How do you transform a sprawling conglomerate like SPH? Get the product right.

SPH has never had a Chief Product Officer. Half a year into that role, Gaurav Sachdeva is trying to change mindsets at the 173-year-old company by focusing on users.

By Peter Guest
Splice Singapore
SPH's Chief Product Officer Gaurav Sachdeva wants the company to create
SPH's Chief Product Officer Gaurav Sachdeva wants the company to create "new products and new experiences which are technology enabled." (Photo by Peter Guest)

Gaurav Sachdeva has just about got the measure of the labyrinth that is Singapore Press Holdings’ headquarters. The floors of the various buildings and annexes don’t always match up; sometimes you have to go up a storey in an elevator to go down a set of stairs, the legacy of decades of accumulation at Singapore’s largest media group.

Sachdeva joined SPH as chief product officer — a newly minted position at the 173-year-old conglomerate — in May after two years at the ride-hailing company Grab. His role — a rare one at a mainstream media business — is to oversee the digital transformation of a conglomerate that owns the nation’s leading English-language and Mandarin dailies, the Straits Times and Zaobao, five radio stations, dozens of magazines, from Asia-Pacific Boating to the local franchises of Harper’s Bazaar and Men’s Health, alongside a property portfolio that includes several large shopping malls, care homes and student accommodation.

For Sachdeva, that transformation means “creating new products and new experiences which are technology enabled. We have a very clear idea that if we were to get scale, if we want to stay relevant, then we have to reach out to as many people as possible, then we have to come up with products and experiences that people like to deal with, like to read, like to interact with.”

Like others around the world, SPH’s newspapers have had to adapt to dwindling advertising revenues, the proliferation of free content, the increasing power of social media platforms and the competition for readers’ attention from always-on, on-demand entertainment content.

Staying relevant

“Information, news, has become a commodity. You can pretty much get news and information from Google, or from what your friends are sharing on Facebook, or Flipboards [that] are aggregating for you. How can you, in such a competitive environment, still be able to offer a subscription product?”

Sachdeva believes the answer is to take a “product thinking” approach, that focuses on what consumers of the newspapers want, and tries to deliver what they value.

“A technology company picks up a use case and then provides a technology solution for it,” he says. “It is that mindset, and it is that product thinking that is a very outcome-based, customer-focused, metrics-driven thinking that we want to bring into journalism.”

Measuring everything

Practically, that means setting metrics, measuring everything, and experimenting. SPH’s journalists have been trained in Google Analytics and the newsrooms have adopted dashboards to monitor how their stories are performing. In the Zaobao newsroom, a bank of monitors projects the live traffic to the paper’s website alongside TV news feeds.

“In the morning meeting that happens in most newsrooms, usually editorial teams would discuss what stories they should write,” Sachdeva says. “Our newsrooms now start with ‘how have our stories performed? Where are the maximum page views? Who’s reading what?’”

Metrics-led journalism gets a bad rap, as it has sometimes pushed newsrooms down the route of chasing clicks at the cost of their credibility as serious news organisations.

Sachdeva says he is sensitive to the concern. “The way I like to put it is that our journalism is data informed, but the journalistic principles are not sacrificed for it,” he says.

“The final call is still made by the editor. However, the editor, just as he would use his gut or his network for knowledge or instincts for what would work or what we should cover or what stories we should write, there is… a quantitative data point, and that comes from the readership.”

SPH has built a data science team that looks beyond the simple metrics of page views, he says, examining the kinds of stories that generate deeper engagement with readers, or which increase subscription conversions.

New products

The company is also trying to sweat the assets it already has, and to find ways to mesh together its existing businesses into new products.

In October, SPH rolled out Photonico, a photographic marketplace through which it can sell its huge archive of images from Southeast Asia. They have recently begun to offer Straits Times headlines on Google Voice Assistant, read by the company’s radio journalists.

These kinds of synergies could even allow his teams to find linkages between SPH’s media businesses and its other enterprises.

“That’s where technology and product thinking mindset comes in. You don’t think about what business I have, but who are the users of that business? The consumers of our healthcare business are old people who need care, they’re in a care house. If they’re in a care house, it doesn’t mean that they’ve stopped their connection to the world, it just means that they are old. So can we bring in technology that can read information, the news, let’s say, from Straits Times, and read it through an audio system like Google or Alexa?” Sachdeva says.

“That’s a technology solution that marries our two businesses, healthcare and media. I am just filled with ideas. We can mix and match, we can stitch these experiences and create something that people would value. Either that would delight them, or such that they would be able to engage with us and give us their time or their subscription money.”

Peter is an independent journalist and photographer, based in Southeast Asia. He's a contributing writer at Nikkei Asian Review, and his articles and photographs have appeared in The Atlantic, Newsweek, The Financial Times, Wired, The Guardian, The Wall Street Journal and others. Follow Peter Guest on Twitter.

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