April 11th, 2008
Malaysiakini editor in chief Steven Gan has credited his independent news website’s success to old style journalistic values. “We are new media but we practise old media rules,” he said at a talk organised by NTU’s Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information yesterday.
Launched in time for Malaysia’s 1999 general elections, it survived political and financial pressures to play a celebrated role in last month’s historic elections. It emerged as the country’s pre-eminent political news source on the web – and some would say in any medium.
Although seen as an icon of the internet revolution, Gan made clear that Malaysiakini is at its heart driven by the classic values of professional journalism. Unlike most websites, it is run by fulltime journalists. Indeed, what distinguishes it from the mainstream press is that the journalists are fully in charge. He noted that Malaysia’s newspapers are owned directly or indirectly by the ruling elite. “Journalists own and run Malaysiakini,” he said.
Gan himself comes from a mainstream press background, having worked at the Sun in KL and The Nation in Bangkok before starting Malaysiakini. His partner and CEO, Premesh Chandran, was also a newspaper journalist. While no news organisation can run away from business concerns, Gan said it makes a difference to have a CEO who understands the need to protect journalism from excessive commercial pressure.
Despite its small fulltime reporting staff of 10, Malaysiakini distinguished itself by being the first to announce the states that fell to the opposition, as well as the government’s failure to win two-thirds of the seats in parliament. Gan revealed that they were aided by 12 volunteer part-timers – mainly journalism students – who had been recruited and trained in the preceding months. These volunteers did much of the legwork on polling night, although it was left to the fulltimers to file the stories.
Malaysiakini was also aided by the failure of the mainstream media to rise to the challenge. Broadcast media, tightly controlled by the government, led with states that were secured by the ruling alliance and waited for official concessions before announcing results. Print media were not focused on updating their websites and seemed to be working towards their print deadlines.
Malaysiakini used the elections to attract more subscribers: it provided free access during the campaign period. The strategy worked. Its normal traffic of 200,000 visitors a day rose to 500,000 on election night. Many new readers became paying subscribers soon after the elections, such that the site achieved RM700,000 in subscription sales in the first quarter of this year, compared with around RM1 million for the whole of 2007.
Gan said that the impact of the internet should not be exaggerated. With a student activist background himself, he paid tribute to the opposition politicians and activists on the ground who had worked tirelessly and at great personal risk. Some were still under detention, he noted. “The issues were there, simmering and bubbling. What the internet did was bring them to a boil,” he said.
Asked if the government would crack down on internet dissent, Gan said that this was unlikely. “We have reached a tipping point, and it is very hard for the government to roll back the freedoms,” he said. Any crackdown would be met by protests, as Malaysians had grown to appreciate the value of the internet, he said.
Gan’s talk was part of a series of seminars at the Wee Kim Wee School on the Future of Journalism, which looked at issues facing mainstream press, niche media and citizen journalism.
Other speakers earlier in the semester included P N Balji, Mediacorp Press editorial director; Reginald Chua, assistant managing editor at the Wall Street Journal; Peter Lim, former editor in chief of the Straits Times group; Holman Chin, general manager of the Viscion publishing group; N W Goh, a former senior editor of Lianhe Zaobao; Stuart Koe, CEO of Fridae.com; John-Paul Tan, of the Catholic parish newspaper Tomorrow; and Choo Zheng Xi, editor of The Online Citizen.