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SPH’s rebounding fortunes with improved quarterly results and plan to introduce AI to newsroom

Following a beleaguered period of job cuts and falling profits, Singapore Press Holdings latest quarterly financial results paint a healthier picture for the media company.

A ‘digital-first’ strategy, including an online paywall for premium articles on The Straits Times, and a raft of new management appointments plus a reduced wage bill have seen a 64% rise in quarterly profits year-on-year to $47.4m.

However, the operating revenue of of $250.1 million for the quarter was $9.9 million, or 3.8%, lower than the numbers delivered in 2017. This suggested the financial stabilisation was mainly due to reduced costs and a rebalancing of the books, plus strong revenue from the company’s property arm – SPH owning shopping malls and elderly care facilities as well as its media assets.

Last year, the company cut some 230 jobs in an attempt to arrest the decline of its media assets in an industry fast being disrupted by smaller players both locally and internationally, plus a shift in millennial reader habits. The financial report showed staff costs falling by 6.3 per cent on 2017’s levels.

To add to the recent pain, in February SPH lost the lucrative, and prestigious, publishing contract for the Singapore Airlines in-flight magazine. But the firm signalled it was taking the necessary hard-nosed business decisions to pivot towards a new model.

Chief executive officer at SPH Ng Yat Chung said: “As we continue to sharpen our media capabilities in the face of digital disruption, we are seeing early signs of a slower decline of our media revenue.

Ng Yat Chung says media revenue decline is slowing

“At the same time, we are making efforts to diversify, with new growth thrusts. Our new strategy is to focus on the acquisition of cash-yielding real estate assets overseas. We are also preparing the aged care business for overseas expansion.”

The company insisted it also planned to grow revenue from its digital media assets. It claimed that thanks to marketing efforts, the daily average digital circulation copies sold increased by 121,000 copies on last year. A company spokesperson said: “Going forward, SPH will continue with more promotions.”

An e-paper version of The Straits Times was also said to have more than 37,000 unique readers. In addition the company’s programmatic ad exchange, which came into operation as a joint venture with fellow publisher Mediacorp on May 8, was also said to be “gaining momentum in reaching the Singapore digital population”. Although no further evidence was provided to back up this claim.

As to the management team changes Ignatius Low, previously head of media solutions, was promoted to the chief marketing officer role in April. The firm said he would “spearhead SPH’s integrated marketing strategy with new vigour”.

Low is spearheading a new integrated marketing approach

In addition, a new chief technology officer Glen Gary Francis and a new chief product officer Gaurav Sachdeva also joined the management team. Julian Tan, erstwhile head of digital, was moved as well to become chief of digital business.  

Signalling the desire to update and evolve the firm’s offering, on the same day as it released the financial results SPH revealed that it was partnering with Singaporean machine learning start-up DC Frontiers. Together, they plan to develop a content-recommendation engine driven by artificial intelligence.

It is said, the AI technology will curate articles for each reader based on their individual news consumption habits. However, it was not made clear if the AI would actually create content in addition to, or as a replacement for, that currently created by SPH journalists in the future. But a spokesperson for SPH told Mumbrella: “For now, we are focusing on content recommendation/curation.”

“AI technologies offer great potential in the news and media industry, and we are keenly exploring ways to apply them to improve our products and better serve our users,” said SPH deputy CEO Anthony Tan.

AI will boost productivity within our newsrooms, claims Tan

“With this engine, readers of The Straits Times and other digital news sites of Singapore Press Holdings will soon be able to access more relevant content automatically tailored to their preferences. This will not only enhance the reader journey, but also increase internal productivity within our newsrooms.”

As well as the AI development, just last week SPH revealed that it was rebranding and consolidating its content marketing activities under the new single umbrella name of ‘Sweet’. The team at Sweet will include 125 people and SPH said there had been no job losses as a result of the restructuring. However Mumbrella understands that Brand New Media managing director Joanne de Rozario resigned in order to take up a new role elsewhere.

At the time of the Sweet announcement, SPH CMO Low said: “With Sweet, we are able to maximise our considerable pool of resources in the creative and content marketing areas, ensuring that we give the best possible experience and outcomes to our clients.”

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