Chinese media companies' quest for survival

How can Chinese newspaper media companies outside of China survive the internet age? Is the perceived decline of quality journalism just a problem for news media companies to solve? Is there an elixir for immortality that can re-energise and sustain the life of good journalism? Head of Singapore Press Holdings’ Chinese Media Group Lee Huay Leng touched on these topics and more in her acceptance speech upon receiving the award for outstanding contributions to the media industry (星云真善美传播奖杰出贡献奖). The event was held in Singapore on 24 November 2019.
The Chinese language media industry faces challenges from several directions. (iStock)
The Chinese language media industry faces challenges from several directions. (iStock)

In September 2019, some colleagues and I went to Kuala Lumpur for Sin Chew Daily’s 90th anniversary event. Lianhe Zaobao and Sin Chew Daily go way back; Zaobao was born out of a merger between Singapore’s Nanyang Siang Pau and Sin Chew Jit Poh. And in 2023, in a little over three years, Zaobao and Malaysia’s Nanyang Siang Pau will celebrate our 100th anniversary.

These days, it is really not easy for newspapers to go on for so long and get so “old”. In 2014, I went for an industry conference in the US. The organiser arranged visits to some US companies near San Francisco. When we went to Google, we were excited. We even took photos of the cafeteria. In contrast, when we visited Yahoo, our host gave an enthusiastic presentation but nobody was very interested. This is despite Yahoo having a longer history than companies like Google and Twitter.

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Zaobao was born out of a merger between Singapore’s Nanyang Siang Pau and Sin Chew Jit Poh, 16 March 1983. (SPH)

Of course, these are all technology companies and not media companies. But now, because of technological disruption, when it comes to media companies, having a foundation and having a future are two different things. Companies that do not have much of a history can innovate without baggage, while those that have built up a history have to aim for transformation, which involves more points of consideration. In short, when one gets old, one wishes for immortality, and the elixir for immortality is even more elusive.

Of course, I have no such elixir. I am still seeking it. And on the occasions when I comb through the history of Singapore’s Chinese language newspapers, I realise that it is easy to get an insight into their visions, particularly those newspapers that came up around the turn of the 20th century. We can see what the Chinese language journalists in this region believed in, and their interest in the happenings in mainland China. But there is little mention about the financial situation and operational details.

From the end of the Qing dynasty to the early days of the Republic of China, running a newspaper seemed to be the natural choice for intellectuals to spread new ideas. It was romantic, filled with passion and ideals. Everyone became very optimistic about the power of newspapers to galvanise change, and so one newspaper after another was established, to spread the idea of “changing society for the better”.

The front pages of Nanyang Siang Pau and Sin Chew Jit Poh, Saturday 8 September 1945.

This sort of belief fired up generations of journalists. How newspapers should be run, how to be responsible and credible, how to spread positivity, what makes a good journalist — these were the points of interest. The more they went against the grain, the more they showed these qualities. Even if the overall environment meant they had to dance in shackles, they made sure they owned the dance.

But we all know that the news industry is no longer like that. The fact is, many news organisations and media companies today, including international news industry associations, are talking about operational issues: strategies to work with new technology to attract and retain readers. Readers have changed, newspaper operations have changed, and so we have to change how we work as well. How to achieve “integrated media”, including details like newsroom seating arrangements, workflow, how one journalist covers the work of three, cost management — a lot of effort is spent on this at management level, which has an impact on the colleagues who put the news together.

The changes brought about by the combination of journalism with IT has brought the communications industry to the forefront in the era of disruption. Passion, knowledge, world view, and writing skills are not enough, because more and more, we are being tested by the digital industry.

News and social media is becoming increasingly intertwined. Facebook has begun rolling out its dedicated "news tab", working with partner news agencies to produce professionally produced content. (Josh Edelson/AFP)


Chinese language media will not take off with my generation, but with the next. We have to be mentally prepared that our role is to pave the way for them.

