When news media start-ups mature: Lessons from 20 years of Malaysiakini
Asia’s original new media “start-up” Malaysiakini has turned 20. How’d they do it? The Story’s Jacqui Park spoke with Steven Gan, Co-founder and Editor-in-Chief about Malaysiakini then — and now.
Jacqui Park: If we go back to when it all started in 1999, what was the challenge that you were responding to in first launching Malaysiakini?
Steven Gan: The media landscape is such that a lot of the newspapers and TV stations are closely linked to the government — either directly or indirectly owned by political parties that are part of the ruling coalition. Or they are owned by cronies, friends who are close to the party leaders.
There is no such a thing as an independent media. You have the pro-government media and you have the opposition media which are party organs, like Harakah, for the Islamic party or The Rocket for the Democratic Action Party.
So we wanted to change that equation with a media that is independent. We are completely nonpartisan, run by professional journalists.
JP: How did other media respond to that? Has traditional media shifted in that time to become more independent to compete with you?
SG: Until 2018, it was very much business as usual for them. They were hostile, but not terribly troubled by what was happening in social media or in new media. Newspapers, TV and others were still doing pretty well, still making profits because a lot of money came from the government and from government linked companies through advertising.
That’s a cushion for them which meant it wasn’t until later — maybe the last five years — when the internet started affecting them. But, they are just like traditional media everywhere. They were losing not just readership, but also advertising with Facebook and Google sucking up most of the online advertising. And of course, the Barisan national government being ousted at the 2018 election compounded the problem.
A number of the major media closed shop because this new government decided not to continue advertising with them.
JP: Do you take ads as well or just a subscription?
SG: We are partly advertising and partly subscription, I don’t think subscription alone would be able to support Malaysiakini and advertising alone will not be able to support an online operation like ours.
JP: What’s the split roughly in revenues?
SG: About 50/50 When we first started out it was almost one hundred percent subscription, because we weren’t getting any money from advertising because in the beginning a lot of companies were not willing to advertise in Malaysiakini. It was only later that you see companies warming up, especially when they found out a lot of news readers were reading through the internet, that somehow they no longer access news from mainstream media.
JP: When did that happen?
SG: The 2008 election is more interesting because you have some of the richest states falling into the opposition hands with practically all the capital cities, all the urban areas, falling behind the opposition. So companies started to think: “Hey look, the people who actually buy our products are mostly living in urban areas and these are voting for the opposition. Right? So we cannot continue to just advertise our products in pro-government papers.”
That’s when we started to see companies warming up to Malaysiakini. That 2008 election was in many ways a cultural opening of Malaysian society, which also all of a sudden made new options possible.
The 2013 election was a landmark election because suddenly the opposition felt for the very first time in history that they could win government. They managed to win the popular vote, but not a majority of seats. Malaysians took a small step although they were not able to budge the government until 2018.
JP: Malaysia has seen some big changes politically this year and Malaysiakini is known for its comprehensive coverage of politics. How does it do it?
SG: We came up with the most comprehensive results of the 2018 elections. Our large reports won the SOPA award for breaking news. We were able to pull in information and results from our reporters on the ground, from different political parties, from social media, from TV stations. We are able to provide the most comprehensive and the most up-to-date results. We were the first to report that Pakatan Rakyat had won the government that night, so we did pretty well.
We did the same thing in reporting the collapse of the government in March. We went online over a period of eight days, with journalists in all the different places, political parties headquarters, different hotels where politicians were holed up. We had people in the national palace, where the King had to make a decision. We had people in the prime minister’s office. So all that meant that we were able to report comprehensively,despite the massive confusion. Even the different factions, the different parties were unsure exactly who had the upper hand, because there were politicians jumping from one party to another. We were able to put everything together and provide Malaysia a comprehensive report.
It was the first time that we had such high traffic, comparable to the 2018 election.
JP: How many people did you have when you first started and how has that changed over time?
SG: We had five people: three journalists, myself as editor and (co-founder) Prem Chandra managing the business as CEO.We are now about 100 people including about 60 in editorial and another 40 in business, subscription and technology. So we’re quite big.
JP: And when you started you were publishing in Malay, Chinese and English. You’ve always published in all three?
SG: We started off in English and Bahasa Malayon the same website because they use the same Roman characters. So that you can use both languages on the same page
It wasn’t until later that we decided to split Bahasa and Chinese and English into two different websites. And then one or two years later we brought in a Chinese website as well.
JP: And now Tamil as well?
SG: Yes, Tamil was actually not completely a Malaysiakini operation, It was a joint venture with a Tamil magazine. We provide them all our content which gives them the right to publish in Tamil for the Malaysian Tamil community.
