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

2023 promises an interesting ride for print in India

Indian Printer and Publisher founded in 1979 is the oldest B2B trade publication in the multi-platform and multi-channel IPPGroup. While the print and packaging industries have been resilient in the past 33 months since the pandemic lockdown of 25 March 2020, the commercial printing and newspaper industries have yet to recover their pre-Covid trajectory.

The fragmented commercial printing industry faces substantial challenges as does the newspaper industry. While digital short-run printing and the signage industry seem to be recovering a bit faster, ultimately their growth will also be moderated by the progress of the overall economy. On the other hand book printing exports are doing well but they too face several supply-chain and logistics challenges.

The price of publication papers including newsprint has been high in the past year while availability is diminished by several mills shutting down their publication paper and newsprint machines in the past four years. Indian paper mills are also exporting many types of paper and have raised prices for Indian printers. To some extent, this has helped in the recovery of the digital printing industry with its on-demand short-run and low-wastage paradigm.

Ultimately digital print and other digital channels 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. For instance, there is no alternative to a rise in textbook consumption but this segment will only reach normality in the next financial year beginning on 1 April 2023.

Thus while the new normal is a moving target and many commercial printers look to diversification, we believe that our target audiences may shift and change. Like them, we will also have to adapt with agility to keep up with their business and technical information needs.

Our 2023 media kit is ready, and it is the right time to take stock and reconnect with your potential markets and customers. Print is the glue for the growth of liberal education, new industry, and an emerging economy. We seek your participation in what promises to be an interesting ride.

– Naresh Khanna

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