A few years ago, colleagues from Lianhe Zaobao’s Fukan (lifestyle section) asked my views about Zaobao’s future. My assessment is: changes to Singapore’s language policy in education have resulted in a shrinking readership for Chinese language media. In the short term, the local market is getting smaller. But in the long term, with the rise of mainland China, we still serve a function.

I think the mission for my generation is to resolve some historical issues and reinforce our foundations. Chinese language media will not take off with my generation, but with the next. We have to be mentally prepared that our role is to pave the way for them.

Traditionally, our Fukan colleagues are a bit more detached from the everyday world, but I have a deep impression of a colleague’s immediate response: “What, wait for the next generation? Then, will we be retrenched? Will we keep our jobs?”

This is a practical reaction. And I cannot make any guarantees. The fact is, over the past few years, we have retrenched some people, while making new hires. We need to adjust resource allocation.

"The not-so-bright go to political science and sociology. When they cannot get a good job, they go on to journalism." - Lee Kuan Yew

So, the first point I want to make is: at this point for this industry, besides technology, it is critical to attract and retain talent. We have always focused on people and their skills, and greater diversity in the team.

Journalism is no longer as simple as text and content. There are multiple facets. Besides the traditionally acknowledged ability to produce text and content, it also includes technical know-how and business operations. It is as attractive and exciting as many other industries, and needs the best talents to join in and stay the course.

At a lunchtime election rally at Fullerton Square in 1972, Mr Lee Kuan Yew said: “I read reports of all the bright students going into engineering, the sciences, medicine, economics, and so on. The not-so-bright go to political science and sociology. When they cannot get a good job, they go on to journalism.” Of course, that was said nearly 50 years ago, and he was referring to Singapore. I think the talents that our journalism industry needs — in policy-making and even leadership roles — has to be more diverse.

Lee Kuan Yew speaking at a lunchtime election rally at Fullerton Square, 29 August 1972. (SPH)

Previously, the Singapore government came up with educational programmes to nurture talents with good Chinese language abilities, to “channel” teachers and journalists to the culture and education sectors. The intention was good, but it also showed how much one's understanding of a journalist's job needed to evolve.

Good Chinese is basic, but the pool of journalistic talent has to be more inclusive. Besides graduates in Chinese language and communications, we also need talents from other disciplines. A team of diverse backgrounds would be capable of producing richer content, and be more effective in dissemination and operations. Language is a fundamental requirement, but not the highest requirement for a Chinese language journalist. If Singapore does not realise this, the pool and capabilities of future journalists will be severely limited, which would have a crucial impact on whether Chinese language media will be able to continue attracting readers.

It is one thing to attract good talents of different backgrounds and disciplines; the bigger question is how to get them to stay. As a media company, we now have to go back to first principles. We need to experiment, to make changes, be prepared to work and endure hard times, and to find a way out. To create the vibrant and exciting environment of a new company in an old one so that colleagues feel excited about innovating while they work hard is extremely difficult. It involves astute management, as well as perceptive individuals with the right attitude to embrace change.

Furthermore, different countries and regions regulate (or do not regulate) news media differently. In some places, regulators do not respect those in the news industry. Given figurative cold winds and a tight budget, having to remain competitive in attracting talent and getting people to stay on by offering decent benefits and career satisfaction — it is really not easy for the media industry. Without a good talent base to take on this challenging work, we cannot even begin to talk about gaining readers.

More importantly, we do not know if there will still be a market for quality journalism in the next one or two generations.

The second point I want to raise is how society sees the challenges faced by journalism.

As media organisations seek new operating models and face operating pressures, naturally they will cut costs. Some costs can be reduced through technology. But when news organisations are completely dependent on the market, which is itself entering a new phase of finding its own model of operation and growth, there is a high risk that quality journalism will be compromised. More importantly, we do not know if there will still be a market for quality journalism in the next one or two generations.

