Rebooting the Media Industry : Present and Future Challenges

Keynote Address
Oleh Tan Sri Johan Jaaffar
(Tokoh Wartawan Negara)

Forum Media Kebangsaan Industri 4.0:
Kewartawanan Merentasi Pelbagai Platform
25 September 2019
Taylor’s University, Subang Jaya

I must admit that this is one of the toughest speeches I have given. It was a painful exercise even to look up pointers and facts. I found very little literature to suggest that the future of newspapers is bright and sunny. I encountered material after material espousing an imminent demise of newspapers. The newspaper business is to be ditalqinkan (to be given the last rites for the dead according to Muslim practices).

I was crowned Tokoh Wartawan Negara  by my peers, presented in an eventful and historic night organised by the Malaysian Press Institute  (MPI) in May this year. And yet, here I am, looking at an industry, which I have been involved with for many years, as one with a bleak, uncertain future.

The newspaper industry is a sunset industry, many would agree to that. Newspapers have been dying in slow-motion for a decade or so already, some would argue. There is no future in the newspaper business. It can’t be saved, even with the best of intentions.

I don’t need to look far. What has happened to the newspaper that I edited for six years (1992-1998) is testimony to this. It pains me to see the state of my former company and the newspaper I am always associated with. All is not well in the state of Denmark, newspaper-wise, if I may quote Shakespeare.

Utusan Melayu, the newspaper company set up in 1939, eighty years ago to be exact, is in trouble now. Back then, the whole purpose was to publish a national daily that would be, in the words of scholar W.R. Roff in his tome, The Origins of Malay Nationalism, “owned, financed and staffed solely by Malays of the Archipelago.”

It was a tall order for Yusof Ishak and the first editor of the newspaper, Abdul Rahim Kajai, later named Bapa Kewartanan Melayu or the Father of Malay Journalism. Yusof later became the first president of the Republic of Singapore. With a working capital of $2,000 at the time, Utusan Melayu, in jawi script, began its humble journey to become one of the most feared and respected newspapers in the land.

In 1967 it started the romanised edition, Utusan Malaysia, ten years after the Straits Times group published Berita Harian. It was no secret that Berita Harian was initially nothing more than a translation of the English daily.

Utusan Melayu, the company became a public listed entity on 16th August 1994. During its heydays, 600,000 copies of Mingguan Malaysia (the Sunday edition) were published and 350,000 copies of Utusan Malaysia were printed a day. It had 13 magazines under its stable.

But what is important to note is the role played by the jawi paper at the height of Malay national consciousness and political awareness prior to and after Merdeka (Independence). Utusan Melayu was an audacious daily that dared to take risks. Much to the embarrassment of the British colonial masters who derogatorily labelled it as nothing more than “the pink paper”, Utusan Melayu became a formidable force that was credible and threatening to them.

Even after Merdeka, Utusan Melayu was a thorn in the side of the Malay ruling elite who believed that Utusan  Melayu was influenced by the “Leftists” (mereka yang berfaham kiri). That was a good enough excuse for UMNO to wrestle editorial control of Utusan Melayu in 1961. The journalists were up in arms. Equipped with only determination and commitment, they fought back. They launched a strike that lasted 90 days. They lost. Said Zahari, the editor at the time, was taken under the Internal Security Act and was incarcerated for 17 long years.

The way I see it, what happened in 1961 was a defining moment in the history of newspapering in this country. Press freedom died at that moment, never to be recovered, perhaps forever. The fiercely independent journalists of Utusan Melayu paid dearly for their convictions.  Many moved on with their lives, others stayed on in the business, some working for various other publications, remembering the dark clouds that descended upon them and their brothers and sisters in 1961.

Utusan Melayu may have lost its freedom in 1961. But that did not stop generations of editors and journalists thereafter to carry their brand of audacity. The “Utusan Melayu brand” was a trademark. They could be fiercely loyal to the “Malay cause” but they were never racists. They fought injustices, religious extremism and backwardness among the Malays.

