Reasons for funding SPH Media still valid despite inflated circulation: Josephine Teo

The PAP Government’s commitment to funding SPH Media Trust (SMT) remains unchanged despite recent findings that the newspaper publishing business had inflated circulation numbers.

This was announced by Minister for Communications and Information, Mrs Josephine Teo in Parliament today (6 February 2023). 

Recap: What happened?

SMT, the new owner of the media business previously held by Singapore Press Holdings Limited (SPHL), initiated a review of the data it acquired, including circulation numbers, following the transfer in December 2021.

The review, which covered the period from September 2020 to March 2022, found that circulation numbers in certain months during the period had been overstated by up to 90,000 average daily copies.

Government’s commitment to fund SMT remains

In 2022, the PAP Government announced that it will disburse $900 million over five years to support SMT’s restructuring and digital transformation.

The money would go into technology development (for example, product development for the digital space, newsroom tools like content management resources and data analytics), IT infrastructure, talent development and training, as well as preservation of vernacular media.

According to Minister Teo, the government will continue with the planned disbursement of the funds because “circulation numbers were not a key consideration”.

“The level of funding previously assessed for the purposes of investing in technology and capability development remains valid,” she explained.

Government will ensure public funding is used in an accountable and responsible manner

As of now, no public funds have been affected because the funding has not yet been disbursed.

However, the government has measures in place to ensure that public funds are used in an “accountable and responsible manner”, said Minister Teo.

“When government funding is given, SMT will be held to account. Our focus is on readership and reach—which measure how many people consume the content—and not circulation, which is how many print and digital copies are sold, or distributed.”

Readership and reach are measured through independent third parties and commissioned surveys.

To receive funding, SMT will be held to two main KPIs: total reach and engagement of its products, with a focus on digital platforms, and specific reach indicators for vernacular groups and youths.

SMT will be required to provide progress updates to the Ministry of Communications and Information (MCI) on a half-yearly basis, and the Government will review its funding after the first five years based on SMT’s progress.

Other safeguards include audits by independent external auditors and government audits of SMT.

Why funding SMT remains on the agenda

Emphasising that overstating circulation numbers is never acceptable, Minister Teo said that the findings of SMT’s review underline the need for significant restructuring and “reinforced our assessment that the media landscape had become highly unfavourable for news organisations even if they had substantial reach and were trusted by the public”.

Which is why committing Government funds to SMT remains on the agenda.

Amid the technological advances and structural changes that have disrupted the media industry, today’s local news media require funding in order to survive.

And it is a matter of long term public interest for Singapore to preserve our local media because “they give voice to the Singapore identity and Singaporean perspectives”, said Minister Teo.

Additionally, in today’s crowded information space rife with misinformation, it is important to have a news outlet which Singaporeans trust to be accurate and objective.

Top image via SPH Media Solutions