MALAYSIA - If there was an unwitting winner at the recent general election in Malaysia, it would have to be the relatively unfettered new media and independent sheets favoured by Malaysians over the government-controlled mainstream newspapers.
The ground-shifts taking place in the country's English media space, after the bitterly fought election, are proof of that.
Stung by criticism of lopsided political coverage that favoured the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition, the country's top-selling English-language daily, The Star, is fighting back.
"We are going for more independent and bold coverage," said The Star's group chief editor, Mr Wong Chun Wai. The publicly listed media group is controlled by a BN component party, the Malaysian Chinese Association.
It has a print circulation of about 300,000, and has just revamped its online edition, which draws an average of 27 million page views a month. For the first time, The Star invited two opposition politicians to be online columnists.
"I understand the irony of writing on this platform, but in the spirit of democracy... we will have to work together without compromising our political principles," Mr Fahmi Fadzli, political secretary to opposition Pakatan Rakyat Member of Parliament Nurul Izzah Anwar, wrote in his first fortnightly online column.
The other columnist from the opposition is Mr Ong Kian Ming, an academic turned political analyst turned politician with the Democratic Action Party.
The juxtaposition of the changes in Malaysia's political and media landscape is worth noting. Media managers know this only too well.
"The rise in political activism and consciousness is a factor in the emergence of new media outlets which want to serve the new demand for news that is not lopsided," said Mr Ho Kay Tat, chief executive of The Edge Media Group, which publishes well-regarded business weekly The Edge and a financial daily in Malaysia.
The Edge in Malaysia, launched in 1994, followed eight years later by The Edge Singapore, enjoys a niche following in business circles and has a circulation of more than 20,000.
Fast and fair
The demand for unbiased news aside, Malaysia's mainstream newspapers, largely controlled by BN's component parties or closely connected businessmen, and somewhat restrained by publishing and licensing laws, also face pressure from the demand for instant information and real-time updates.
The country's high Internet penetration rate of over 60 per cent has led to the launch of a slew of news products over the past year promising the same thing - unbiased news.
"Digital media is here to stay. That does not mean there will be no role for print. The business model will change," said Mr Tong Kooi Ong, the businessman who owns The Edge Media Group.
Others share that view.
"The battleground now is online but print forms a very good ally in this war," said Mr Siew Ka Wei, the managing director of Redberry, a media firm which owns the Malay Mail daily and business daily Malaysian Reserve, and operates Bernama TV, a television news channel owned by national news agency Bernama.
As the realm of print media is becoming saturated and with the advent of digital technology, conventional media entities in the country have embraced the online platform, pitching exclusive stories and commentaries and interactive sites to court eyeballs.
In the English print space, The Star is a market leader, attracting the most advertising dollars. But the entry of new players such as The Sun - a free daily with a circulation of about 300,000 owned by tycoon Vincent Tan - as well as the Malay Mail's switch from the evening to the morning market and the arrival of niche business publications have cranked up competition.
The other mainstream English-language newspaper is The New Straits Times, the country's oldest newspaper owned by BN's Umno-linked Media Prima - an integrated media giant which owns four free-to-air television networks, radio stations and publishes the Malay-language Berita Harian and Harian Metro newspapers.
In 2004, NST was downsized from a broadsheet to a tabloid to cut costs amid hopes of wooing back readers who had abandoned the newspaper because of its partisan political news. NST's circulation last year stood at 93,000 - half its 1999 figure of 180,000.
New kids on the block
A fast-emerging player in the media space is Redberry, which took over Malay Mail from Media Prima four years ago. The Malay Mail today pales in comparison to the days when it was a popular tabloid best known for sensational gossip and crime stories, insightful sports coverage and with the most classified advertisements.
But after the Asian financial crisis, it lost circulation to The Star, which moved aggressively to snag classified dollars by offering fat discounts.
The Malay Mail is still loss-making, but since a makeover a year ago under Redberry, it has piqued considerable readers' interest for its balanced reporting.
As competition heats up, seasoned journalists have become a precious commodity and poaching has intensified. Recently, Redberry poached the entire team of 30 journalists from the English edition of The Malaysian Insider (TMI) to roll out its own online edition.
In turn, TMI, a popular online news portal which started out five years ago, lured staff from NST. The Star too has lost a couple of senior newsmen to Redberry and TMI. News portals such as TMI and the 14-year-old opposition-friendly Malaysiakini have attracted a robust following and are seen as reliable sources of information by many Malaysians.
These figures during the recent election period attest to their popularity: In May, Malaysiakini drew 2.6 million total unique visitors, more than double the figure a year ago, according to Comscore, a global leader in digital measurement. TMI saw a 55 per cent jump to 998,000 unique visitors. In contrast, The Star online's visitors dropped 22 per cent to 1.4 million. But popularity aside, are these news portals totally impartial?
TMI's owners are not publicly known. As for Malaysiakini, local media reported last year that it received funding from American currency speculator George Soros.
"The question is which of these news outlets will actually fit the bill (of unbiased news). There are one or two whose funding and shareholding are not transparent so there are doubts," said The Edge's Mr Ho.
More money on paper
Robust page views notwithstanding, profits can be elusive.
"The bogey in our background is whether we could suffer financially," admitted journalist and Malaysiakini co-founder and chief executive Premesh Chandran.
For now, the news portal is in the black. It has 90 staff and charges for access, but provided free news during the election period. Mr Chandran says Malaysiakini's annual profit is about RM100,000 (S$40,000) - not quite the mega bucks that one would expect from a portal that drew, according to Comscore, 77 million page views in May. "There's still a big lag in ad spend online," he noted.
None of this has deterred media owners such as Mr Tong, a former stockbroker and banker. His Edge Media Group launched a digital regional news weekly called The Edge Review in March and daily news portal fz.com.
The Edge in Malaysia, after enjoying a near monopoly for 18 years, now faces competition from Focus Malaysia, an English business weekly which hit news-stands last December.
"The new-found political awareness is the driver behind Malaysians' hunger for news," said Mr Chong Kee Keat, senior vice-president of media and technology at HCK Capital Group, which oversees Focus Malaysia.
The group's executive chairman is businessman Clement Hii, who is not unfamiliar with the limitations faced by a news entity with political affiliations. He used to be executive deputy chairman of Star Publications.
He was succeeded by Mr Vincent Lee, an ad industry veteran, in 2011. Given MCA's dismal electoral showing, there are mutterings of an MCA leadership change, which could see a boardroom shake-up.
Prime Minister Najib Razak's administration, like previous ones, has not moved to restrict online media.
"We praise the government for its open attitude. It's been 14 years and no one has laid a single charge on us. If anything, there's more bark than bite," said Mr Chandran.
That openness is not lost on other players. "Media must be free and that means many choices, including the right to hold biased views. This is inevitable in the digital world," said Mr Tong.
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