They knew who owned the company or who had the majority stake. That was UMNO. But that did not deter them to be, in many instances, the conscience of their race.

I was asked repeatedly if I was the “Hang Tuah” who placed loyalty above all else. I can’t speak for others. But history will judge me for what I did, for the exposès I made, for the leaders (including UMNO leaders) who I held accountable for their actions.  I lost my job eventually but that had been due to the grand tussle involving the then Prime Minister (who happens to be the current prime minister) and his deputy in 1998 (who happens to be the PM-designate whenever the former leaves office, or so the story about the promise goes).    

I have a simple theory about the control of UMNO on Utusan Melayu. It is inversely proportional to its own strength. When UMNO was in the position of strength, they somehow looked the other way. When they were weakened, they exercised a near-strangling position on the newspaper.

Perhaps they were significantly weakened during their preparation for the 2018 general election. Utusan Malaysia and TV3 were unashamedly used as their election tools. It cost the paper and the television station not just credibility and respect but readership, viewership and revenues.  

Like me, many Utusan Melayu editors lost their jobs. I wasn’t alone, joining the ranks of the late Tan Sri Zainuddin Maidin and his predecessors, Tan Sri Mazlan Nordin and Tan Sri Melan Abdullah. We carried that badge of honour in being fired as editors. Perhaps it’s true what they say, that good soldiers don’t die, they fade away, whereas good editors don’t fade away, they get fired.

Until only of late, no chief editor of Utusan Melayu had left the company without controversy.

I would like to believe that we were all collateral damage in the grand political chess game involving some of the most refined and consummate conspirators and political operators ever to roam the land.

Technically I “resigned” in July 1998, some three months before Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim was fired on 2nd September 1998. They had to “clean-up” the Utusan Melayu and Berita Harian groups and TV3, as these were powerful platforms before the advent of social media.  

Yes, we knew who owned Utusan Melayu (or who had the majority shares in the company) but even under such circumstances, it didn’t deter us from being critical, vocal and fair. We sincerely believed in the freedom of the press. We understood the limitations of that freedom in a multi-racial country like ours. We believed it is our right and moral obligation to call figures in the public eyes to account. We believed in being the ears and eyes of the public.

There are people who have been asking me, why talk about press freedom when there is none? Is it true that the Malaysian press has been kowtimed into believing that they have a role to play as “agents of change” in the process of pembangunan (development) and kemajuan (progress)?  Are they being timid or silenced into submission? Or were they merely unapologetic cheerleaders for whoever was at the helm, now Pakatan Harapan, before that UMNO and Barisan Nasional?      

Those are relevant questions. We have been asking those questions too as we went along. Were we complicit to some of the ills and injustices inflicted upon individuals or even our society over the years? Were we merely looking elsewhere when misdeeds became full-fledged scandals and these scandals later became international disgrace? Sincerely we asked those questions too.

But to be honest, many of us tried our level best to ensure we played the roles as expected of us. We did our best under such circumstances. There were times when we were not proud of what we did. But we believed we had tried our level best.

We made mistakes too. We are not supposed to take sides, but we did. In one of my pieces for The Star (1st October 2018) I asked the question that everyone of us ought to be asking: Are we complicit in the 1MDB scandal? “Why did most of us fail to voice out concerns when the 1MDB scandal was unfolding?”

My contention was that, too many people, including the mainstream media contributed to the problem by ignoring the red flags and choosing not to question  the official line.

In my piece I wrote:

1MDB is a slap on the face of a cowering media.

1MDB is a wake up call for the local media.

Docility sucks. 

Never again, that should happen. We must learn something from what happened in those years leading up the full-fledged expose by Sarawak Report and other news portals.

The truth is, there is no ultimate press freedom anywhere in the world. Even in the US, the so-labelled liberal press is being pitted against the conservative ones – it is like The Rest vs Fox News or The Rest vs President Donald Trump. Someone famously said, freedom of the press belongs only to those who own it.