JP: Is your website still your main product?
SG: We are completely online and also have a major TV side, called kiniTV. kiniTV and Bahasa are not behind a paywall. We wanted to reach out to younger audiences and kiniTV is a good way for us to do that. So that’s why we’re making it free and then of course the Bahasa website is free because we want to reach out to the majority community in Malaysia.
JP: How do you imagine your audience? Do you know where they live and their age-group?
SG: We haven’t surveyed recently but according to the last survey we did, it is mostly people living in urban areas. But increasingly we are reaching across to the rural areas as well thanks to smartphones. Before, it was hard to reach out to the people living in rural areas because they do not have access to the internet.
In fact, almost 90 percent of of our readers access Malaysiakini through their mobile phones, mostly 30 to 35 years and above. People are much older and that’s still quite surprising because when we set up Malaysiakini, the aim was to reach out to the younger ones, because we thought they were more eager to take up new technology. It turned out that they’re not. It was older people actually accessing.
I think it is partly because the younger generation has been quite depoliticized. It isn’t until they get a bit older that they become more interested in politics. When they enter the workforce, they see that things are not the way they should be. They can see corruption. They can see money being wasted. They can see that they are not earning as much as they should be. So they start getting interested in politics and that’s how they decide to subscribe to Malaysiakini.
We are definitely trying to reach out to the younger ones, but we’ll see.
JP: Have you ever thought about expanding into other countries in Southeast Asia?
SG: It’s hard to replicate something like Malaysiakini unlike, say, Grab or Uber.
You need local journalists who understand the local environment to produce news relevant to the local population. We work with a lot of news organisations, but we do not have the ambition of setting up an Indonesiakini or Thailandkini or something like that.
We work with others like Tempo in Indonesia and organisations in Thailand, Cambodia and Myanmar but not in the sense of trying to set up a Malaysiakini in these countries.
JP: Do you see anything similar to the Malaysiakini style of accountability journalism in other countries?
SG: I get that question all the time when I visit other countries. There are a lot of people out there who are inspired but they have not managed to be so successful. There are few reasons for that but number one is that you may have good editors who can run a pretty good media outlet, but they’re missing a good CEO. They focus on the content side and forget about the business side.
Another factor is local politics. The mainstream media in Malaysia has not been able to serve the readers that well. They are so pro government that people have lost faith in them. So, they’re willing to go to the internet to look for the news and Malaysiakini happens to be there.
The other thing is that subscriptions are hard. Myanmar or Cambodia do not have a lot of people who have the spending power. One of the reasons Malaysiakini is successful is that while Malaysia is not that rich, it is a middle-income country with enough people with the spending power to subscribe to a media organisation.
Even in Malaysia its difficult to get people to actually pay for content. You have to work really really hard.
JP: What two big lessons would you share with others who are building new accountability journalism ventures in Asia.
SG: Number one is to make sure you have a good business plan. Don’t forget about that effort and time, about having the personnel on developing the business side. If you have a pretty good investigative journalism team, you may come up with pretty good investigative pieces that draw in readers. But if you do not put in the effort in developing a business side, it’s going to be very hard to sustain,
That’s been central for Malaysiakini to survive this long, for about 20 years.
The other key lesson is that technology changes fast. You need to be flexible to be able to change, as new technology comes in. Right now we are moving into data journalism. We set up KiniLabs. We are presenting our news through through a mixture of different mediums from graphics to maps through using charts, data, video
To attract young people, you need to be able to tell a story using new technology, using all the different mediums that are available. It’s not just text.
For example, with the coronavirus we started tracking people who tested positive in Asia, to show where they are and also, to tell people what would happen if they suspect that they had been infected. We put it all up in one package and within two days we got one million downloads.
If you tell that story using only text with perhaps a few photos, it will not attract that many people.
JP: What are the obstacles or challenges in doing this kind of journalism, especially with a hostile government? What are the repercussions?
SG: We’ve been through a lot. It’s been a roller coaster ride for Malaysiakini. We’ve been through four or five different prime ministers starting with Mahathir and ending with Mahathir. That’s a type of person who will not brook any dissent. We’ve been raided countless number of times by the police.
You just need to believe in yourself. You need to ensure that the journalists you are working with have the same faith. They may be facing a lot of pressure. They may be facing attacks, perhaps even arrest. You need to build their confidence so that they know that the editors have their backs.
I don’t talk about that so much as I think it’s all a given. When you’re working in this kind of environment, you know the kind of attacks you are going to get
I like to talk a lot more about the business side because that is a major thing that can help a lot of other organisations.
Steven Gan is the co-founder and editor in chief of Malaysiakini.