‘The paper had to be attractive to advertisers’ – extract from the book ‘Reluctant Editor’ by Today boss PN Balji

Launch editor of Singaporean national newspaper Today, one PN Balji, maps out how his former title’s unique mix attracted top advertisers including Great Eastern, Hewlett Packard, Carrefour, Revlon and HSBC despite printing press problems and a battle with the dominant player Singapore Press Holdings – in this extract from his new best-seller book

Balji blew apart the newspaper status quo in Singapore with the Today launch


Chapter 8: Today bets on Goh Chok Tong – chairman Cheng makes split-second decision

The telephone call could not have come at a more opportune moment. The woman at the other end of the line said that her boss, the chief of a headhunting firm, would like to meet me in his office. I had just marked 10 years as editor of The New Paper and was becoming increasingly restless. I had been considering and talking about a change of job. Thinking aloud in a column in TNP on 7 August 1999, I wondered what I should do next: with 50 years of my life gone (30 of them being a workaholic, with a daughter planning to get married the next year, heart bypass surgery behind me and energy levels dropping by the day), I had been asking myself whether it was time to step off the Singapore treadmill and pamper myself a little.

These thoughts hid the real sentiment I was experiencing at that time. My job in the newsroom was highly satisfying and rewarding, but it had become too familiar a grind. Most days, I was doing the same thing over and over again. Getting up at 4am, reading the newspapers, communicating by phone with the staff who were already in the office, rushing to Times House by 6am, scanning the important and sensitive stories, talking to production and circulation people. The routine was getting to me.

I needed a break, a change. I asked the editor-in-chief, Cheong Yip Seng, to consider posting me to India as The Straits Times’ correspondent, or transferring me to Singapore Press Holdings’ circulation department, an area that I felt would offer me a fresh creative lease on my life. As expected, Cheong said “no”. So that phone call from the headhunting company, Amrop, was a godsend. At the interview with the boss of the company, Tan Soo Jin, I found out that they were looking for someone to head a new Singapore newspaper. No other details were given.

Things then moved at breakneck speed. The CEO of Mediacorp, Lee Hup Seng, called me for an interview. Mediacorp chairman, Cheng Wai Keung, arranged for us to have a breakfast chat – just the two of us – on a Sunday in 2000 at his home. I must have spent an hour with Wai Keung and came away impressed with his understanding of how the reader’s mind works. As I left his bungalow, one of his statements stuck in my mind. “Balji, the paper has to get into the homes. Going to the MRT stations and offices must just be a cover [for our actual plans]. The real battle to convince advertisers to put their money in this paper must be fought in the homes. The Straits Times has entrenched themselves there. Take the battle to them.”

These were not just fighting words, but smart ones. Wai Keung, who was also the boss of retail and property giant Wing Tai Holdings, knew what it meant to fight. He learnt it all on the mean streets of Hong Kong, where survival depended on taking the fight to one’s rivals.

At that initial meeting with him, our distribution strategy for Today was born. With chief operating officer Philip Koh at the helm of production and distribution, a covert plan was drawn up to get the paper into people’s homes, while the world was told that Today would be made available mainly at MRT stations and offices.

It had to do with how the mind works. Each morning, when the bleary-eyed reader opened his door and saw The Straits Times and Today on his doorstep, the sight of those two newspapers together would send out a powerful signal that Todaywas on par with The Straits Times. That strategy may have seemed more symbolic, but it worked. It made readers and advertisers take us seriously. They got the message that Today meant business, and that it was here to stay.

The team collected names and addresses of the “who’s who” in politics, advertising, business, academia and government, and began delivering the paper to their homes from Monday to Saturday.

It was a massive operation: vendors who could be trusted to deliver the paper to the right addresses at the right time had to be found, and they had to be trained to deal with security officers in condominiums who might not let them in. In such instances, Philip and company had to go and meet the condominium management committees and assure them our people were performing a legitimate service. In some instances, we had to talk to acquaintances who lived in the targeted condominiums and try to convince them to put some pressure on their management committees to allow our vendors in.