Yet the war of attrition against journalists is getting new traction. With Trump at the helm of the most powerful nation on planet Earth, and the way  he perceives the media, we are in for a more troubling times.

The United States of America is supposed to be a beacon of democracy and free press. Trump has called “the fake news media” enemy of the people. Trump’s rhetoric is dangerous for it incites more than just distrust and hatred towards the media. Which is totally unacceptable.

But what about us – the practitioners – where are we in the scheme of things? What about the need for the public to respect us as professionals? We have been soldiering on all the while. We have been facing  a cynical and sceptical public. We have been given all kind of names and labels. We have to live with it.  

We are just doing our jobs. We are not taking advantage of other people’s miseries or misfortunes. We do not want our names on  the hall of fame just for exposing the misdeeds of our political masters or the scandals of corrupt personalities.

Jamal Khashoggi need not have died. So too 60 others journalists who have perished in 2018 alone. Journalists died in conflicts areas bringing  wars and skirmishes to readers, listeners and viewers in the comfort of their homes.

Anyone covering Afghanistan and Syria today knew the risks. But like their brethren before and now and perhaps in the future, they will be there putting their limbs and lives in danger.

I was in Afghanistan in the Spring of 1989, somewhere in the Kunar province to be exact, not too far from Jalalabad covering the civil war there. I knew what it was like. It was not the adrenaline that propelled us, nor was it fame and fortune. Again, we were just doing our jobs. Don’t blame us for that.

Perhaps we are indeed doing a thankless job. But we are professionals. We go to jail, we got hurt, some of us died. Occupational hazards you may say. But we do what we are supposed to do. Forget about the notion of the romance of journalism or the movies you watched about brave journalists covering wars and coming back to their lover ones. Happy ending guaranteed despite the odds and challenges.  

Journalism is more than that. 

We can have a serious discourse on the matter. But for me, our conversation about the role of journalists must go beyond that. We have to accept the fact that the newspaper is more than just about the enterprise of newspapering. It is not only about the conversation on raucous chauvinism or unapologetic political correctness. Or about sex, lies and democracy, the three things that sell newspapers, they say.

It is also about quality, not just what the readers want. It is about our responsibility to do our best as journalists. It is about the role of the Fourth Estate. It is about accountability and fairness.

And about bringing sanity to a reading public that is obsessed with film stars, celebrities and more film stars and celebrities. It is about not relegating ourselves to prurient journalism fixated with telling the official truth and avoiding dubious journalistic methods.

We need to recognise the important fact that newspapers and the media as a whole are, first and foremost, business ventures. They are about money. About resources. About profit. About the bottom line. Why would quality newspapers fold? Why is it that even notoriously explicit and salaciously sensational papers are suffering?

Back then, editors were reminded of a famous but anonymous 19th Century verse about Fleet Street:

Tickle the public, make ‘em grin

The more you tickle, the more you’ll win

Teach the public, you’ll never get rich

You’ll live like a beggar and die in the ditch.

We were not just editors. We learned fast to make adaptations. We made money for our companies. Our companies prospered. Back then, when I was at the helm of Utusan Melayu, the total advertisement spending for Malaysia was about RM3.5 billion, 60 per cent of that was for the newspapers, the rest for TV. People advertised in our papers. Our papers were influential and a money-making venture.

That was before the Internet, before the whole enterprise of digital revolution disrupted our business. We thought we were formidable. Many of the newspaper companies in Malaysia were forging ahead with lots of confidence into the digital world in the early 1990s. We thought technology would propel us to greater heights.

It did, at least for a while. The newsroom became fully computerised. Back then the Internet was still in its infancy. Gone were the days when reporters were calling from phone booths and the layout of pages was done manually. We were excited. Handphones came, then short message system or SMS. WhatsApp, Twitter and Instagram were a decade away. The digital revolution was a sure thing, but for us, we sincerely believed that it would help us more than it would disrupt, destruct or even deconstruct us.

