Layoffs, restructurings and pivots to digital were the hallmarks of Singapore’s media in 2017. And 2018 isn’t much better.

Don't hold your breath.

By Kirsten Han
Splice Singapore

2018 is setting up to be the toughest year for Singapore’s news industry as long-awaited restructurings take hold.

About 130 staff were let go in October as Singapore Press Holdings sped up its cost-cutting and restructuring efforts. That the process was botched—with some staff finding out they had been sacked after being unable to log into the computer network—rubbed salt into the wound.

For the next few days, Singaporeans read news reports of editorial staff told to clear their desks and the seemingly arbitrary way in which firing decisions had been made. A former employee of The Straits Times, who asked to remain anonymous, told Splice that junior reporters—across the sub-editing, news desk and lifestyle sections—bore the brunt of the retrenchments, while editors with much higher salaries kept their jobs.

SPH hasn’t been the only source of pain for journalists, though. Months before, MediaCorp’s TODAY newspaper announced that it would be going digital-only. Retrenchments followed, and journalists across different desks were cut.

Schadenfreude in Singapore

Among the online chatter was a sense of schadenfreude; SPH titles like the Straits Times—Singapore’s only English-language general news broadsheet—have long been criticised as being “government mouthpieces” due to restrictions imposed by laws (such as the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act) that give the Singapore government significant sway over the running, and therefore the content, of the publication. Against this backdrop, announcements of cost-cutting and retrenchment provided some with a grim sense of satisfaction at the appearance of a state-sponsored ship taking on water.

But the government won’t be the only one that loses if mainstream media outlets deteriorate; Singaporeans will be affected too. SPH and MediaCorp employ the largest newsgathering force in Singapore; even the independent or “alternative” news websites take their cues from the stories and developments unearthed by publications like the Straits Times.

If the mainstream media fails to do its job, there is a lack of other players who can step in to fill that vacuum.

Independent news websites in Singapore are struggling to survive.

Especially when you’re seen as ‘alternative’ media.

Read

Of course, a giant like SPH is not about to go under. It’s still profitable, supported by revenue from its property arm. And even if its profits decline, it’s unlikely that the Singapore government would allow it to burn—the near-monopoly it has on the media scene here is still hugely useful for the powerful seeking to establish their narrative and communicate their policies.

Media surrender remains unlikely

To be fair, the mainstream media is doing what it can to change. An internal email sent by Straits Times’ editor-in-chief Warren Fernandez and seen by Splice lays out the paper’s game plan: a shift in focus to getting stories onto digital platforms first, moving away from a mindset of “protecting print subscriptions above all else”, adding capacity to the digital team, strengthening the foreign news desk and producing more premium content to convince readers to pay.

“This means more exclusives, scoops, special reports and projects, analysis, video and interactive digital content. We will have to do less of the run-of-the-mill diary jobs and commodity news,” Fernandez wrote in the email.

Additionally, Fernandez and executive editor Sumiko Tan will chair “The Pitch”, an informal session for journalists with longer-term projects that can be developed across platforms. “If we bite, you will be given time and resources to pursue your story idea or project,” Fernandez promised.

Some of these changes are a long time coming, but questions also remain over the Straits Times’—or any other mainstream media outlet’s—ability to produce the hard-hitting type of storytelling that will attract readers and build a publication’s brand.

State control and interference remain a factor. The former reporter at The Straits Times described restrictions within the newsroom, by now internalized and entrenched: “Now and then, the editors will get calls from the government, either politicians to the senior editors, or ministry staff to the mid-level editors. But I never thought it was overwhelming. It seemed more like a case of having the right sort of ‘yes man’ in place. So even before anyone from the [ruling People’s Action Party] or the government had to say something, I would have done a bit of self-censorship, and my editors and copy editors would also have [done].”

The paper’s opinion editor, Chua Mui Hoong, appeared to allude to such government curbs and meddling in an October op-ed. “While Singapore can ring-fence print media production to some extent via licensing and newspaper printing laws, it can’t ring-fence users from exposure to news, information and entertainment available online, streamed into homes, and onto tablets and mobile devices,” she wrote.

She then added: “But the state cannot and must not hold back mainstream media companies from engaging fully with the competition for attention and subscription dollars that is reaching our shores. To do so is to hobble the local media even before the fight begins.”

Kirsten Han

Kirsten Han is a Singaporean freelance journalist and writer. She's also the editor-in-chief of New Naratif. Follow Kirsten Han on Twitter.

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