Malaysian media mogul Jahabar Sadiq: ‘Millennials pay for lattes, so why not news?’

Nearly 18 months after founding his latest venture The Malaysian Insight, Jahabar Sadiq talks to Eleanor Dickinson building a viable media business against economic 'strangulation', the shortage of journalist talent and what was really behind The Malaysian Insider's closure

During its eight-year history, The Malaysian Insider was the firebrand of the Malaysian political scene. So much so, it isn’t surprising in hindsight how suddenly the entire operation was unceremoniously snuffed out two years ago.

Led by media veteran and former Reuters journalist Jahabar Sadiq, the news site was known for its fiery political exposes and later its provocative coverage of the infamous ‘1MDB’ corruption scandal when millions of dollars of public money were allegedly funnelled into the bank accounts of Prime Minister Najib Razak. 

So big was the scandal that Sadiq and the boss of the parent company The Edge, Ho Kay Tat, found themselves spending a night in jail following their coverage.

Jailbird: Sadiq’s coverage of the 1MDB scandal landed him a night in police cells

In February 2016, the website was blocked and one month later, The Insider announced its immediate closure – admittedly for ‘commercial reasons’.

Now almost two years on and with a new media company, The Malaysian Insight, up and running, Sadiq explains how he will do things differently this time around and his views on Malaysia’s current media scene.

The Malaysian Insider shut down almost two years ago now. The official line has always been it was due to “commercial reasons”. Just how much political power was at play?

“Well in 2015, all newspapers in Malaysia started writing about the financial scandal. The government was of course upset and they suspended [owner] The Edge’s print licence and kept us on watch. The Edge fought back and got back its licence and then it was OK for a while.

“But then the anti-corruption agency sent all the case files to the Attorney General, who said there wasn’t sufficient evidence to prosecute. Then a panel within the anti-corruption agency reached out to us and told us they disagreed with the attorney general. We put up a story and the government was upset because it wasn’t their narrative. Within eight hours, the government blocked our website. And when that happens you lose advertising. After that, The Edge put us on the block; I was told we were going to be sold. I then went on holiday and when I got back, I was told we were going to be shut down. And within a day we were closed.

“I really don’t know why we were shut down. But, officially it was because we weren’t making any money and there wasn’t enough to buy us out.”

So a year later, you went on to set up The Malaysian Insight. How is that different from  the Insider?

“We’re a little less aggressive. We’re more focused on people, the wider issues and a bit of politics. We have a pretty big video team, which we did not have at the Insider. One of the reasons for moving away from politics was fatigue. You have great reach with politics, but you don’t have the resonance. Most portals are just regurgitating what passes off as a rumour. I wanted to work with younger, more idealistic people with an interest in social issues. And really your only market is people with a handphone now. If you want to go for a paywall, you need to go for digital natives and millennials. And with that audience, you have to show them life beyond politics.”

You raised funding S$1.5m to start The Malaysian Insight, reportedly all from friends of yours? Was that really the case?

“I went to a pretty good school and a lot of my friends worked overseas, some are investment bankers. So they gave me enough money. And we have under 50 people now.”

How are you sustaining yourself so far?

“We have a bit of revenue coming along from ads through Google and a bit from our videos YouTube. It’s pretty decent, though not enough to balance the books. We do plan to have a paywall. One successful model is having a portal and a lot of on-the-ground events; dinners and forums and stuff. Because we do have a good roster of knowledgeable journalists; they know about the issues of the day. What do people think and want in Malaysia? We have a growing middle-class, so what do they want? And our journalists are there to give them that knowledge.”

If your target audience – millennials – has grown up with the idea of free media – how are you going to convince them to pay for your online content?

“Well one thing is that millennials aren’t really interested in news. They are interested in consuming. The people who are coming to our site have their own cars and apartments. They are people who want to have a stake in their country. And they are the people who are used to paying for things: the Spotify crowd. But then again, millennials will pay for lattes, so why won’t they pay for news?”

What are your traffic figures?

“Within the first seven months, we went had 65 per cent of the traffic the Insider had and now we’re on about 75 per cent. So we’re well within – or even beaten – our one year target. I thought after our one-year absence people would have forgotten us. We get about 8-10 million unique visitors per month.”

When and why do you intend to introduce a paywall? How do you plan to mitigate the inevitable fall in traffic?

“Originally we intended to launch it after six months. But then we decided to focus on introducing our Mandarin section, which we did within seven. And now we have a General Election coming up. So we will probably do it a month after the elections. We’ll probably do a model on you get 10 free articles and the rest you pay for.

“We had an early price plan of RM10 a month, but now we have three different languages, we’ll probably make it RM15 a month. It’s the price of a cup of coffee. We would be comfortable with about 25,000 subscribers, but I would ideally like 30,000. On saying that, in Malaysia I don’t think any of the media has more than 20,000, so we’ll have to see.”

What’s your ideal business model?

“The best would be 40 per cent ads, 30 per cent subscription and the rest from events. News outlets like The New York Times have a 100-year-old history that we don’t have, which has helped them to outstrip their advertising revenue with subscriptions. And the Malaysian market is very programmatic-driven.

“Most of the brands who advertise with us don’t even talk to us. We’re too small, so we have to use Google all the time. But that gives us cents rather than dollars. Also, as we have been controversial from the beginning, nobody wants to go to us directly. We’re forced to go to programmatic exchanges.

“A lot of the businesses here are state-controlled or have state investors, like in Indonesia and Singapore. So when you don’t step with their narrative, they frustrate you economically. They strangle you to make you submit. Traditional media is getting starved anyway. Brands don’t even need to buy an ad with you, because they can buy everything through Google.”

What are your plans for the next 12 months?

“We’re looking quite heavily at covering the election now. We’re looking at how The Guardian covered Brexit and seeing what we can do. So I’m not really focused on the next year; rather it’s the next 12 weeks. Besides, I have a young team of people and I want them to do the thinking from now on. In year two, I want them to tell me what to do. The only thing I do have in mind is that I want a new web design every 12 months. I want to re-look at how people read news; take out what they don’t want and make sure there’s always a mobile-first strategy.

“In addition, too many people are doing ‘he said, she said’ news and I’m tired of that. I want to do more on why things matter. Why should we even read this? Not clickbait headlines like Buzzfeed.”

Is the talent pool in Malaysia strong enough to carry out the more in-depth journalism you’re looking to do?

“No. And the simple reason is the journalists aren’t ready for anything here, because the journalism schools are still operating on a print mindset. All the lecturers are people who worked in print or traditional broadcasting. They still talk about prime hours. And now people are on a 24-hour, global news cycle. You have to take something and expand it in a short space of time: and say why you should read this. I don’t have the talent that can do those kinds of follow-ups and explain the story’s importance. I don’t need journalists anymore, I need producers; not traditional producers, but people who can out every piece of a story together.”

Is media still seen as an attractive career option for Malaysia’s youth?

“No, they all do it for about two years to make the contacts and then they go into public relations. It’s probably the worst career option now in Malaysia: you get hounded by everyone, including your boss. There’s never enough money to do things. You just scrape through people’s Twitter feeds and Facebook posts to get a story. That’s how terrible it has become. That’s disappointing to me, as it’s not journalism.

“All these people who went to journalism school, including Columbia in New York, think they can fashion something out of someone’s tweets. But there’s no empathy or resonates to make someone read something. Any anyone can do that. But we are trying and we have a few good talents. Up-and-coming journalists need to read more; not just newspapers, but literature, graphic novels; anything to see how people write. I hate the word content; it’s just stuff. It’s time to stop taking people’s discontent from Twitter and turning it into our content.”


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