How wrong we were. We were literally caught with our pants down. What we once believed as “unthinkable” became “inevitable”. It affected us, our business, the entire discipline of journalism and perhaps the future of the newspaper and media. Journalism was being hollowed out by massive structural shifts, readers’ preferences, latest trends and the cost of the newspaper business. After all this is an era of Industry 4.0. The “New Industrial Revolution” is taking place and it is changing almost everything – not just the way we communicate but the way we live.

We now realise how labour-intensive our business was, how vulnerable we were as a business entity, how the old models of newspapering were being challenged to the core, and how we were going to see more disruptions and the possibility of the biggest wave of journalistic lay-offs ever in the history of newspapers.

We were seeing that with our own eyes. Looks at the media conglomerates around us. Over the last two years alone, at least 3,000 people lost their jobs. I am not talking about only Utusan Melayu; even the mighty Media Prima group, the Star Publications and Astro  are facing difficulties.

Datuk Ho Kay Tat, Chief Executive Officer of The Edge, pointed out at the Malaysian Media Awards and Conference by the Media Specialists Organisation, that from 2014 to 2018, shareholders of The Star Media Group, Media Prima Bhd, Chinese International, Utusan Melayu and Berjaya Media had lost approximately RM3.7 billion in market value.

How things have changed over the last few years. In 2013, Media Prima was registering a yearly revenue of RM2.3 billion a year. This year they are lucky if they can hit RM1.3 billion. Media Prima is the only fully integrated media company in the country today, with media assets ranging from TV, radio, outdoor advertising, to the NSTP group.

I should know. I was the Chairman of Media Prima Bhd for six years (2009 to 2015).

Media Prima was at the right place when convergence of media assets proved to be its winning formula. But the downside is that one of its subsidiaries, the NSTP group, is literally bleeding and dragging the parent company down as well.

Take the case of Singapore Press Holdings (SPH). It has businesses in print, digital, radio, outdoor media as well as property and aged-care. It was like when MRCB owned NSTP; the former had interests in banking and property too. But even the mighty SPH reported a 44 per cent drop in its third-quarter net profit to $26.5 million from $46.9 million a year earlier.

To say that all newspaper companies are affected is an understatement. There are naysayers who believe that in the next five years, almost all newspapers in the world will cease to exist in their traditional form. The tide can’t be changed. The die is cast. It is just a matter of time. If at all, the end is to be delayed, not halted.

The reality is that fewer people are reading the newspaper. Every time a reader dies, no one new is taking his or her place. When anyone of us move into an apartment or a condominium, the first thing we do is to stop subscription of newspapers. Newspaper circulation has been dropping consistently since 2000, at a rate of 10 per cent per year since then.

It takes Jeff Bezos of, probably the world’s richest man in the world today, to buy over The Washington Post, the paper that will be remembered as the one that brought down President Nixon and known for its many other exposès or investigative reporting.

The Los Angeles Times was bought over by the wealthiest man in California. One of the most respected newspapers in the United Kingdom, The Guardian, is now controlled by a foundation and its online version is being kept alive by donations.

Therefore, we can’t really harp on the likes of Tan Sri Syed Mokhtar al Bukhary who bought over UMNO’s stake in Media Prima or that he aimed to save Utusan Melayu (which he did not, though he has had a 20-per cent stake in the company since the 1990s). Perhaps, online newspapers need crowd-funding or donations in the future to survive.

Datuk Ho Kay Tat made a pertinent point when he raised the issue about the rise of the digital duopoly that is destroying the news business. Companies in Malaysia and elsewhere are shifting their ad spend to social media and digital platforms, mainly Facebook and Google. The duopoly now controls 80 per cent of the digital ad revenue. Last year alone, according to Datuk Ho, Facebookmade US$55.8 billion in revenue, 80 per cent of which was from digital advertising. Google, on the other hand, recorded a US$11.8 billion in ad revenue, which was 85 per cent of its total earnings. One must also take note that while Amazon is a distant third, it will further hurt the media industry.

