A reader recently pointed out that Malaysiakini has published over 100,000 reports. He was right. Malaysiakini passed this milestone with the article DAP minta Zahid tunggu keputusan mahkamah on March 11 - nine years and three months since its launch on Nov 20, 1999.
Indeed, it has been a long - and rewarding - journey.
Malaysiakini began with a simple idea. With the government holding a tight leash on the mainstream media but pledging not to censor the Internet, Malaysiakini set out to push the envelope of press freedom with its unique brand of independent news.
The website went live with six staff members and a bunch of volunteers to cover the 1999 general elections from a cramped, fourth-floor office lot in Section 14, Petaling Jaya.
Malaysiakini gained an audience even faster then anyone expected, registering over 100,000 daily unique visitors within nine months. Then, though, came the 'dotcom' bust in 2001 and online advertising quickly evaporated.
The online portal found itself stuck with an audience but without a viable business model. Against all sentiments, it decided to take a bet on its readers and launched a RM10-a-month subscription in early 2002.
"It was crushing. Only 1,000 of our 100,000 readers subscribed," says CEO Premesh Chandran. "We had to retrench staff, and it was very painful for all of us."
Nevertheless, as readers got used to the idea of paying for online content, the number of subscribers slowly grew. Combined with other revenues, Malaysiakini broke even in 2004.
In that year, the news website launched its Bahasa Malaysia version. This was followed by a Chinese language version a year later, and in 2006, Malaysiakini.tv went online. The next year, a Tamil version was conceived as part of a joint venture with weekly magazine Sembaruthi .
"With that, we are the only media organisation which has the capacity to deliver news in all the four major languages across various platforms," says editor-in-chief Steven Gan.
March 8 - tipping point
The 2008 general elections marked a major turning point for Malaysiakini. The elections were held in the wake of the Lingam tape controversy and the massive Bersih and Hindraf demonstrations.
Sensing the public mood, Malaysiakini took a huge gamble - it went free during the election campaign. This led to a massive surge in national readership, with Malaysiakini overtaking industry leader Star Online for the first time [see graph by Google Trends].
On March 8, the night of the general elections, Malaysiakini was the only media organisation reporting by the minute the momentous political tsunami as it happened.
Over 500,000 readers accessed Malaysiakini between 10pm and 11pm, triggering an automatic shutdown of the portal’s domain name server, which assumed the dramatic spike in visitors was a cyber-attack.
From the election results that night, the trend was clear - the Internet proved influential among young and urban voters.
Then prime minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi lamented that BN had ‘lost the Internet war’ and it was a ‘serious misjudgement’ for the ruling coalition to rely solely on the mainstream media to convey its campaign message.
March 8 proved to be a tipping point for both Malaysia and Malaysiakini . Malaysians were able to bury the ghost of 1969 and regained their voice in demanding a more responsive and clean government.
For this online newspaper, readership continued to grow in tandem with the political "excitement". Advertising revenue also soared, growing 10 times as compared to previous years, contributing to about 25 percent of total income.
Last month alone, Malaysiakini delivered over 35 million pages to 1.7 million viewers. Its average daily readership was about 250,000 as measured by Google Analytics.
With new media becoming THE media, Malaysiakini is no longer alone in cyberspace. Along with a growing band of bloggers, new competitors have emerged offering a similar diet of independent news. The traditional media, too, are boosting their investments in new media.
Still, Malaysiakini remains the most influential and most read political news portal.
"It is remarkable that we are able to maintain pole position despite being a subscription-based site. Comparing us with free websites is like comparing mineral water with tap water," says Gan.
According to ratings engine Alexa, Malaysiakini has consistently outranked The Star since last year, with Utusan Malaysia third followed by Malaysia Today , Malaysian Insider and New Straits Times .
Can subscription model work?
With new competitors, Malaysiakini is often asked whether the subscription model is sustainable. Can it compete when other sites which are offering their content for free?
"It does put a lot of pressure on us. But we don’t believe advertising alone is sufficient to fund good journalism," says Chandran, noting that Malaysiakin i’s subscription income contributed to over 65% of total earnings in 2008.
"Free websites will continue to remain in the red for years to come and they will have to find other ways to finance their operations," he added.
Gan said Malaysiakini will continue to rely on a mix of the subscription and advertising models.
"We believe that total dependence on advertisers and investors can undermine editorial independence," he said.
Globally, a number of premium websites such as Wall Street Journal and Financial Times that have gone subscription-based are doing well. Increasingly, in order to survive, websites with sizable readerships are looking at introducing some form of subscription.
But Malaysiakini will not rest on its laurels.
"We used to be a ‘blue ocean’, but like all ‘blue oceans’ they are eventually copied and become part of the ‘red ocean’," said Chandran.
"As we celebrate Malaysiakini 's 10 th anniversary in November this year, we hope to work with our readers and subscribers to reinvent ourselves, offering more value to our subscribers as we continue to push the boundaries in delivering fast, independent and balanced news."
In the coming months, Malaysiakini will introduce a new-look website which will incorporate some of the latest technology. And come November, readers and supporters are invited to a gala dinner to celebrate its 10 th anniversary.
And to all Malaysiakini supporters and subscribers, thank you for 10 amazing and exciting years!