Above image: SPH Media Trust Managing Editor Murali Subramaniam described the financial pressures faced by the listed company that resulted in it decoupling its media assets from its property assets.

By Lee Kah Whye

“That’s the role that high quality news plays in a society,” said Chris Waiting, Chief Executive of The Conversation. Quoting the publication’s founder Andrew Jaspan, Waiting said, “Clean information is as important to a democracy as clean water is to public health.” 

Waiting was speaking at WAN-IFRA’s Asian Media Leaders Summit “Evolving Business Models” session. Together with Murali Subramaniam, Managing Editor at SPH Media Trust, and Lisa Davies, CEO of the Australian Associated Press, the presenters discussed how their publicly funded organisations stayed independent and sustained journalism that benefits the public.

“There will be inevitable questions about whether public funding will change the way we deal with the government and I’m confident to say that it hasn’t so far,” said Subramaniam. 

SPH Media Trust, publisher of Singapore’s Straits Times, was formed in September 2021 from the decoupling of the media company from listed entity Singapore Press Holdings. Mainly property assets were left in the listed company after the split.  

Singapore Press Holdings was built on the back of a previously profitable media business. Recent lean times had seen it cut costs to appease shareholders at the expense of investment in talent and technology, resulting in declining content and product quality. The media business saw its first financial loss ever in 2021. 

The split from the listed entity allowed the new media-only company, now consisting of two English newspapers, two Chinese newspapers, a Malay newspaper, a Tamil newspaper, two radio stations and various digital assets, to finally address the talent drain and invest in necessary technology and training. 

“We aim to be the trusted source of credible news. Seven in 10 people say they trust SPH Media content,” Subramaniam added. “The aim is to produce quality content. With less shareholder pressure and an injection of funds, we are hoping to invest in reaching audiences in a crowded space.” SPH Media also aims to promote its vernacular language publications in the Asian region. 

Subramaniam continued, “The injection of funds is not a panacea for everything. It’s not going to solve all our problems. We still have to keep getting ad revenue and subscription revenue to continue to boost our overall bottom line.”

Donors, philanthropists and the Australian government helped stop the closure of the 85-year-old Australian Associated Press. Lisa Davies, CEO of the Australian Associated Press, said the news agency currently has six news desks funded by donors.

Strong public support

Australia’s national news agency, the Australian Associated Press (AAP), was saved from dissolution at the last minute by a group of philanthropists. 

In March 2020, the joint owners of AAP, News Corporation and Nine (formerly Fairfax Media) announced they would end their shareholding agreement, which would lead to the potential collapse of the 85-year-old news organisation. 

Lisa Davies, CEO of the AAP, recounted how this was met with dismay from not only the media but also Australia’s national parliament and some smaller state-based politicians.

Davies said, “No one really could have predicted how extraordinary that sentiment (was felt). AAP’s reputation as a very trusted, fair, balanced news outlet being forced to close was a disappointment. AAP underpins the landscape of Australia’s media ecosystem. It provides a very crucial role, particularly when it comes to serving the regional media outlets.”  

News Corporation announced its plan to launch its own newswire at about the same time as its exit from the shareholding agreement. Public support, however, was behind AAP.

“A lot of people were supportive of AAP, believing that if there was to be one newswire, they didn’t think it should be a News Corporation one, it should be an independent service,” Davies said. 

Today, after a business restructuring to a not-for-profit organisation, the AAP is about half the size it used to be and funded by donors, philanthropists and the government. 

New unique features at AAP following the restructuring include six specialist philanthropic desks and a consumer facing app. 

Philanthropic desks are either funded by an individual or multiple donors and include an Arts Desk, an Agriculture Desk, an Environment Desk, and a Future Economies Desk. The Future Economies desk, for example, is funded by The Rockefeller Foundation. AAP is in discussions to launch two more philanthropic desks.

The app allows AAP supporters to access AAP content and use it as they would any other news outlet site, said Davies. “It is also to show donors what they were contributing to.”  

In the works is to expand the AAP fact check operations, which has been growing strongly. AAP is already doing work for platforms such as Google, Facebook and TikTok, as well as fact-checking editorial stories for clients. 

Subramaniam of SPH Media reinforced the commercial importance of fact checking by saying that their “Ask ST” (ask the Straits Times) service has led to subscription conversions as readers hit their paywall. 

As a longer-term goal, Davies hoped to have a not-for-profit investigative journalism unit should funding be available. 

She added, “We now are in a reasonably stable position and need to move on from that crisis mindset and put our minds to growing the business. There’s a lot of exciting things that I hope to announce in the next few weeks. The sky is the limit in what we can do with this business.” 

Serving readers and contributors

A not-for-profit publisher that has been around for longer is The Conversation. 

It already operates in nine markets around the world and has 1 billion readers. Its 75,000 writers are all academics, and publishers in 75 countries use its content. It also has thousands of readers who donate to them every month because they believe in The Conversation’s mission. 

“The Conversation democratises knowledge,” said CEO Chris Waiting. It was founded in 2011 by Andrew Jaspan, an experienced news editor who believed that “reliable information is essential for a healthy democracy.” 

“If people electing politicians are thinking about policy, they need high quality information. They need to hear from experts to make an informed decision,” said Waiting. 

“There has been a decline of trust in journalism. Some of that is reflecting the rise of fake news and misinformation. Some of it is reflecting the political polarisation we have seen around the world. Government leaders and business leaders are trusted less than they were before,” he said.

However, Waiting noted that trust in doctors, scientists and researchers has not waned. 

The loss of trust is compounded by cost reductions and job losses in news organisations, especially in areas of specialised reporting such as science and health. Journalists are expected to cover a broader range of topics and don’t have the depth of knowledge to cover the stories in the right way. 

The Conversation was therefore launched to capture the expertise that exists in universities and research centres. It partners with academics to write stories that are accessible and easily understood by the general public. Journalists from The Conversation help edit the stories by stripping out academic language and technical terms or explaining them. 

To make sure the content gets out there, it publishes the stories under a Creative Commons licence and gives out the content for free. 

Waiting said, “Republication was initially responsible for a huge proportion of our readership, over 90 percent in our first three or four years. But I’m delighted now that our onsite readers, (those) coming directly to us, has now grown and is more than 50 percent, approaching two-thirds of our readers. Our content is distributed by many news agencies around the world.”

The Conversation is a business consisting of eight non-profits all over the world including in London, Melbourne, Boston, Jakarta, and Cape Town. The non-profits receive grants and philanthropic income. The cornerstone of what they do is that they are a membership organisation with 500 university members that provide funding. Universities, however, do not have to be a member to publish with them.

“Increasingly, (universities) have to demonstrate that their research is engaging the public and having an impact in the real world and working with The Conversation is one significant way they can do that,” said Waiting.  

Although it is a new entrant to the public-funded model, SPH Media Trust is optimistic that its new business model will serve readers’ needs better.

Subramaniam concluded, “It is a model that has given us a lot of new energy, new impetus, and the ability to get new talent and retain our current talent and to grow. It looks positive for us right now. We will see how it goes for the next few years. We think we are on the footing to progress.”

About the writer: Lee Kah Whye is Director, Asia at WAN-IFRA. 

Edited by Debbie Goh. Debbie is a journalism professor at the California University of Pennsylvania. Before joining academe, she was a journalist with The Straits Times, Singapore.

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