SPH must work hard to regain trust – veteran journalist

Perhaps the most important question is: why were they being inflated?

Date: January 14, 2023 | Written By admin

Elements of trust include reliability and truthfulness. Trust is a two-way relationship and is fragile. Once broken, it takes time and effort to restore. 

For the longest time, local news outlets were dominated by traditional mainstream media like Straits Times, Channel NewsAsia (CNA), Channel 5 and Channel 8. People trusted the news as they were established and options were limited. As guest speaker Nicholas Yong (veteran journalist) put it, there was “artificial monopoly”.

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Nicholas was most recently part of the editorial staff at Yahoo! News

However, as our society matures and becomes more discerning in the midst of increased options in news sources, the question to consider is whether local media can make it. Join Sharda as she discussed this topic with Nicholas and CityJo Carson in this segment of SG Now. 

Nicholas quoted the Reuters Digital News Report which ranked CNA as tops based on its reach and perceived trustworthiness. He believed that the lack of a pay wall could be a contributing factor for its higher ranking. 

On the partiality of news outlets, Nicholas acknowledged that no news outlets were truly impartial. However, he observed that society has degenerated to the state where “bias” was defined as “I don’t agree with it, and I don’t like it, therefore you are biased.” Nicholas cited an example of a Yahoo-commissioned survey some years back on the repeal of section 377A in the Penal Code. The results concluded that the society was still conservative and not ready for the repeal. Many commented that the survey had a “gay agenda” even though the report was simply reporting the facts. 

Sharda noted that news agencies have been struggling to stay financially viable, and the Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) was raised as a case in point. Nicholas observed that SPH had several challenges to overcome, namely (1) erosion in standards of articles; (2) lack of qualified individuals to fill key roles; and (3) credibility. To regain public trust in mainstream news outlets, Nicholas believed that journalists must be able to report as they saw fit.

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“(Straits Times) has to be able to report as it sees fit,” Nicholas (C) told Sharda (L) and CityJo Carson (R)

In response to the discussions, Carson shared that he would not delve too deep into news articles and be critical in what he read. And if his children asked him if certain news pieces were true, he would try to present various points of views to provide a balanced response. 

Regarding the perennial question on whether mainstream media were controlled by the government, watch this segment of SG Now and hear from Nicholas. 

Those who haven’t been following coverage of the scandal might be forgiven for feeling a bit lost amidst the deluge of articles written on the matter; at the time of writing, a quick Google search turned up at least seven pieces published by Mediacorp’s English-language news sites.

So what’s going on with SPH Media and why does it matter? We try and consolidate everything that’s known about the situation so you don’t have to feel left out.

Who is SPH Media in the first place?

SPH Media is the publisher of several newspapers and magazines in Singapore.

These include some of the biggest names in our local media landscape such as STThe New PaperBusiness Times, Chinese papers Lianhe Zaobao and Shin Min Daily News, Malay paper Berita Harian, and Tamil paper Tamil Murasu, and also magazines like HerWorld and Women’s Weekly.

In the second half of 2021, Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) completed a restructuring that saw its media businesses transferred to a non-profit entity which was officially named SPH Media Trust, commonly referred to as SPH Media.

What has SPH Media done wrong?

On Jan. 9, after WUSG’s report, ST revealed that SPH Media had inflated its daily circulation figures by between 85,000 and 95,000 copies across all its publications.

This represents 10 to 12 per cent of the reported daily average circulation, said an SPH Media spokesperson.

SPH Media had fudged the numbers through various means:

  • counting lapsed contracts in circulation data
  • including copies that were printed, counted for circulation, and then destroyed
  • multiple instances of double-counting subscriptions
  • injecting a project account with additional funding to purchase fictitious circulation

In addition, certain circulation numbers were arbitrarily derived, according to ST.

How was it discovered?

The discrepancies were uncovered during a review of internal processes initiated in March 2022.

The period under review was September 2020 to March 2022.

However, the discovery only came to light nine months later after WUSG reported on the matter on Jan. 8, 2023.

How did SPH Media react to the discovery?

According to ST, the staff involved in inflating the circulation numbers were either “taken to task” or have “left the organisation”.

No further details were revealed, except that they included “several senior employees”.

Advertising and media site Marketing Interactive reported that SPH Media spokesperson did not clarify if SPH’s chief customer officer was impacted but sources close to Marketing Interactive said that he is no longer with the firm.

WUSG reported that three executives — “industry veterans with more than five decades of experience among them” — were set to leave SPH Media due to the discrepancies.

Anonymous sources who spoke to WUSG said that the decision to part ways was reached on or around Dec. 23, 2022.

In addition, the SPH spokesperson quoted by ST said the organisation had “immediately taken steps to strengthen processes”.

What does circulation data mean?

Circulation data refers to the number of copies that are distributed through either regular subscriptions, or one-off purchases, while readership is an estimate of a publication’s number of readers.

A circulating WhatsApp message that has been attributed to a former editor of The Straits Times, Leslie Fong, also highlighted the following points about such data: that under Singapore’s Audit Bureau of Circulation (ABC), if a household pays for a print copy, as well as a digital subscription, the sale can be counted as two copies.

Today confirmed the veracity of the message with Fong, who was quoted as saying that this double counting is legitimate.

Was advertising in SPH affected?

According to SPH’s former Chief Marketing Officer, Elsie Chua, the marketing department does not guarantee circulation in contract with advertisers.

In a Facebook post put up on Jan. 10, Chua said that the reach of a media outlet for marketers and advertising agencies is based on data that is conducted by Nielsen — a U.S.-based company that measures audience-related data for various media outlets around the world.

Chua added, “Readership numbers are a better gauge for advertising effectiveness and offer deeper insights into audience demographic and psychographic profiles.”

In addition, circulation and readership numbers were decoupled years ago due to changing market trends.

Chua highlighted that while one printed copy sold could translate to four readers 20 years ago, changing household sizes and the replacement of printed newspapers with digital copies means that such numbers no longer correlate.

She elaborated that for marketers, reach is determined through readership, not circulation, while effectiveness is determined through various factors of ad responses.

Cost efficiency in evaluating media options is also involved.

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