Being in Singapore’s news industry, I usually think about Singapore’s situation. Now, people often tell me that young people don’t read the news any more, but scan through text messages and photos instead. They look at something on their mobile screen for just two or three seconds before switching to something else. Others say that nobody reads newspapers any more. I often wonder if they tell me all this as an expression of sympathy for us, or to say that the problem lies with us, the media, and that we are doomed.

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Many young people now use technology to get their news. (iStock)

I hope it is neither. How we operate is indeed up to us. But the decline of quality journalism that we are witnessing now is probably not a problem for just the media companies to resolve. Perhaps from the position of profit and loss, media companies do not see the need to stem the slide — it takes a lot of money to maintain quality journalism. It is more important for them to cater to the tastes of young people, and get clicks by presenting content that young people want in creative ways. That is the way of the market, as decided by the market, which seems reasonable.

Some young people I know, including my students and colleagues, are good at airing their views and providing criticism. They dare to speak up and stand by their position. I think this is all good, and I respect their right to it. But I am more concerned that quite a few of them criticise and speak up when they know and understand very little about the topic at hand.

Technological shifts have made everything more convenient, but it has also shortened attention spans. How people take in information, or whether they even want to, have also changed. To take on today’s complex world, they have to build up their knowledge. While I admire the creativity of today’s young people and the fact that they have their own world, I do feel that if one has insufficient knowledge and depth, and has a fragmented understanding of the current situation, then that is a problem.

And so, I feel that young people not following the news and not reading newspapers is in fact not the fault of journalists, but a shared social concern.

Students at a workshop in conjunction with the Zaobao Literary Festival 2018. One challenge of today's media industry is getting students interested in reading the news. (SPH)

In Singapore, when the authorities draw up plans, they prepare for young people to handle the future world. The Ministry of Education adjusts its syllabus accordingly. Kids in Singapore are now learning many new skills, such as coding. But is society willing to put in resources and look into how to get students interested in current affairs, and get them in the habit of reading, not for exams but for personal pleasure and development? Can this be incorporated earlier in the educational syllabus? Can reading the newspapers truly be a part of the classroom? And I am not just saying this to sell newspapers. I really feel that if we leave it to the market and think that it is a problem for media companies, and expect some creative product to simply appear on the market, even though that is a nice thought, an ideal result will not pop up just like that.

When society is driven by attention spans that last a few seconds, and the ability to think broadly and deeply is lost, it is society that will pay the price.

What I have raised today are observations from Singapore. There are no answers. Now, when people know I am in the media, they give me looks of commiseration, particularly because we are in the Chinese media, which is facing shrinking readership in Singapore with its small population. That is probably why when we cast our eyes around, we do not just see ourselves, but also the Chinese in Malaysia, Southeast Asia, mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, and all over the world. That way, we feel that we may be small, but the world is big, which inspires us. We want more connections to the world, so that we can see some hope.

Being human determines what kind of journalist I am, and how I conduct myself as a member of the news and communications industry.

And even though I said earlier that passion and ideals are not enough for today’s media industry, I have to say that if one does not have enough passion or has no ideals, there would be no fortitude to speak of in this industry. Being able to stick at a tough job shows the value of fortitude. I would like to say to my colleagues on the frontline: all of you, and what we do, it all means something. While I work behind the scenes to make sure you get a decent remuneration on top of the satisfaction you derive from what you do, you really have to find your own meaning to the frontline journalism that you do.

And while journalism is a bumpy ride, my own values and beliefs remain firm. When students and new colleagues ask me how to be a good journalist, I have only one answer: I am a person first and foremost, then a journalist. I have my principles, and my feelings towards people and situations. Being human determines what kind of journalist I am, and how I conduct myself as a member of the news and communications industry.

lee huay leng
Head of Singapore Press Holdings’ Chinese Media Group Lee Huay Leng (centre), with awards committee head Professor Charles Kao of the University of Wisconsin River Falls (L), and Senior Minister of State for Trade and Industry Chee Hong Tat. (SPH)