMTM-Wire service that allows our newsrooms to share stories. We are working on more such initiatives, and I’ll unveil those too in the coming months.

On top of all of this, we are hard at work on some new product innovations, to reach audiences we are now not reaching. Look out for these too.

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