We launched on 10 November 2000, and within two years, we had managed to get into nearly all the homes we had targeted. Soon after that initial meeting in his home, Wai Keung came back to play another defining role in Today’s progress and eventual survival. The editorial and advertising teams had met to decide on the newspaper’s editorial approach. It was an unconventional way of approaching an editorial philosophy, having the key people sit around a table where copies of The Straits Times, Business Times, The New Paper and a new entrant, Streats, were lined up, with a space left for Today. The freesheet, Streats, was published in September 2000 by Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) just two months before Today hit the streets. Its last edition was released on 31 December, 2004

Our team had decided against commissioning readership and marketing surveys. For one thing, we were not prepared to spend on surveys; for another, we suspected that people often avoided telling the truth when asked for their views. We were also convinced that such research was usually conducted in too perfunctory a fashion. Some of us were already familiar with the prevailing methodology of readership surveys. Showing interviewees the masthead of a paper, a researcher would ask: “Did you read this yesterday?” If the answer was “yes”, they were considered ‘readers’. Follow-up questions to establish whether those interviewees were really readers were never asked. Such methods continue to this day and still manage to persuade newspapers and advertising agencies to shell out huge sums for what is essentially a flimsy construct of superficial results.

After we had agreed on the positioning of the various newspapers, each one of us present had to answer two questions: Was there space for a new paper like Today? If there was no space, could we create one? We did not get to the second question, as some of us agreed that the missing space was for a paper that was prepared to be bold and to inject analysis into its news reports, not just to deliver only the “who”, “what”, “when” and “how”, but also the “why” of the news.

One of the individuals present asked a very pertinent question: Will the Singapore government be amenable to this type of journalism, as it had spoken out publicly on many occasions against mixing news with analysis and comment; the separation of news and analysis and comment had to be like that between church and state. But I was confident that Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong, who had come to power ten years earlier in 1990 with a publicly-stated mission to move away from Lee Kuan Yew’s top-down approach, would not interfere. We bet on him and won. Not once in my first three years at Today was there a call from the Prime Minister’s Office to complain about our style of reporting.

I am, however, getting ahead of the story of how Today was born. Ernest Wong took over from Lee Hup Seng as Mediacorp CEO shortly after I joined the team. When chairman Wai Keung, Ernest, the paper’s COO, Philip Koh, and I met to discuss our paper’s editorial concept one Saturday afternoon, we did not begin on the same page. Ernest was deeply impressed with what he had just seen on a visit to the Modern Times Group in Sweden. This was the group that had launched the free newspaper revolution with Metro. He was keen to follow their model – a stripped-down version of a conventional newspaper. Modern Times kept Metro’s manpower strength to a bare minimum and restricted the number of pages to a low of 28.

Ernest saw Today as a downmarket freesheet with short stories and big pictures; in other words, a newspaper that commuters would skim and chuck into the bin after their train ride. At that Saturday meeting, he said that Today should not go upmarket, and should keep the number of pages to a minimum and its circulation small. This went directly against what the editorial and advertising teams had decided on. I made it plain that the paper had to be credible to readers and attractive to advertisers, especially the big boys in the business.

With advertisements being Today’s only source of revenue, our survival would be threatened if we could not attract the likes of DBS Bank, Singapore Airlines and Great Eastern. The discussion became heated. I reminded the group that I had come from ten years of editing The New Paper, a newspaper that many regarded as a throwaway, and one that many top advertisers had refused to even consider as an option. I remember telling them: “I can do such a paper with my eyes closed and hands tied behind my back. All I need is a letter from Ernest saying we should take that route.”

That was when our worldly-wise chairman stepped in, took Ernest out of the meeting room and came back alone with these cryptic but decisive words: “Balji, you go your way.” Those few words made the difference as Today managed to bring in top advertisers including Great Eastern, Hewlett Packard, Dell, Carrefour, Canon, Revlon, L’Oreal and HSBC.

