Taking the fight to the tech giants

What if media companies create their own combined ‘news listing site’


THE Utusan Melayu (M) Bhd’s saga last week was almost the perfect soap opera script.

You have a narrative revolving around a family that exploded into the larger society. Conflicts which captured the attention of the nation.

An 80-year-old newspaper trumpeted for its past glory as part of the country’s history. But now in tatters and on the verge of a painful demise.

A storyline of human conflicts, sufferings and struggles, selflessness, bullies and a rallying call for a saviour. Intersect that with public sympathy, “baby milk” contribution and a few ditzy, dorky and dodgy characters to add some twists to the drama.

A good drama must have a cliffhanger. That, the Utusan story did not disappoint. One English daily wrote “The oldest Malay newspaper in the country will be laid to rest tomorrow with the cessation of all its print and online publications” in its intro. Talk about being dramatic.

And to cap the week’s event, a last-minute rescue. A white knight emerged with a kitty of RM1.6 million to temporarily save the day.

By the end of this week, Utusan will be delisted from Bursa Malaysia, ending a 25-year existence on the local bourse. There will be no tears though its future will continue to be bleak.

It is not just about Utusan, although acres of papers (and website pages) have been used to comment on the reasons behind the company’s struggles. Some may sound barmy especially from those who had their fingers in the company’s downfall. Others are valid and justified.

It is just not about Utusan. The whole media industry is facing the same predicament and the worse is yet to come. You can run from the tsunami, but you can’t hide.

Over the last few decades, the print newspaper business has been on the tailspin.

Traditional newspapers are built on being big. The bigger it is the better.

They become dinosaur-sized organisations, structured to deliver 120 to 200 pages newspapers daily. Editorial and backroom staff that would fit the grandstand of a stadium.

Then the mother of all destructor, the T-Rex if you like — the Internet — came and changed the whole equilibrium. News became a commodity. The rush was to get the “commodity” out first.

Media companies chose both— print and Internet — to catch the eyeballs, a measurement advertisers continuously drilled in your psyche like the subtle comment of a mother-in-law.

The model, rightly or wrongly, is flawed. Yesterday’s news on the Internet is no longer news on the print the next day. You can’t have your cake and eat it too.

In all this confusion to choose the right model, the backroom staff continue to be as bloated as before.

Media companies have been reluctant to introduce a paywall, fearing it would be the final nail in the coffin and trigger an exodus of readers. It is all but between a rock and a hard place.

Major corporates, which churn press releases and hope for coverage, had abandoned traditional media and shifted to digitalisation. Advertising money worth hundred of millions had moved to the tech giants like Google, Facebook, YouTube, Gmail, LinkedIn and the likes. The press releases keep coming, but not the advertisements.

Many fail to see that content creation is cost. In most media organisations, content creation account for almost two-thirds of the operational cost. You take away the creator, the content disappears.

But economics will supersede sentiments. How much you whine, complain and analyse the situation, the inevitable will occur unless the media companies dictate their own fate.

Instead of just sitting back and whining about the dark future or constantly dwelling about press freedom, which is aplenty today, the industry has opportunities to chart its course.

Why can’t the industry take the fight to the tech companies, the search engines, the social media platforms and “story listers”who profit from just being the middle persons of news distributions.

For the longest time, media companies have been subservient or even slave to these tech giants, which profited while the former suffers despite being the copyright owners of the content.

What if media companies block their stories from being listed in the likes of Google or similar search platforms and force these “rich giants” to share “click” profits for the news listed on their engines and social media platforms.

It would take a few steps to remove the crawlers access to a news site.

What if you force Facebook, Twitter and the likes to pay for the content listed on their platform? Without content, these platforms are as useless as a Mount Everest climber without a Sherpa.

What if media companies create their own combined “news listing site”, a landing page of all news in Malaysia with news alerts to various readers’ mobile devices, ending the feed that make tech companies relevant. The portal’s profit can be shared between participating media companies based on clicks, reads, etc.

All these may sound revolutionary, bordering a call for conflict. People said the same thing of the Wright Brothers and their flying contraption.

Remember the story of David and Goliath. This could be the sling and five smooth stones. This could be the first stone that can change the inevitable end of the media soap opera.

Mohamad Azlan Jaafar is the editor-in-chief at The Malaysian Reserve.