March 15, 2016
The Malaysian Insider depended on Ah Kong, not Ah Jib Hor like Utusan Malaysia
COMMENT: We bid a sad farewell to The Malaysian Insider (TMI).I’ll leave it to those better qualified to speak at length about their many achievements and contributions.
Suffice it to say here that they will remembered as one of the most widely read and impactful online news publications Malaysia has ever seen.
Perhaps this is a good time to take a step back, and reflect on just how vulnerable alternative media is in Malaysia, as well as the role that everyday, normal Malaysians, will have to play in order to keep alternative media alive.
The Internet revolutionised media in Malaysia. From a situation where any form of mass media was controlled by the same people who controlled the government, there suddenly arose a publishing platform that the powers-that-be completely failed to control.
With the advent of the Internet, and published, uncensored truths filling the country like a gush of fresh air, public discourse in Malaysia would never be the same again.
After a number of popular blogs laid the foundation, Malaysiakini blazed the path by being the first formal, professional online news organisation. Soon, many others followed, TMI among them.
All want, nobody wants to pay
Malaysiakini Founders–Still Going Strong with Generous Subscribers and Friends
I remember Malaysiakini CEO Premesh Chandran defining for me what a ‘social asset’ meant, a long time ago. He said, “A social asset is something everybody wants, but nobody wants to pay for.”
As news websites became more and more popular, and grew in size and stature, a persistent concern was funding.
Media conglomerates such as Media Prima or the The Star Media Group have very little to worry about, as they have the government backing them at every turn, and have what is practically a monopoly in their fields. That position of course severely compromised the independence and credibility of their publications.
When alternative media burst upon the scene to fill that gap, the public response was overwhelming.Of course, the only way to be and stay a truly independent media is to be truly financially independent.
Vulnerabilities of ad revenue models
For alternative media, achieving financial independence focuses on two areas: ads and subscriptions.Ad revenue is a particularly precarious landscape for online publications.
After all, selling ad space on publications deemed ‘unfriendly’ towards the government is already a challenging task, given how most businesses are unwilling to risk earning the ire of the powerful.
To make things worse, what happens when the sites on which you are selling ads run the risk of being shut down at any moment, the way TMI or Sarawak Report was?
In a blink of an eye, a blocked publication will have gone from providing a useful service to companies that bought advertising space, to providing absolutely zero service.
Even if websites are not shut down, in a country like ours, it isn’t difficult for someone in power to make a few phone calls and pressure companies clearly advertising on alternative media to pull out. There may even be hints of ‘consequences’ for failing to do so.
Ah Kong-owned vs owner-operated
With ad revenue so unpredictable, we are left with subscriptions. This is of course another major challenge, as many people balk at the idea of paying for news.
Why pay, when there is so much free news out there?Part of the answer lies in thinking about why or how all that free news got there.
It costs serious money to run a professional news organisation, and is often impossible without an ‘Ah Kong’ (slang for big backer with a ‘generous’ heart) or some other source of funds. (In terms of quality journalists alone, all the glory and thrill of writing for an independent publication can easily and understandably wither away in the face of mainstream newspapers that are willing to pay twice the salary.)
The trouble with relying on ‘Ah Kong’ of course is the risk that one might be shut down at any time, maybe for ‘commercial’ reasons, such as those the given by The Edge Media Group for shutting down TMI. Such publications only exist as long as ‘Ah Kong’ decides it is good for him.
It is no coincidence that perhaps the only owner-operated news publication in the country is also the only publication that charges a subscription fee for its online material. How else can they be expected to remain independent?
Up to us
No doubt there’s a lot independent publications can do to make it easier for us to support them; perhaps with a little more breathing space financially, they’ll be able to focus on making those improvements.
In the meantime, as Malaysia heads into some seriously dark times, we may have to let go of the mentality that someone else will pay for social assets like quality, independent journalism.
After all, if everyday Malaysians like us aren’t willing even a little to dig into our pockets to help keep truth and freedom alive, then we shouldn’t be surprised to find ourselves in a future filled with lies and tyranny.
To close, let us take heart from Jahabar Sadiq’s words: “We won’t go gently into the night, well because news never takes a break anyway. We will stay up, one way or another, to inform you and to let you speak to everyone who wants to listen to you.The biggest lesson I learnt is simply this, we are all The Malaysian Insider.”
NATHANIEL TAN had a very enjoyable stint working for Malaysiakini for the first half of 2015.