Ernest proved to be a gentleman. My fear that the boss-employee relationship would sour was unfounded. During my first run at the helm of Today, not once did he show any hostility, implicit or otherwise, towards me. In fact, when I told him that I would leave after the end of my three-year contract, he was surprised and tried to persuade me to stay on for two more years.

After Today cleared the hurdle of deciding on the paper’s editorial positioning, more daunting issues began to appear. The day before the Today board was due to meet the media to announce details of the launch, ComfortDelgro, one of the paper’s four investors, pulled out.

At about that time, a good Samaritan called to warn me about the problems I would face with the printer. “If I were you,” he said, “I would visit the printer and ask some important questions.”

I had only one question for the printer, Kim Hup Lee (KHL): Can you guarantee that the paper will appear on time? The management at the printing plant all looked down, not wanting to give me a direct answer. It was just two weeks to our launch date and the Today management went into overdrive to identify the kinks and to look into resolving them.

Our team had been so preoccupied with recruitment, meeting potential advertisers and launching the computer systems for both the editorial and advertising teams that we had collectively taken our eyes off the ball and failed to recognise the printing storm that was brewing. KHL was started in 1978 and had built a reputation for itself as a good commercial printer for magazines and brochures. But it had zero experience in printing newspapers, never mind churning out 300,000 copies every day six days a week and getting it done with a narrow window no wider than four or five hours. They had bought new machines from Germany to give us the capability of offering colour on every page, something that even publishing giant SPH, the parent company of The Straits Times, could not deliver.

There was one huge problem. KHL did not have enough trained staff to operate the state-of-the-art machines. Angela Chia, the liaison manager for printing, said: “The staff were trained to print magazines. They were not familiar with handling newspaper printing, and were also not familiar with such newspaper density at such speed.” The reckoning came in the early hours of the paper’s launch on 10 November 2000. The entire production team, journalists, photographers, sales and marketing managers, hurried into taxis and cars outside our office at Clifford Centre in Raffles Place, and headed to KHL’s printing factory in far-flung Loyang.

We were not the only ones there. Several trucks and cars, some of them naively showing SPH car labels, were parked outside the printing site. A bunch of men still wearing their name tags were lounging around drinking coffee. We knew the war had started. They wanted to know our distribution strategy and the best way was to follow our trucks as they left Loyang. They would trail our lorries every morning. Their moves were recorded for posterity by a reporter from Channel NewsAsia, who walked up, aimed her microphone at them as the camera zoomed in on their name tags and asked what they were doing there. “We are having coffee,” they all said.

At the printing site, the normally taciturn Philip Koh was pacing the floor, gesticulating, talking and sometimes shouting. I realised there was nothing we could do to speed things up. I went home and waited and waited for a message to say that the machines had started rolling. Zilch. By the time I got up, there was a message to say printing had started, then another to say that the presses had stopped because of some kinks in the system.

SPH’s kill-the-rival machinery went into high gear. Calls were made to advertising agencies and advertisers telling them how unreliable Today was, and asking: “Do you still want to advertise with them?” Our phones rang incessantly with panic-stricken and angry advertisers threatening to cancel their orders. We had to appease them with explanations and even offers of steep discounts for their advertisements. We made sure that all our staff had all the answers to questions that were likely to be raised by friends, newsmakers and others. The Mediacorp Press board had to be mollified, and being linked to Temasek Holdings, the Temasek management and government people had to be briefed

The printing presses continued to have hiccups, but these became fewer and fewer. Meanwhile, other storms began to gather on the horizon.

Chapter 9: Today arrives, SPH miscalculates – and media history is made

The senior team at Today was tired, upset and angry. What was to have been a pivotal moment in their professional lives as they geared up for the big battle with the bastion of print journalism, The Straits Times, was crumbling in front of them. The inaugural edition of the upstart just refused to get off the printing presses on the morning of 10 November 2000. Never before had the printer, KHL, had to print 300,000 copies of a newspaper a day six days a week, much less get it done within four to five hours. Its expertise was in printing magazines to more forgiving deadlines. The higher the sun rose in the sky, the more downcast the staff became.

