Malaysiakini News

When only tycoons get to enjoy press freedom

Steven Gan  |  Published:  |  Modified:

Among the strong-armed, white-wash laced

valueless rags, waste of airtime space

a cry arose, amongst distressed populace

for a mirror, to reflect its true gritty face

                                                                                   

Disillusioned editors, journalists, activists

banded to reform, deceitful draconian distastes

a bastion online, world wide web cyber space

a frontier - uncensored, uncontrolled, undisgraced

 

A window to truth, curtained by justice

where ethics rule, common sense entail

reflecting flaws, repressive dictates

breaking silence, lifting blinker-veils

 

A full decade, threads of time has spun

news and views, that need and must be told

the foundation, tis' where we all began

a hope and dream, where freedom walks bold.

 

These words were written by Hazlan Zakaria, who until recently was a journalist in Malaysiakini . He penned them in 2009 when the country’s first news portal marked its 10th birthday.                                                        

                       

Fast forward five years - Malaysiakini will be celebrating its 15th anniversary next week. Looking back, if asked to pick the one thing I’m proud of, it is not that Malaysiakini had made a political impact.

                                                                                                           

That is easy. After all, few journalists were crazy enough to take on strongman Dr Mahathir Mohamad. We were then very much alone and not surprisingly, we stood out like a sore thumb.

 

Indeed, the one thing I’m most proud of is that Malaysiakini has survived financially - independent from self-serving politicians and tainted tycoons - all these years. Attacks on the press do not only come from the government. The threat to press freedom also comes from men and women in business suits.

                                                                                                           

It is this twin battle that Malaysiakini has set out to fight - to challenge not only an authoritarian regime, but also to find a viable model that can stand up to the dictatorship of the market.

                                               

The bane of online advertising

                                   

From the get-go, we knew it was crucial to keep news separate from the business of running a media organisation.

 

My job as editor-in-chief is to maintain good journalism. The job of my partner and co-founder, Premesh Chandran, the chief executive officer, is to ensure we make enough to sustain our operation.

                                   

We believe that good journalism sells, and that Malaysians are willing to pay for great content. That was why we adopted the subscription model 12 years ago, when just about everyone said it would fail.

 

It did work for us and it’s good to see other media organisations, including giants like New York Times , warming up to the pay model. It is increasingly clear that few news websites can survive on advertising alone.

 

Last year, online advertising in United States - which stood at US$43 billion - commanded the largest share of the market, surpassing broadcast TV for the first time ever. But here's the bad news. The online advertising landscape is very different from that of the traditional media.

                                                                                   

Competitors for the advertising dollar include those that are not strictly content providers - Google, Facebook, Yahoo, Microsoft and AOL, to name a few. In other words, advertisers no longer rely on journalism to deliver eyeballs the way they once did with old media. Search engines alone control almost 50 percent of the market.      

 

Indeed, none of these top five online companies are media companies. In the US, 10 companies control over two-thirds of the online advertising market, and they, along with 40 others, take 90 percent of the pie.

 

Anyone outside this elite group of 50 companies faces intense competition for a relatively small pot of money. Moreover, puny websites such as Malaysiakini are competing not just with other local brands for advertising, but with super-companies, such as the likes of Google.

 

It is now clear that for many media organisations, the competition for online advertising is so acute that digital media economics might not support professionally-produced journalism. 

 

Perhaps that’s a blessing in disguise. In the Internet age, advertisers have more bargaining power than ever. They can now track not only how many people are looking at a page, but which part of the page readers are looking at, and how long they stay on that page.

 

This puts tremendous pressure on media organisations to deliver eyeballs to advertisers.

 

Powered by Malaysiakini readers

           

That’s why there should be an impregnable wall between editorial and business. And to bolster this, there must also be a rigorous policy on journalistic ethics. In addition, media organisations should be transparent on who their owners are. This allows readers to help keep check on potential conflict of interests.

 

Malaysiakini has four shareholders - its two co-founders with 29 percent each, venture capital Media Development Investment Fund (MDIF, 29 percent) and staff (13 percent). MDIF injected RM1.3 million for its stake in Malaysiakini in 2004, when we launched our pay wall. The money came in handy as we suffered losses during the difficult transition to subscription in the first few years.

                                   

It took us three years before we saw sizeable number of our supporters returning to Malaysiakini , though not all of them. However, it was enough for Malaysiakini to start turning in a small profit.

 

Since then, no new investors have come on board and we are running very much on our own steam. As a result, we have to be prudent with our spending. Whatever extra we make, we set half aside to reward our hardworking team members, who are drawing below market-rate salaries. The other half, we use to expand our operations, for example KiniTV and KiniBiz .

 

But it is still a struggle to make ends meet. We don’t have faceless investors with deep pockets throwing money at Malaysiakini .

However, what we do have are loyal subscribers. Still, we were blown away by the support for our ‘ Buy a Brick ’ campaign, which raised almost RM1.7 million. My thanks to each and every one of you.

Like it or not, the cyberworld is no different from the real world. As big media conglomerates move online, it is expected that the control and domination which we see in the traditional media, will be reflected in the online world as well.

                                   

News consumers will have to put their money where their mouth is. If they don't pay for news, there are many tycoons who are willing to do so. And at the end of the day, the tycoons get to enjoy press freedom, not Malaysians.

                                                           


 

Come join the street party to celebrate Malaysiakini’s 15th anniversary and the launch of its new headquarters in Petaling Jaya at 7pm on Saturday, Nov 22. Everyone is invited. More details here . [Waze map]

                 

                                                                   

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