In the early bluster and upheavals of the Reformasi movement, deep fissures began to open up in Malaysian society. As with all things geopolitical, the real key was the impact on urban centres – hubs of commerce, power and information. If it didn’t happen there, it didn’t happen at all.
It was in these days of the Multimedia Super Corridor, infatuation with Angelina Jolie – God bless her chest – in Hackers and pop philosophy in The Matrix, that Malaysia was introduced to “alternative media.”
Putting aside pedantic definitions of such a term – which in contemporary Malaysia, should perhaps be confined to social media given the eyeballs and influence that online news sites boast nowadays – Malaysiakini provided a sensational new lens to view the political nation.
Fast forward to 2008, and the seismic changes pre-, during and post-general elections resulted in a mushrooming of online news sites, variously claiming that they caused or were the result of, or are responding to the call for change in the country.
That was in 10 years, a pretty quick revolution in such a tightly-controlled media space. But in about half that time, we see that these noble or chest-beating claims were all slightly disingenuous.
A few have fallen by the wayside – The Nut Graph famously proclaimed to be good journalism and pretty much begged for donations, but still ran out of cash and turned into a blog – while others opened to pomp and splendour only for the reading public to find that the emperor has not much more than a g-string on.
But a small number managed to keep their heads above the water.
Malaysiakini actually turned in a “profit” some years, and their editor loudly compared his site to mineral water, while the rest were tap water – you’d pay the subscription because it was better, apparently.
But what Malaysiakini doesn’t like talking about is that the number of subscriptions make up a fraction of their total eyeballs, and if they erected a meaningful paywall which can’t be circumvented by a bright enough 10-year-old, they’d lose any ability to attract advertisers given the plethora of free sites out there.
Not that this should hurt them that much. Malaysiakini has always been able to attract grants and continues to run subsidiary programs and projects to earn even more grants – all in the name of promoting democracy in the country. I leave that to the reader to unpack.
But The Nut Graph was correct in one thing – good journalism is expensive (even if The Nut Graph wasn’t necessarily it). In fact, even average journalism is expensive, given its overall poor state in this country.
Industry insiders say there is no way Malaysiakini is coming anywhere close to even covering half its labour cost based on subscriptions alone and that it has now gained enough in grants to be able to consider buying its own premises, instead of the higher floors of a corner shoplot it currently sits in.
So here we are today, where there are still more news portals than you can read in a day. New ones have sprouted up with the most intriguing being that of The Malay Mail Online (MMO), where the team, minus a few additions, is pretty much the same one that ran The Malaysian Insider (TMI), the closest thing that came to being a rival to the dominant Malaysiakini.
But rumours of TMI’s demise have been greatly exaggerated. Jahabar Sadiq, who remains CEO and chief editor, has aggressively recruited to keep the site going and given the similar formats of MMO and TMI, it is turning out to be a very interesting rivalry.
The rationale behind MMO might be that if you want to start a new portal, then why not just import a successful formula? But while TMI’s impact in a period of five years is laudable, it was still not a profitable outfit.
Nobody is, once you put aside grants. So why are more and more people pursuing this route? Perhaps as mentioned earlier, it is due to Malaysia’s tightly-controlled media space, with licensing regimes for both print and broadcast outlets. The internet is one area where there are fewer controls, so anyone with any ambitions of becoming a leading voice in the Malaysian media will necessarily have to consider the online option.
But going online isn’t a silver bullet. The other reason why Malaysian media is such a tightly-contested zone is that advertisers do not like controversy and most online sites court controversy by not toeing the government line.
In an economy with such a huge government presence, only very independent or daring companies attempt advertising on news portals. This too, only because rates are ridiculously low (you could take a banner ad for a week and pay less than a month’s salary – I’m assuming you earn enough to hang out on Jalan Telawi once in awhile – so there’s an idea for when you finally propose to the love of your life) as online players try to break the inertia of clients who basically think “The Star and TV3” when it comes to ad spend.
Some blame this on Malaysiakini for “throwing prices” and spoiling the market, since unlike free and non-grant receiving portals, it’s not a life-and-death matter for them. Whatever the case is, what is clear is that there is very little light at the end of a very long tunnel for online news.