Today’s chief operating officer, Philip Koh, was probably the only one who showed little emotion as he worked tirelessly through the early hours of the morning with KHL’s owner, Lim Geok Khoon, to get the paper out and onto the streets. Philip’s training as a naval officer helped immensely.

The presses would start, print a few thousand copies, then stop. This start-go-stop-restart nightmare went on late into the afternoon with the staff increasingly mortified over what should have been a significant moment in Singapore’s media history. Both print and TV monopolies had been ended, the result of the government’s declared grand plan to liberalise Singapore media. “Proliferate” might have been a more apt word than “liberalise”.

Singapore Press Holdings had been granted a licence to start two TV channels, previously the jealously guarded turf of government-owned Mediacorp. SPH Mediaworks was launched in 2000, but after running up huge losses had to give up one of its two channels, Channel U, which was absorbed by Mediacorp. Now, Mediacorp was bidding to break into SPH’s monopoly on print. From the word go, both went for each other’s throats, fighting tooth and nail to grab a larger share of the advertising pie and a bigger slice of the readership cake.

Today’s initial printing fiasco was manna from heaven for SPH. Like a well-oiled war machine on overdrive, SPH zoomed into the offices of advertisers and advertising agencies rubbishing the newcomer’s ability to be a viable and dependable product.

Today fought back on two fronts. On the PR front, we reached out to the ad people, explaining what had happened with the inaugural edition of the paper and why we faced these technical problems. Even the boss of KHL, Lim Geok Khoon, was roped in to meet the ad people. This way, he could explain the intricacies of the printing processes and the issues his company was dealing with. COO Philip Koh and his ad sales team fanned out to mollify advertising agencies. As CEO of Mediacorp Press, I met our major advertisers with just one appeal: if you don’t give us a chance, you will return to the dark ages of doing business with an uncompromising and stifling monopoly.

The printing issues persisted for a few months. All this while, the team proactively informed our clients of the problems and measures they were taking to resolve them. They sensed that our clients were willing to give us the benefit of the doubt. All this made us realise that Today needed its own person on site whose sole responsibility was to work with the printer and keep the team informed. Sultan Ahmed, who had worked with the short-lived newspaper, the Singapore Monitor, in the 1980s, was well-versed in printing matters and the needs of the editorial departments. He was our man on the ground, telling the key people at Today what to look out for and what needed to be done to keep the presses humming. Sultan was also an early warning system, sounding the alert on possible problems ahead, very valuable indeed as the team could plan its operations accordingly.

SPH wanted to know our distribution strategy, and the best way was to follow our lorries as they left KHL every morning. In the early hours of 10 November 2000, as Today struggled to get the first issue out, SPH’s distribution teams were already at our printing site in Loyang. A few trucks bearing the SPH logo were stationed outside, keeping a watching brief.

This failed to bother most of our team, but behind our mild amusement was the serious realisation that the cat-and-mouse games had begun. Some in the team were SPH alumni with first-hand experience of the print giant as a bulldozer, fully capable of knocking the competition out of shape. They knew it was war. Whose blood, I wondered, would be on the floor? Today would be distributed at subway stations, especially in the Central Business District, and delivered to selected offices and homes.

The content would be what The Straits Times (ST) would not, and could not, deliver. The insurgent would not be brazenly pro-government: it would mix analysis with news. The editors discussed the content of the inaugural edition at some length. Would we get into trouble with the government? That was one of the questions posed. Possible, I said, but I was betting on Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong to give us the space we needed.

