Knowledge Bridge

Global Intelligence for the Digital Transition

Lessons in selling independent journalism from Malaysiakini’s Premesh Chandran

Launched in 1999, Malaysiakini has grown to become Malaysia’s largest independent news website with 2 m monthly visitors and 400,000 daily visitors in four languages: English, Chinese, Tamil and Malay. Even with this large audience, Malaysiakini has had to work hard and constantly innovate in its fight to remain sustainable.

Malaysia, like many southeast Asian countries, tightly controls traditional print and broadcast media, but sensing an economic opportunity, the government decided to take a hands off approach to the internet. The internet would be free of the censorship and controls that the government exercised over print and broadcast media. “This provided a window of opportunity for Malaysiakini to establish itself as the country’s first free and independent media, albeit online,” site co-founder and CEO Premesh Chandran, wrote in the 2010 IPI-Poynter Brave New Worlds report (PDF).

At the MDLF Media Forum in Jakarta, Chandran shared how the site was able to convince their audience to pay for Malaysiakini’s independent journalism. Emphasising their position as an independent source of news and information was key. “The rest of the traditional media is very much controlled by the government so our readers come to us for an independent perspective on issues,” Chandran said.

It was a selling point to readers, but a challenge to attracting advertisers in the years immediately after the site launched. Early online advertisers were government-linked companies and would hardly be willing to support an independent news site like Malaysiakini.

In 2002, the company realised that it needed to explore other forms of income. “Subscribers, they are the ones who want this independent news so let’s start charging a fee,” he said. Staff were initially sceptical, and the site faced unique challenges, including having to provide an anonymous payment system because the site was seen as “politically sensitive”. They developed their own pre-paid card and were able to convince a convenience store chain to sell it.

They started out charging the equivalent of about $20 to $30 a year for their service. Now, the annual subscription is about $50.

The unique nature of their content helped them earn subscribers. “When we launched (subscriptions) in 2002, we were really the only portalPortalA Web site that often serves as a starting point for a Web user’s session. It…

It is very important for a site to ask why does it exist, what is unique about its content. Who really wants its content? Who is going to be wiling to pay for this content? If you don’t have a differentiator with your competitors, it is going to be really difficult (to charge for content).

However, Chandran also credits Malaysiakini’s success with changes in the country. “People are desiring more democracy. People are desiring justice. People are saying no to corruption,” he said, adding:

People would subscribe to Malaysia not just to read us but as a way to support more independent media, which in a way is supporting a change in democracy in Malaysia.

Malaysiakini taps into these changes by making their readers feel a part of something larger: a movement for change. “People are proud to say they are a subscriber to Malaysiakini … that Malaysiakini means something to them, that Malaysiakini has changed something in their lives,” he added.

Malaysiakini’s paywall is like many paywalls these days, providing some content for free as an enticement for new subscribers. The letters section is free, and they provide one free article a day. “But 90 percent of the site we charge for, but only the English and Chinese parts of the site are for subscribers only,” Chandran said. The Malay and Tamil parts of the site are free, both because credit cards are less common in Tamil and Malay communities and Malays make up the majority of the population. Malaysiakini wants to be able to reachReach1) unique users that visited the site over the course of the reporting period,…

For news organisations that want to develop a paid subscription system, he said, “people don’t mind paying when they know they are getting something … but keep it simple.” He compared it to the satellite TV subscription model, and like that model, he believes that it will work in many countries around the world.

Article by Kevin Anderson

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