SINGAPORE: The Government will provide up to S$900 million in funding support for SPH Media Trust (SMT) over the next five years, said Minister for Communications and Information Josephine Teo on Tuesday (Feb 15).
Speaking in Parliament, Mrs Teo noted that the funding of up to S$180 million per year for the next five years will help it make “essential investments that move it decisively into the digital era”.
“This will provide SMT with more capital to invest in the future while ensuring they are able to sustain their current operations during this critical transition period," said Mrs Teo.
SMT, which was hived off from Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) last year to become a not-for-profit entity, is at an "inflection point" amid the "steep decline" of print media and the migration to the digital space, she said.
While the direction that SMT is charting out is “promising”, significant investments are needed and it will likely be loss-making in the transition period, she said.
Mrs Teo also noted that prior to its restructuring, SPH had invested almost S$50 million annually in technology investments and digital talent.
“This has yielded some success, but from the kind of investments we see elsewhere they clearly need to do more to accelerate the newsrooms’ transformation," she said.
The Government is “ready to put support” behind SMT’s transformation, she said, adding that such government funding is commonplace in many countries, including France, Norway and Sweden.
WHAT SMT NEEDS TO DO
"At the backend, infrastructure will have to be robust enough to support the digital transition," she said.
"With increasing digital viewership SMT will also have to ensure resilience and reliability in its news provision."
In terms of talent development, the new SPH Media Academy will update the newsroom’s training programmes, partner with renowned institutions and offer programmes and fellowships to local journalists, among other initiatives.
Vernacular news media will also be sustained and developed, she said.
HOW WILL SMT SPEND THE MONEY?
In its initial years, SMT is expected to spend about 40 per cent of the funding on technology investments and digital talent, Mrs Teo added.
“The remainder will be spent on newsroom capability building and training, in particular the vernacular newsrooms," she added.
With “such significant amount of public funding”, she said the Ministry of Communications and Information (MCI) will be closely monitoring SMT’s performance through key performance indicators (KPIs).
These include the total reach and engagement of SMT's products, particularly its digital platforms, as well as specific reach indicators for vernacular groups and youths.
SMT will have to provide progress updates to MCI on a half-yearly basis.
"This allows MCI to track their progress and for the Government to help achieve its desired outcomes when necessary. We will also review the funding quantum after the first five years based on the progress that SMT has made," Mrs Teo said.
MP Alex Yam (PAP-Marsiling-Yew Tee) asked how MCI will ensure editorial independence continues to be upheld in the newsrooms.
In response, Mrs Teo said that SMT has exercised editorial independence since its establishment in 1984 as Singapore Press Holdings.
“Funding support does not change that, as is the case with Mediacorp since 2011,” she said.
"In fact, the 2021 edition of the Reuters Institute Digital News Report indicated that 79 per cent of respondents expressed trust in CNA. Is such a high level of trust attainable without objective and balanced reporting?
"The same report indicated that the Straits Times, one of SMT’s flagship products, enjoyed a similarly high level of trust among 77 per cent of respondents. Would SMT wish to erode this foundation?"
The Government’s “key interest is to ensure the reach of SMT’s products”, she said.
"No one gains if these products lack credibility and are ignored by audiences. On the contrary, we are funding them precisely because they do have readers who trust them," she added.
Leader of the Opposition MP Pritam Singh (WP-Aljunied) asked how the Government would assure Singaporeans that “SMT’s content will not be tainted by allegations of political interference”.
In response, Mrs Teo "emphasised" that the funding is up to S$180 million per year.
"What is actually is going to be disbursed will depend on the specific investments that SMT makes, whether through their progress updates to ... MCI we are satisfied that these are the right things to do, and that they will produce or they have the likelihood of producing good results," she said.
She added that Mr Singh’s question was “too predictable”.
“His question seems to suggest that he does not trust the journalists in our mainstream media to be objective in reporting, to apply their minds and to be discerning, or to have a sense of responsibility with truthful reporting for the public," the minister said.
“I hope I'm wrong in thinking that this is what Mr Singh is suggesting ... Regardless of what I say, or what Mr Singh may suggest, the true test is whether the public trusts 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.”