My instincts were proven right. In my three years as the paper’s editor-in-chief and CEO of Mediacorp Press, not once did I get a call from the Prime Minister’s Office complaining about anything we had published. ST, however, did not let it rest. I got wind of information that some ST editors had told David Lim, then Acting Minister of Information, Communications and the Arts, about Today’s editorial approach. I knew I had to counter this fresh attack quickly. I went to see David Lim with a thick file containing ST’s reports on the region which mixed comment and analysis with news. I remember him telling me: “Balji, don’t worry. I know the game that is being played.”

The serious editorial bent of our newspaper took SPH by surprise. They had counted on Today being packed with western-style tabloid fodder, heavy on scandal and female cleavage. Our editorial ideology was just the opposite: Today emphasised serious stories told in a lively and contextual way. Unlike ST, we went beyond the news, working the background and perspectives into the news, thus providing a meaningful read.

As a pre-emptive strike, SPH had launched its own free daily, Streats, in September 2000, two months before Today’s appearance. Streats’ slogan, “Treats For The Streets”, turned out to be a complete miscalculation because it branded them as a downmarket publication, while we were carving out a new market for Today as a serious tabloid. Streats’ five or more editorial revamps after Today launched showed how it struggled to change course in midstream, but the die had been cast and the market had already passed judgement.

Streats had an even bigger battle – an internal one – to fight. It had to play second fiddle to ST and was not allowed to cannibalise the content of the flagship, which provided the bulk of the revenue to SPH’s coffers. Today had no such baggage. All we wanted was 10 per cent of ST’s advertising revenue and we would be home and dry. SPH’s Cheong Yip Seng, then editor-in-chief of its English and Malay newspapers, was against CEO Tjong Yik Min’s plan to introduce Streats as a spoiler. Tjong’s thinking was that Streats would distract Today, thus giving ST more room to continue to rule the roost. Cheong did not believe ST needed cover and did not want anything to do with Streats; thus the freesheet’s editor, Ken Jalleh, reported to SPH’s marketing chief, Tham Khai Wor. As word got out about the internal dissension in SPH, Streats began to lose its confidence.

Both Streats and Today started gunning for advertising dollars from the word go as that was the single tangible factor that would make the difference between success and failure. With both papers being given away free, the only source of revenue was advertising dollars. It helped that I was both editor-in-chief and CEO as I could provide advertisers and advertising agencies solutions no other paper could offer. Hewlett Packard wanted a one-day total buyout of the paper – a monopoly of all the ad spaces – and had their wish granted. Gillette wanted to launch their upside down shaver on Page One with an unusual request: the front page had to be upside down. Again, they got what they wanted.

Today’s COO Philip Koh and his sales team, with the editorial people right behind them, became a talking point. Of course, the early days were not plain sailing. Senior sales manager, Harry Tan, said:

The greatest challenge at the time for our marketing team was that advertisers, especially the big ones, were generally afraid to advertise in Today because they said they did not want to “burn the bridges” with SPH. These were the exact words uttered by the chairmen and managing directors of companies and advertising agencies that I met. SPH hounded agencies so much so that small and medium-sized agencies were afraid to recommend Today to their clients, much as they wanted to.

Philip and I went on a counter offensive, telling advertisers and ad agencies what our paper could bring to the table. As we did our rounds explaining Today’s offerings and its creative ideas, we could see the glint in the eyes of potential clients. A big hit was a never-before-tried solution: wraparound advertisements. Advertisers began to lap them up. After criticising Today for selling its editorial soul, ST had to surrender and follow suit.

Harry recollects those days with pride: “We were like the flamboyant suitor going around charming advertisers and telling them to let us woo them – and asking for just a fraction of their total budget – so that SPH would sit up and pay them attention. Those days were fun!”

Daisy Chia was one of many sales managers who tweaked conventional approaches to get clients to advertise. She said:

Our creativity and ideas appealed to art directors in ad agencies. We won accolades with our flexibility to accept different creatives. One of the first advertisers who jumped at the idea was KFC with its pop-up ads. Then there was the large hongbao ad from HSBC bank. We also had a special rose-scented edition.

