Warren Fernandez starts off Wan-Ifra Digital Media India

Emerging challenges and the need to build trust(s)

Fernandez SPH
Warren Fernandez speaking at the opening session of the Wan-Ifra Digital Media India conference on 8 March 2022 Screenshot IPP

Warren Fernandez the editor-in-chief of The Straits Times & English, Malay, Tamil Media Group, and the SPH Media Trust based in Singapore started the WI Digital Media India virtual event on the morning of International Women’s Day. His insightful presentation recalled the challenges that the news media faces as it emerges from 24 months of the pandemic and also confronts the uncertainties of another ongoing war. 

Fernandez’s presentation was fascinating because it described the experience of the Straits Times group’s seemingly radical reaction to the media disruption of the past two years – to split the group into two, of which one side, consisting of the newsgathering and publishing has been transformed into a trust. Although he said the newly established trust would still be “commercially minded” he added that “Without this transformation, it was difficult to see how we are going to meet the future.” (It is not yet clear to me what the other commercial and profit-making side of the split will do.)

Among the 7 countries in which media are considered trusted, trust decline in India and Malaysia Screenshot of Fernandez presentation
Among the 7 countries in which media are considered trusted, trust declined in India and Malaysia           – Screenshot of Fernandez presentation – IPP

The earlier part of the presentation showed a couple of slides based on audience research by Edelman. One slide showed while print media tends to be a trusted news source in Asia, in some countries including India it has lost audience trust in the past two years. 

Fernandez pointed out that in the post-pandemic – readers have more choices and newspapers have lost their monopoly and dominance. There is an increase in distractions and a huge increase in misinformation and disinformation. “Fake news travels further and deeper than real news,” he said. “It has made societies more polarized and increased this polarization both within societies and between societies.”

The business model of print media has also been disrupted by the increase of digital media where the maximum share of the revenues goes to the global digital platforms, said Fernandez. Thus, he said, SPH had to pivot in its path to the future to build trust in a time of division and in the troubled time of war, pestilence, and high inflation. 

Pointing out that it has taken two years to restructure the 187-year old profit-making company into two companies where the news operations are a public trust, he suggested that it is based on lessons from and partially emulates the Scotts Trust that supports the Guardian news organization. “It is a little bit like the Guardian and profits will go into newsgathering which is our core mission,” Fernandez added that there was apprehension among the journalists at first but these were allayed to some extent by the recent round of appraisals and pay rises of journalists and editors in January.

Saying that journalism is a talent business he said the roadmap has to be one of the people, products, and purpose. “The global space created by the digital transformation also presents the opportunity to be a trusted and objective source of information beyond borders as all the major media groups have become,” he suggested. We aspire to build strong regional and global partnerships as the digital space allows us to grow on a digital platform, he said.

All in all, a terrific and insightful presentation with many details that need to be explored further to be properly understood. And one that bodes well for Asian media and the aspirational Indian media owners, publishers, and journalists who may be inspired to look at the realities of the need to build more trust into their products and create a less ambiguous future.

Correction: In the earlier version of this story we had misspelled The Straits Times name. Apologies to The Straits Times and to Warren Fernandez. The mistake was entirely mine. Naresh Khanna

The Covid-19 pandemic led to the country-wide lockdown on 25 March 2020. It will be two years tomorrow as I write this. What have we learned in this time? Maybe the meaning of resilience since small companies like us have had to rely on our resources and the forbearance of our employees as we have struggled to produce our trade platforms.

The print and packaging industries have been fortunate, although the commercial printing industry is still to recover. We have learned more about the digital transformation that affects commercial printing and packaging. Ultimately digital will help print grow in a country where we are still far behind in our paper and print consumption and where digital is a leapfrog technology that will only increase the demand for print in the foreseeable future.

Web analytics show that we now have readership in North America and Europe amongst the 90 countries where our five platforms reach. Our traffic which more than doubled in 2020, has at times gone up by another 50% in 2021. And advertising which had fallen to pieces in 2020 and 2021, has started its return since January 2022.

As the economy approaches real growth with unevenness and shortages a given, we are looking forward to the PrintPack India exhibition in Greater Noida. We are again appointed to produce the Show Daily on all five days of the show from 26 to 30 May 2022.

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– Naresh Khanna

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