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'Painful but necessary' to make public inflation of circulation figures, 'more things may come out': SPH Media editor-in-chief

  • Mr Wong Wei Kong, editor-in-chief of SPH Media's English/Malay/Tamil Media group, said it was painful but necessary to reveal that the circulation figures of some of its publications had been inflated
  • He made the statement in an internal memo seen by TODAY and verified by three staff
  • Mr Wong said SPH Media should expect "a lot of stick" as "more things may come out" though he did not elaborate
  • He added that the company has "taken a blow to our reputation and credibility, the values that drive a news organisation”

SINGAPORE: SPH Media took a "painful but necessary" decision to make public that its past circulation figures were inaccurate, said editor-in-chief Wong Wei Kong, adding that the organisation could not "possibly continue reporting numbers that would be questioned".

But the circulation numbers of SPH Media titles, which include The Straits Times (ST) and Lianhe Zaobao, that have been "rebased" will “now bear up to scrutiny”, Mr Wong added.

He said that SPH Media is expected to get “a lot of stick” as “more things may come out”. He did not elaborate on his basis for suggesting this or what sort of matters he had in mind that may be yet to emerge.

Mr Wong, who took over the helm of its English/Malay/Tamil Media (EMTM) group last October, made these comments in an internal memo seen by TODAY and verified by three staff on Tuesday (Jan 10), a day after news broke of inflated circulation figures by SPH Media.

He said he deliberated whether to write the note given the many constraints but thought he should do so as "we may need this".

"Ultimately, when the dust settles, we’ll still be judged by our stories, our content, and how we go about doing our work, so I hope we will keep our focus on that even with what’s going on," said Mr Wong.

On Monday, SPH Media said daily circulation numbers of its titles have been found to be inflated by between 85,000 and 95,000, including instances where copies were printed, counted for circulation and then destroyed.

There was also "double-counting" of subscriptions across multiple instances, and a project account was "injected with additional funding over a period of time to purchase fictitious circulation".

A number of its senior employees have been "taken to task" or had left the news organisation after an internal review found problems in the reporting of its circulation data.

Mr Wong said the audit review of its circulation numbers, following its split from mainboard-listed company Singapore Press Holdings, started “based on certain observations” and the review period reached back to before the split. 

“Even as the review was in progress, we rebased our numbers, once it’s clear the historical bases may be inaccurate. This affected us materially, and within EMTM, both ST and BT (The Business Times) rebased our figures. All this was painful, but necessary to put right what was once unknown, but now known,” he wrote. 

Mr Wong added that the company had no choice as it cannot continue reporting numbers that would now be questioned. 

He wrote: “However, with the rebasing and the steps taken, it’s important to note that the numbers we’re reporting now will bear up to scrutiny. Even with this, we’ll be getting a lot of stick going forward, and more things may come out, and we know how it will be.”

Acknowledging that many existing and former staff may feel saddened by the news of the inflated circulation numbers, Mr Wong said: “For those of us, the old SPHers who have walked through the ups and downs, and knew and worked with those affected, this is hard to take. 

“Whatever we say, we have taken a blow to our reputation and credibility, the values that drive a news organisation.”

Mr Wong added that he believed that rules, standards of practice and audits can only take an organisation so far, adding that it is more critical to build culture and values and leadership. 

Ms Teo Lay Lim, SPH Media's chief executive officer, on Monday also sent out an internal memo to staff to address the matter.

The former chairman of Accenture Singapore, who took over the helm on Mar 1, 2022, said that the organisation will continue to review its protocols “as we hold ourselves accountable to our stakeholders”.

SPH staff members who spoke to TODAY on the condition of anonymity said that the news has left them confused and disappointed, though morale has not been affected as they mostly work from home. 

There was also little chatter about it, especially since it did not come as a shock to some, who have heard it through the grapevine some weeks ago.

One staff member aged in her 20s said: "It was disappointing that the higher-ups only addressed it after it was reported in other news sites."

Another staff member, a journalist in her 30s, said that the news was also disappointing given that the integrity of the news profession has been something that many readers and non-readers alike question. 

"It's a blow to journalists who remain eager to bring the news every day but will now, at least in the near term, have to put up with questions from inquisitive news makers who want to know the backstory to this, and whether we’ll also be inflating (circulation) numbers in our reports," she said.

"What I can say is that journalists definitely don’t stand for this, but will continue to face the brunt of the scepticism from the reading crowd."

This story was originally published in TODAY.

Source: CNA/rc


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