There was, however, some disquiet on the editorial floor about these ads, especially the wraparound ones, as some journalists felt that their stories were being hidden by these ads and that such ads would affect Today’s editorial reputation. I was in two minds when COO Philip first approached with the idea, so I decided to see for myself the habits of the readers who picked up the paper from the yellow stand placed strategically in MRT stations. It was a revelation. They walked to the stand, picked up the free paper without looking at what was inside and rushed off. They just wanted to read a newspaper on their way to work in the train. Our Page one was the yellow stand and it told me that the free newspaper revolution in Singapore had started.

In Today’s seamless office, the sales and marketing staff were seated alongside reporters and editors, deleting the traditional gulf between those who produced the newspaper and those who sold it. I had a hunch that clients loved the presence of journalists at meetings. I was proven right as negotiations for contracts became smoother when journalists went along with salespeople. A senior editor could make editorial decisions needed to support the sales team in their marketing efforts and act as a check and balance against over-enthusiasm. Importantly, decisions could be made on the spot.

It worked well, and we were soon producing various supplements with targeted circulation at trade exhibitions. Collin Low, the senior sales manager supporting the travel sector, said: “Those were the good old days. It honed our ability to become better salespeople, being able to think out of the box and provide intelligent customer service to clients. The team was small but strong. We worked very hard, for example, for the quarterly NATAS travel supplements. It was so gratifying to see the number of pages growing every year.”

In support of Collin’s efforts, deputy editor Pauline Loh became a prolific travel writer, specialising in Australia and China, two of our largest travel clients. An important breakthrough brought in major food brands like Lam Soon and Nestlé, and supermarket chains Cold Storage, Carrefour and NTUC FairPrice. Instead of persuading them to buy individual advertisements, the team created a master contract for each client, combining hard and soft sell, which included branding advertisements and sponsored food and recipe pages.

Pauline, a foodie, said: “I remember we convinced the first of them – French hypermarket chain Carrefour – to come in with us because I did a recipe of a pear and chocolate tart, and they sold out on the featured products.” Food pages became a major feature in Today, and at its peak, there was a full page on food every other day.

Editorially, Today pushed for reports that didn’t toe the official line. Empathetic interviews with Opposition leaders, including JB Jeyaretnam, Sylvia Lim and Chiam See Tong, were splashed across Page One. JBJ’s interview by Lee Ching Wern was especially striking, with one SPH editor describing it as an “indelible, incandescent story”. Headlined “The Lonely Fighter”, it told readers how he had “lost everything” and was reduced to living in a room in Oxford Hotel on Queen Street.

Then there were the exclusives, such as the exposé of National Neuroscience Institute director, Professor Simon Shorvon, for taking blood samples from patients without first telling them the samples were for research, a clear breach of medical ethics. And a scoop stolen from right under ST’s nose of the navy ship RSS Courageous’ collision in 2003 with a merchant ship off Pedra Branca, which killed four people. Scoop specialist Jose Raymond was behind those stories.

I was worried about the courageous exclusive. It had the warning signs of The New Paper’s Super Puma crash story all over it. Jose reported precise details of when, how and where it happened, the number of fatalities and identified the ship it had collided with. Having learnt from the Super Puma episode just how hard Mindef could come down on the media, we fudged the details in our report (see Chapter 3).

Deputy editor Rahul Pathak ran the engine room of the editorial department, overseeing a group of bright, energetic – and raw – reporters, all raring to go. Rahul worked his magic by shaping their enthusiastic reporting into highly-readable stories. There was, however, a gaping hole in our early coverage. As readers and advertisers were quick to point out, Today’s coverage of business and the economy was meagre, especially so for a country that depended so much on these driving forces.

That was when former Business Times editor, Mano Sabnani, came knocking on our door. He offered to plug that gap by writing for us and training our reporters in business journalism. We shook hands and that started his long relationship with Today. When I declined to extend my three-year contract in 2003, Mano took over as editor-in-chief.