Those in the game now are looking to be early movers in a long, arduous war. They say that it took Astro something like seven years before it broke even, and that’s a billion-dollar business, never mind a dinky online startup.
But with more and more players entering the field, they are each having to differentiate their product. So, more money has to be poured into design, infrastructure, IT costs and other resources than before. Eg, prior to TMI’s emergence, Malaysiakini looked worse than several blogs I know of. It hasn’t gotten much prettier since, but it has at least taken some trouble to be kinder on the eyes.
Meanwhile, it’s become an employees’ market when it comes to reporters – the bread and butter of any text-based news organisation.
There are only so many good reporters out there. Hell, there are only so many reporters, period.
So, the mad expansion of the market has also seen a mad bout of movement and along with that, a lot of paycheques being boosted and inflated.
Reporters are salivating at the prospects of adding on up to 50 percent to their salary with a simple phone call and a casual chat over a drink (halal or otherwise). But is this sustainable?
When Free Malaysia Today came onto the scene, they pinched several reporters by offering significant increases. Then fz.com did the same, and meanwhile, The Star was always looking to recruit to replace veterans, some of whom left journalism altogether.
Now TMI and MMO are both offering fiercely “competitive” salaries. As one editor said, “it’s like the football transfer window has opened.”
Similarly, in the world of professional football, wages have ballooned in the past two decades and most top clubs are struggling to make ends meet, with most of their operating expenditure going to pay a handful of superstars.
One online news editor said “if you can cover about 70 percent of your operating expenditure, that’s already a good operation.” That’s how dire it is. Whether your investor is an “angel” or a political backer, at some point, there’s only so much someone is willing to bleed.
So, the 64-bit question is will it ever make financial sense? Even if advertisers start wising up and realising that online ads are far more trackable, (number of eyeballs and clicks can all be measured, while on print and broadcast, you can only guess how many people bothered to look or listen) will there ever be enough to go around? Print, in general, is already having a tough time staying afloat. The most profitable newspaper, The Star, has decided it must diversify and now has radio stations, an online division and launched an iPad app.
One can at least take the optimistic view that going online takes away the ridiculous cost of newsprint. But ads will only ever be justified by the number of people viewing them, and with a market segmented by four national languages, there is only so much of an audience anyone can carve out.
It really boils down to this – how important is news to you? While there is no need to argue about the pro-establishment bias of “mainstream media”, how much do you really treasure the supposedly less biased online portals?
Is it really where you go to be informed? Or are you headed to Twitter, Facebook and other avenues, such as analyst reports from research houses? How about places where there isn’t internet penetration yet? Should they care about free and fair media?
These are serious questions Malaysia needs to ask itself and answer, with regards to not just online media, but the media landscape as a whole. The trials and tribulations of online media are just the sharp pointy end of a sinking iceberg. This thing will sink if nobody cares enough to invest in keeping it afloat.
And this investment needs to be in terms of money, time, good choices and engagement. No media format will last forever, but for now, the most vibrant is still the stuff you find on the internet.
But let’s be realistic. Very few of us are going to just open up our wallets just because I wrote this article. The problem is that there is still a prevalent “free” culture on the Malaysian cybersphere/pyramid/cube/whatever.
Nobody is following Malaysiakini’s suit of charging for content in Malaysia. And even for Malaysiakini, it’s not reached a critical mass of subscribers. But yet, it is a model adopted widely overseas.
I’m afraid the discussion is not too dissimilar to piracy. And at the source of this chain is still the reporter/photographer/videographer out there gathering news for you.
While there are subsidiary ways to pay your favourite actor/singer/writer besides paying for their core product – going for concerts, buying merchandise, etc – there is really little else you can do for the journalist.
This is even more vital when it comes to online journalism as a larger portion of the revenue goes to the journalist, as compared to newspapers and TV stations which employ an army of salesmen, administrative staff and boardroom suits, not to mention the logistical cost of printing and delivering the newspaper or maintaining studios and broadcast linkups respectively.
In short, the question about how important news is to you, should really be rephrased to “How important is journalism to you?”
A version of this article was first published on JalanTelawi.com