COMMENT: The big story behind the SPH reshuffle

A new Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) logo is unveiled at a ceremony marking the company’s 25th anniversary in Singapore on March 30, 2009. (AFP)

The leadership reshuffle at Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) is significant for its timing, the creation of the new post of deputy CEO, and the collapsing of the roles of The Straits Times (ST) editor and editor-in-chief onto the shoulders of one man.

But the hidden story behind these points is a striking shortage of ST’s editing talent which was exposed after Warren Fernandez became editor in 2012 — soon after the ruling People’s Action Party’s poor performance in General Election 2011.

The changes are timed to find a successor to CEO Alan Chan, who has been at the helm of a company caught in a tricky transition from print to digital.

At 63 he is past retirement age. Under his leadership, SPH has lumbered its way through an outdated business model that is overly dependent on its cash cow, ST, to bring in the revenue. But this revenue, both from circulation and advertising, has been slipping steadily.

Singapore’s premier publisher is caught in a classic trap. And Chan has not found a definitive way out of it. It is reluctant to go full throttle into digital, because that will mean cutting off the hand that feeds it. SPH is a blue chip company with an annual turnover of $1 billion, and it will take a brave man to ignore this mouth-watering statistic.

Also, digital is a dark domain where revenue is likely to be a pale shadow of its print big brother. Chan’s moves into the digital world show a company taking sometimes unsure, sometimes weak steps to find its way around.

New deputies

The creation of the deputy CEO post is likely to pave the way for succession as Chan has been in the job for 13 years. Patrick Daniel and Anthony Tan are the new deputies. Daniel, 61, is nearing retirement age, and Tan is a youthful 43.

The difference in their ages says something. It is very possible that Daniel will be the seat warmer CEO giving Tan the luxury of time and space to watch and observe operations as the media giant tries to find its direction in the new harsh world of disruption and transition.

Tan ticks off a few critical boxes SPH and the government want in a CEO. He was a top civil servant, had worked as principal private secretary to Lee Kuan Yew and mirrors his two predecessors’ track record as senior civil servants.

Warren Fernandez is moving up as editor-in-chief and will continue to be editor. ST has always kept the roles separate as the editor-in-chief has oversight over all the English, Malay and Tamil publications. How he will juggle these two balls is worth watching.

The appointment of Fernandez as editor in 2012 was the talk of the newsroom
as he had left in a huff four years earlier after serving as deputy editor.

There was no doubt in anyone’s minds, even in his critics’, that his appointment as deputy editor was done to fast track his rise to the editorship of ST. The PAP wanted him to stand in the 2006 elections but then editor in chief Cheong Yip Seng convinced the ruling party that he would be more useful in journalism than
in politics.

A lack of top leaders?

His return to ST – as editor – caused a stir in the newsroom. Even more surprising were the resignations of four senior editors soon after Fernandez returned to the newsroom triumphantly.

A couple of years later, a senior editor retired and refused to stay on even though he was offered a long-term contract. Then came the resignation of the news editor a few years ago with the post still being unfilled.

SPH has always been a talent-hungry company, hunting for people with the right skills and a good understanding of how not to get into trouble with the authorities.

Daniel and Han Fook Kwang, the editor who was moved sideways after the general election in 2011, came through the government route. And SPH might have to go back to that pipeline to fill in the gaps in its talent pool.

P N Balji is a veteran Singaporean journalist who is the former chief editor of TODAY newspaper, and a media consultant. The views expressed are his own.

Stay updated. Follow us on Facebook.