Malaysiakini editor-in-chief Steven Gan on press freedom, staying profitable, and taking on the powers that be

Steven GanSteven Gan is the editor-in-chief of Malaysiakini, an independent news website that has been holding the Malaysian government to account for the last 15 years.

In this Q&A with Mumbrella Asia’s editor Robin Hicks, Gan talks about the business climate in Malaysia, how the mainstream press is covering the current political turmoil, how his website makes money, and a contingency plan for if his company comes under attack.

There’s never a dull moment in Malaysia, particularly right now. How’s business?

Well, we’re doing fine. We’re a subscription website and we’ve been either breaking even or making a small profit over the last 15 years. Our aim is just to maintain that. This year is a difficult one for business, but because of the political situation we get a lot more readers.

Is the larger traffic being supported by advertisers? How are you competing with other media on that front?

The advertising landscape online is quite different compared to print and broadcast, but this is the situation we’re faced with. Online still doesn’t command the kind of top dollar that print and broadcast does.

Increasingly, people are accessing the website through their mobile devices, but you don’t see mobile advertising being able to command the kind of money that even websites are getting. So in a sense the advancement of technology is putting us on the back foot.

We’re fighting a tougher and tougher battle. So I think the only way to overcome this is to try to convince more advertisers to go online. That’s one thing. Also, for Malaysiakini to convince more of our readers to pay a small sum of money for a subscription. I think the paid model has paid off for Malaysiakini, and increasingly for other news media, but we would like to see more people pay for our content.

In Singapore there are a lot of blogs have struggled to make a living this year? How about Malaysiakini, are you turning a profit?

I think this year we should be breaking even. Initially we thought we’d make a loss. But so far, looking at the figures up to the middle of this year we’re looking pretty good.

We make a sizeable profit on election years. And in the years that we make a decent profit we try to use that as a reserve for more difficult times.

In general, we’re facing more competition now. There are other free websites out there that are delivering more or less similar content. That does put us under pressure, but we’re still the number one website in Malaysia over the last six months according to ComScore. And that helps to convince brands to advertise with us. We generate 50 per cent of total revenue from subscriptions, the other half from advertising.

What sort of advertising?  There’s been lots of talk about native advertising lately…

It’s still very much display. We’ve looked at other forms of advertising, such as native, but like many publishers we’re still skeptical. As you know, there’s lot of debate in the journalism world over of the ethics of natives advertising.

What do you make of how the political situation and flagging economy is impacting the media business?

It’s double-edged sword. On the one hand, political upheaval draws more readers to go to the internet to find out what’s really happening, particularly since the maintain media is doing such a bad job. That’s a good thing for us. The bad thing is that the ruling party is in such trouble that they’re reacting in harsher and harsher ways.

The Edge's 1MDB story

The Edge’s 1MDB story

Take the suspension of The Edge. We haven’t seen the government do anything like that in recent years. And then the blocking of Sarawak report. We are preparing for harsher actions in months to come. I expect that if the political and economic situation deteriorates, more suspensions and arrests will follow.

How are you preparing?

Obviously I can’t say, but we do have contingency plans. We are prepared. We have extensive experience facing government pressure. If there’s an attack on Malaysiakini there will be a strong reaction from us. There is a lot of support out there for us. The government will have to think twice about attacking us.

How did you feel about the actions against Sarawak Report and The Edge?

We sort of expected that would happen. This government has a long track record of taking harsh actions against any media that is critical of it. Malaysiakini has been getting a lot of media activists together and organising protests. The week before last we blacked out the site as show of opposition to the suspension of The Edge.

We're going back for the Edge

Right now we are waiting to see what the government will do next. The Edge has already taken the issue to court. The court will decide whether to grant an injunction to The Edge. But with the kind of decisions we have see from the courts so far, I’m not sure many people would put much faith in our judges.

Are advertisers sensitive to the political climate?

Looking back at our history, we didn’t get much advertising until 2008, seven years after we started. That was a landmark year. It was a general election that year. For the first time, the government lost of lot of seats. It was a major setback. They lost most of the urban areas. That I think was a wake up call for advertisers. There was a change of mindset. Suddenly we saw advertising coming in, and it’s been like that since.

