What figures does she want to see

The recent scandal involving the “inflation” of circulation figures at SPH Media Trust reminds me one of my first working experiences when I joined the Old Rogue, who was then in the process of starting his magazine. We had clicked and he asked if I could help out in driving circulation. As it turned out, the printed figure of 10,000 that was being placed in his media kit didn’t match with the actual print run.

We had arguments over this. I tried to explain that I needed to know where magazines were going because potential advertisers would want to know. He would always reply, “I’m hiring you to get sales not to be a back office magician playing with circulation figures.” It then reached a stage when I had a potential advertiser who was asking for accurate circulation figures and he replied “You should ask her what figures she wants to see.”

I remember these instances because it highlights one of the aspects of media business. Everyone knows editorial because people use media for the content. Everyone knows the advertising side because that is the revenue that pays the bills. Everyone forgets the third pillar, which is distribution or circulation. While circulation may be less well known than the other two, its an essential pillar because there’s no point of having the other two if the medium is being distributed to people. Advertisers want to know that who is reading their ad and editorial want to know that what they write is going to the people who will read.

My Dad freaked at the idea of me working as an ad salesman for a small and unknown publication. His point was that an ad salesperson was the type of person that everyone would run away from. He made the point that “it wouldn’t be so bad if you were selling for the Straits Times, everyone knows the Straits Times.”

Well, he had a point. Back on in those days, the Straits Times was sent to just about every English speaking household in the country. Circulation was around two million and the argument was that a copy would be sent to one place (mainly a house or office) and everyone would read it. An outline of what things like circulation and readership can be found here.

One can also learn a bit more about what the saga at SPH means here:

A lot of things are being said about this incident and for me, two things are clear. The most obvious point is that the normally “forward” looking Singapore government consistently gets exposed as “backward” whenever it comes to the media and nothing underlines this as much as this incident.

Our government loves technology and has created program after program to try and make sure that Singapore is a shinning and glowing red dot in the world of technological progress. However, when it comes to the media, where good old fashioned print and broadcast are shielded from competition – including from each other.

I think of Mr. Leslie Fong, who was editor in chief of the Straits Times and Vice-President of Marketing (as a disclaimer, Mr. Fong has worked with my mother and knows my father). Mr. Fong has been a champion of SPH’s business model. At the Ad Asia Symposium in 2005, Mr. Fong declared “The Effort to Go Tabloid is a Futile Effort to Dumb Down for Younger Eyeballs at the Expense of Older Ones.” At that point, the representative of Bennet & Coleman told him “You are a prisoner of your own business model,” and proceeded to tell him where the future was.

It was unfortunate for Mr. Fong that in this instance, he had to address people from elsewhere. In Singapore, Mr. Fong is celebrated as an elder statesman who can take ministers to task for having the audacity to make announcements on social media instead of calling the mainstream media to a press conference.

Part of this model that Mr. Fong defends so passionately involves being very critical of online media. We are constantly reminded that we need to look at the source of information and not to trust everything online. Unfortunately, this has started to sound like the time taxi drivers made noise about Uber Drivers cheating on their taxes only to find that the billing information was all on the Uber Platform and Uber Drivers were declaring honestly, whilst the taxi drivers on the other hand started getting uncomfortable questions from the tax authorities.

As a blog publisher, I would love to claim that I had as many readers as any of the SPH publications. I would also love to get advertising revenue like the SPH papers. Unfortunately, Google has a nasty way of tracking exactly how many people click on my blog and the advertisers only pay when people click on the ads.

Far from making things murkier, technology makes it more difficult to hide. Let’s face it, just as governments try and usually fail to control internet content, they’re active in the sphere of “cashless technology.” Simply put, its harder to hide when all payments are electronic and easy to trace.

The second point that becomes clear is – “Why now?” Surely, this issue with circulation isn’t exactly new and can be a coincidence that the “inflation” of circulation figures is only being discovered now that you have someone from a business background running the show.

The fact is SPH Media Trust used to be known as Singapore Press Holdings Limited. This was a company that had to answer to shareholders. Its survival depended on the fact that it had advertisers who were willing to advertise in its publication. As Singapore Press Holdings Limited, the accountability was to shareholders and advertisers on whom revenue came from.

However, as SPH Media Trust, the story is different. There are no longer any shareholders demanding a financial return. They have “trustees,” who happen to be government linked and the need to prove that you are worthy of the advertising dollar no longer becomes a pressing issue when there’s a sugar daddy in the shape of the government.

There’s no pressure on management to “deliver” a financial return when you are a non-profit and one has to ask why such potentially revenue damaging information only comes out when the entity no longer has to shareholders to answer to.


Tang Li

*Although I’ve been based mainly in Singapore for nearly two decades, I’ve had the privilege of being able meet people who have crossed borders and cultures. I’ve befriended ministers and ambassadors and worked on projects involving a former head of state. Yet, at the same time, I’ve had the privilege of befriending migrant labourers and former convicts. All of them have a story to tell. All of them add to the fabric of life. I hope to express the stories that inspire us to create life as it should be.




7 Responses to “What figures does she want to see”

  • Insightful:


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  • dodo:

    Interesting organization called SPH Media TRUST in the wake of a huge TRUST scandal with country leaders dragging their feet to get to the bottom of matters.

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  • Billy ma:

    The only difference between the before & after is : now this newspaper is 100% PAP owned with taxpayers $$$.

    Before there were probably a tiny bit of guilt in their writings, now it is face off.
    Shame is totally out of their vocabulary.

    Anyway, they can just print total one copy a day (sent to lhl), they don’t really care anymore.

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  • opposition dude:

    The thing about SPH is that they have always prided themselves as “the truth” and “Asia’s best” or “most trusted source of news”. One embarrassing expose after they choose instead to keep quiet for days before giving an update which leads to more questions. So next time when they start talking once again about integrity and trust please don’t forget to laugh loudly and bring up this case hor.

    Same goes for CPIB. For whatever reasons known the Keppel executives involved were only given a stern warning and no jail time. Feeble excuse by CPIB which convinces no one and they do an SPH and also keep real quiet after that.

    This will always be a black mark for both SPH and CPIB, and one that won’t be forgotten by netizens.

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  • Trustless:

    The name have been changed to protect the innocent.
    Now it is called ‘SPH Media Trustless’
    Meanwhile —
    ”Record-high HDB rents driving Malaysians working in S’pore to live in JB”
    Malaysians in Sinkieland are beginning to use their brains.
    You do not have to at the mercy of landlords.
    You can live in JB and work in Sinkieland.
    So can Sinkies.
    Do not let landlords take your pay checks away!
    The huge property bubble in Sinkieland have to stop or else there will not be a next generation of Sporeans.

    Interesting organization called SPH Media TRUST in the wake of a huge TRUST scandal with country leaders dragging their feet to get to the bottom of matters.

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  • 2Daft2Live:

    There’s no pressure on management to “deliver” a financial return when you are a non-profit……no shareholders to answer to.

    Meaning that all these years when SPH was a private company it was lying about its circulation figures? I won’t be surprised…. habitual liars are habitual because they get rewarded with the results they wanted through lying!

    Question: Has the MIWs been caught lying over the decades?

    Ans: On more than 1 occasion….so do we have a habitual liar governing this country? That’s a question the dafts just lack the mental capacity to grasp.

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  • 154 media:

    It’s no surprise, it comes naturally to them after all they are the state propaganda mouthpiece

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