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Monday, August 3, 2009

Malaysian newspapers face challenge from online media

Malaysia's traditional newspapers are facing a serious challenge from online news portals, which are winning a reputation for being fast and more credible than the government-friendly press.

The number of Internet newspapers has mushroomed from one to eight over the past two years, with new titles appearing in Chinese, Malay and English to cater to the multicultural population.

"I don't really trust the newspapers as they are controlled by the government," says engineer Ryan Kong, 30, as he clicks on the website of pioneer portal Malaysiakini to get his daily dose.
"There are the cost and convenience factors, and I can get today's news today rather than wait until tomorrow for the newspaper," he said.

Malaysiakini began operating a decade ago, but its competitors now include the popular Malaysian Insider and the latest entrant, the Malaysian Mirror, which was launched last month.
Unlike other countries where the most popular portals churn out celebrity gossip and paparazzi shots, Malaysia's top sites focus on politics, corruption allegations and serious social issues including race relations.

Editors expect a challenging time ahead for mainstream newspapers and television stations which are mostly government-linked, and often viewed with suspicion by the tech-savvy younger crowd.

"There is a credibility crisis with regards to what is written in mainstream media -- the level of believability among the people seems to be less," said Bernama national news agency editorial adviser Azman Ujang.

The rise of online newspapers began with political turmoil in 1998 that saw Anwar Ibrahim sacked as deputy prime minister and jailed on sex and corruption charges widely seen as politically motivated.

Malaysians flocked to the Internet for coverage of his trial, and major political events since then have also triggered spikes in viewership.

In 2008 national elections that saw the opposition -- now led by Anwar -- make stunning gains, the rise of news websites and blogs was credited as a major factor behind its success.

"The Internet has been lauded as the medium that actually could change the general election results. The next election, in three or four years time, will be an Internet election," said Malaysiakini chief editor Steven Gan.

"Eventually you will see the Internet as the main medium for the dissemination of news and for other things here, and the traditional media will play a secondary role."

Malaysia's media operates under a publishing permit system, which allows the government to shut down outlets at will.

However, in 1996 it pledged not to censor online content as part of a campaign to promote its information technology sector. Despite occasional raids, bans and government criticism, the online media remain relatively free.

Audit Bureau of Circulations Malaysia said that in the year ending June 2008, average daily newspaper circulation stood at 2.5 million copies, down from 2.54 million copies in the previous year.

Online media, meanwhile, have enjoyed a steady rise in readership, with Malaysiakini saying it attracted 2.0 million unique visitors a month while Malaysian Insider says it drew some 800,000.

Despite their success, online news outlets mostly operate on a modest scale, with often just a handful of journalists working from cramped offices. Few have yet managed to become profitable.

David Yeoh, managing editor of top-selling English-language daily The Star which has a daily circulation of about 300,000 copies, is optimistic however that online media will not replace newsprint in the near future.

"The generation that is comfortable with the newspaper as a product is still around. It will be at least one generation -- at least 30 years -- before newspapers can become redundant here," he said.

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