Advertisers think that it’s one thing to advertise in the mainstream media, but you can’t ignore the internet. And the urban consumers are the ones who are not reading the mainstream media. They are getting their news from the internet. And these are people who are buying their products and services. That’s one thing they have come to realise.

The other thing is safety in numbers. As more advertise with us and the other websites out there, it becomes harder for the government to lean on them all. Big companies such as CIMB Bank and Malaysia Airlines, and the big car and financial services brand now advertise in Malaysiakini – it’s not just one or two. It’s not easy for the government to intimidate them.

What do you make of how the mainstream media has covered the 1MDB saga?

The front page of The Star reports that the RM2.6 billion found in Najib's back account was not from the 1MDB fund.

The Star reported on 4 August that the RM2.6 billion found in Najib’s back account was from a private donation, not 1MDB

In two days, you saw how The Star reported the 1MDB story [the RM2.6 billion found in the prime minister’s bank account, as revealed by The Sarawak Report, was not from the 1Malaysia Development Bhd government investment vehicle but from a private donor, The Star reported on 4 August. The next day, the story moved to page 2 to make way for the discovery of MH370 debris in the Indian Ocean. The headline of the story, which sits below a piece titled “Feeling good about Malaysia through simple things”, reads: “1MDB welcomes MACC’s findings.”]

Page 2 of The Star, 5 August

Page 2 of The Star, 5 August

But it’s nothing new. The reason why Malaysiakini has been successful is because of the fact that Malaysians are fed up with the kind of fare that they get from the mainstream media. In most other countries around the world, 1MDB would be a major issue, but the mainstream papers here are telling us it’s business-as-usual. We would have run 40-50 stories on it. For us it’s a crisis. For them, it’s not.

How do you feel Malaysia’s media compares to Singapore’s at the moment, which has a well entrenched mainstream media and an increasingly vocal blogosphere?

I think Malaysia and Singapore are very much alike on the media front. If you look at both of us compared to Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines, even Myanmar, they are far ahead on press freedom. There’s a greater respect for the press in those countries. Journalists do their best to report the truth. This is something that we do not see in Malaysia or Singapore.

Eventually Malaysians and Singaporeans will have to move on as they become wealthier and get more access to information from overseas, and eventually will depend on much more than the mainstream media.

In Malaysia, the mainstream media are very much reacting and trying to keep in step with the internet, but they are being pulled back as they are owned by willing parties. Without that issue, they would be giving us a run for our money. The Star is run by MCA [Malaysian Chinese Association]. The New Straits Times is owned indirectly by Umno [the ruling party]. There’s a limit to how far they can go.

But would a more independent stance make economic sense for the mainstream press?

If the ownership structure was different it would be easier to make the step. But the fact that they’re owned by the government makes it more difficult. While there is a conflict of interest, newspapers want to make money, and they need to improve their content to make money, but they have to make sure that the ruling powers are able to maintain power.

What is made of the Reporters Without Borders’ annual press freedom index, in which the Malaysia is ranked 146th, six places above Singapore, but three below Myanmar?

For most Malaysians it’s confirmation of how we feel of the media here. We do take notice of the RSF [Reporters Sans Frontières] rankings, and are particularly irked by Myanmar ranking higher than us. It just shows the extent of the lack of press freedom here.

Yes, press freedom rankings like RSF’s are quite subjective. But in general, I think Malaysians recognise that they have less press freedom here than in other countries. The government lambasts the rankings every years, they say it’s a Western thing and there’s no need to worry about it. But they should take interest. It does have a genuine impact on how investors view our country.

But the status quo still remains. Do you notice any shift happening?

There is a shift, but it’s not big enough. Younger readers are moving to the internet, and most now get their news from the internet. Circulation and readership are down for lot of mainstream media. In terms of advertisers, there is a small shift. But I don’t think it is in keeping with what viewers and readers are doing. There’s still a reticence among advertisers to move to the internet, and the movement is not as fast as in other countries. But eventually it will come, only a slower, partly because of a how politicised business is here. Many businesses have political ties, and that has slowed down the shift.


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