Mediacorp management was also out there fighting for Today. Group CEO Ernest Wong rolled up his sleeves and went into the trenches with us. His former role as United Overseas Bank’s group president and his close connections with government helped as he used his contacts to raise Today’s profile and inform the establishment of SPH’s tactics. He made a point of attending our management meetings every Tuesday.

When Kwa Chong Seng, chairman and managing director of Exxonmobil Asia Pacific Pte Ltd, was made chairman of Mediacorp in April 2002, he too joined our Tuesday meetings. It was during one of these meetings in 2002 when he showed his exasperation at Today for taking a long time to go into the black. I was taken aback. His words, said in front of our management team, who were already under pressure fighting a woken giant, were not what they wanted to hear, especially coming from the chairman.

I told him: “You are the chairman. You have the right and the might to close the paper down.” A hush fell on the meeting room, with Ernest Wong stepping in to cool temperatures.

On another occasion, during a Mediacorp board meeting, I asked Kwa Chong Seng if there was any truth to market talk that he and SPH chairman, Lim Kim San, had discussed ending the competition and arranging a merger between the media companies. I had also heard, I said, that Mediacorp was prepared to sacrifice Today in return for SPH closing down both its TV channels. Competition was getting bloody and both sides were losing money, lots of it. Kwa Chong Seng was candid. He responded with just one word: “Yes.” I responded sharply: “So Today is a guinea pig? How come the Todayteam was not told that its future was being dictated like this?” Again, Ernest Wong stepped in – to douse what could have been a heated debate – by saying that talks were informal and exploratory.

In May 2001, about six months into Today’s launch, I got a call from Mediacorp’s corporate office saying that Temasek Holdings’ top management team wanted to be briefed by the various business units on their performance and plans. Today had to give a briefing, too. I thought a 30-minute session would be sufficient. When told that Temasek had requested a longer briefing, I knew it would be a crucial session for the paper.

Mediacorp was a Temasek-linked company and its interest in Today was understandable. Philip and I realised that what we showed them would be critical to the paper’s future. We discussed at length how we should angle the presentation. Should we relate how SPH was blocking us all the way? No, that would sound too defensive. Should we showcase the editorial stance that differentiated Today from ST? No, they wouldn’t be interested. Finally, we decided to just talk business with them; we would analyse our performance to date and map our path forward.

We pored over the daily financial reports that showed the profit-and-loss picture. It was then that we noticed a light shining on us, albeit a small one. We saw that we were making a small profit every Friday; Thursday’s edition was also headed towards the black. We had a story – not a great one, but still a story – to tell. If we could make money on Fridays and do reasonably well on Thursdays, then there had to be hope for the other publication days as well.

Armed with these statistics, we structured a presentation with this headline: “Is there light at the end of the tunnel?” Our conclusion: yes, there was a light, a flickering one, not that of an on-rushing train.

The Temasek board was a high-powered one chaired by former Cabinet minister, S Dhanabalan. At the time, its members included then Finance Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Permanent Secretary Sim Kee Boon, Minister Lim Hng Khiang and Ho Ching, who would later become CEO of Temasek Holdings. Philip and I knew we had crossed one more bridge on the long road to success when Dhanabalan, who had been chairman of Temasek since September 1996, said: “Oh, this is not the story we have heard.”

Bit by bit, the Today staff began to get their act together. Slowly but steadily, the revenue picture improved. My three-year contract was coming to an end and the paper was inching towards breakeven status. It was left to Mano Sabnani, who took over from me, to make it profitable. That was achieved two years later in 2005.

This extract was taken from the best-seller book ‘Reluctant Editor’ by PN Balji, which was published by Marshall Cavendish and is available for sale online and at all major bookstores


Get the latest media and marketing industry news (and views) direct to your inbox.

Sign up to the free Mumbrella Asia newsletter now.



Sign up to our free daily update to get the latest in media and marketing