COMMENT | On March 8, 2018, editor-in-chief Steven Gan invited a few Malaysiakini commenters to visit our office for lunch and a chat. Having some other prior engagement, I did not plan to join the event. However, as nature would have it, I ended up having one of the most liberating Malaysiakini conversations.
What struck me was the sincerity of these subscribers. They were genuinely concern about the growth and sustainability of Malaysiakini. They were imparting ideas that we ended up mulling over weeks after.
In addition, they said a few things which scored high on nationalism and the intense desire to see Malaysiakini succeed, not for themselves but for the generations which come after them. It’s amazing to note that these commenters too were in complete alignment with the Malaysiakini mission. They cared deeply for the future of Malaysia.
One commenter said, “Look, you should no longer be focusing on us since we have one foot out the door. You need to focus on the younger generation, find out their needs and provide what they are seeking.”
At that point, Malaysiakini was still figuring out whether the younger generation would be willing to pay for online content. We would make a discovery soon after this conversation - that young people today are inspired by a need to serve. They will support, perhaps more than any other generation before them, an organisation driven by service.
Almost half of those who work in Malaysiakini are between the age of 20 and 30. How could we ever say that the young do not care about this country? Malaysiakini, through its recruitment of both staff and interns, has defied this perception. They stay longer in the organisation than the average millennials too.
Young people normally ask us, “Why should we subscribe to Malaysiakini?” The truth is that people have a choice - to either randomly consume every piece of information floating about the internet, or be mindful about the organisation and its mission and choose to help sustain an organisation which adds value to either a community, or nation, or the world at large.
People do pay hefty loads for entertainment and anything which gives them pleasure or sustains their worldview. Why not consciously choose to support an organisation which takes arduous efforts to bring facts to its subscribers and readers, and because to not do so would mean the end of the organisation?
Nevertheless, our dogged pursuit for sustainability sometimes gives rise to real-life dilemmas. We had an incident where an elderly lady telephoned us. She claimed to be in the hospital for over two months, that she does not have her credit card with her and that her children rarely visit her. She asked if we could give her one-month complimentary access.
When asked to make a decision to give this woman free access, for a split second, I was torn between honouring the Malaysiakini’s team tireless efforts and compassion for this lady. I looked at our mission for an answer. I realised, if reading Malaysiakini would provide relief to this one person in hospital, then RM40 means nothing to us.
If she is feeling involved in the country’s occurrences because of our news, and feeling less lonely, then we have done our job. Indeed, we have done more than just our job, we have lived our mission. We can’t say we care for this country if we did not care for the plight of an elderly woman among us.
‘The media of the future’
I was feeling generally stuck when thinking about our subscribers and what would make people support and sustain the only independent media in the country. I mean, after almost two decades of being the leaders in media and in the forefront of political news, we were bound to face roadblocks.
Something one of the commenters who was at that March 8 lunch said set me thinking. “You are the media of the future, you get to decide where the media of this country goes, you get to invent and innovate your content like no other media has,” he said.
And that was the key - being an organisation which is going to be 19 in November, does not make us old and irrelevant. We had the first-mover advantage. Now we have a great opportunity to set newer, more liberating standards in journalism because we have years of industry experience under our belt, and our doors are open to young talents who have much to offer in this day and age.
I realised then that while we are an “old” organisation, we are still learning, still willing to put aside our “know-it-all” attitude to scrutinise and understand deeply what our subscribers and readers are seeking and needing from us.
I was at a regional forum in Jakarta last weekend and spoke at a press freedom panel. While listening to all the media professionals around the region, I noticed that many organisations, while struggling greatly against suppressions of many forms, did not quite understand the onus of power.
Just like the leaders of this country and all other countries need to understand, while organisationally, you may be positioned as a leader or authority of the people, our real duty is that of servanthood. The boss of independent media are the people.
In the old days, the relationship between the media and the people was stringently one way, with a great wall between us. The media was an authority which decided the content, and people consumed that which was dished out.
Today, with technological advances, the media has no choice but to listen to what the people want, to have a participatory relationship with the consumers of news. Media organisations who first understands this, and relinquishes their power to the people, will emerge as the most powerful institution of leadership.
LYNN D’CRUZ is Malaysiakini’s senior manager in organisational development.
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