We simply can’t compete with them. And things are getting worse.

Now, where do we go from here?

The news business apparently is not the exclusive right of media companies. Anyone can be a reporter. A nasty road accident outside Taylor’s University now will be on YouTube real-time or on any of the social media platforms. There is no need to wait for the news bulletin update on Astro Awani or for TV3’s Buletin Utama at 8.00 pm tonight.

Everyone is a reporter. What you need is a smartphone. Citizen journalism is real.

Our obsession with social media platforms has turned us into tech-animals. We socialise less now. We are addicted to our gadgets. We spend hours on it. The world is at a standstill, for everyone is holding on to the little, smart, yet distracting, gadget for whatever information coming through it.

Serious journalism is at stake. But at least there are people out there who still believed that the mainstream media remains the true main source of information, a platform that must continue to be trusted. Datuk A. Kadir Jasin, a veteran newsman himself and former editor of the New Straits Times, who is currently the media and communication adviser to the Prima Minister, argued that the mainstream media industry comprised trained and licensed professionals bounds by ethics and laws in their pursuit of true and verified information.

According to Kadir, “It differs from social media, which is not news, but a social medium that can be used by anyone and everyone to say whatever they want, just like in the coffeeshops.”

“So, we don’t have to get muddled with what social media offers, as correct information can only be obtained from the newspapers, radio, websites and television,” he said.

 I am sure many would disagree with Kadir. It is for us, comforting to hear that.   

The truth is, the social media revolution is changing everything. Social media platforms care little about “truth”. Truth is elusive. Who cares where we get our news from or whether such news are true or fake. We have created what I call a “forward generation” – to mean we forward what we get on our smartphones or other smart gadgets, usually without even thinking or batting an eyelid. In many cases we don’t even subscribe or agree to what we forwarded. Fake news get traction because of that.

The way I look at it, the whole notion of “news” needs reviewing.

There is a silver lining to this, I reckon. There is an opportunity for media companies and media practitioners to relook at the entire scenario, truthfully and sincerely. It is time to rethink the way we do things. There is an opportunity for a new beginning or the rebirth of a new news agenda.

The social media phenomenon is simply too consuming. While we acknowledge that there is no sign of this abating, we hear about the need for digital detoxification. There is an overall news-fatigue emanating from social media. People will demand quality news. Not flashes of events masquerading as news. 

But first we have to regain the trust of the people. We need to ensure the public that we can provide them with real, quality, objective and balanced news. We all know news is a commercial property. It is show business. It is not cheap. For quality news to be produced, it needs to be subsidised.

On the other hand, not many media companies will survive, which is good for the industry as a whole. It is also about choosing the kaca (glass) from the intan (diamond), as the Malays put it, the good ones from the bad, the credible ones from the not, the reliable ones from the unreliable lot.

The painful process must not stop at that. We must bring in only the best, the most reliable, the truly professionals. We understand there will be staff burnout under current uncertainties. The pressure of the present newsroom can be quite a challenge.

We must also start rethinking about the newsroom. We need a totally new concept of a smart, complete, state-of the art newsroom – a super newsroom, if you like. It will not be the crew of four covering an event for a news station, it will be a one-person backpack journalism style – capable of producing fast, reliable and interesting news items.

Many news organisations are investing a lot more on technology now. At one time it was about investing in computerisation. But no longer. More and more publishers are looking at investing in Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML). Editors can’t be replaced by machines, of course. Probably we have to cater for more personalised content and better presentations. Or shall we look at robo-journalism to help us minimise cost and avoid human mistakes? Robotic news anchors are real and perhaps the newsroom too needs ego-free and unbiased journos for the future.   

While we agree that technology is an enabler for better journalism, we must also accept the fact that eventually it is the journalists and the editors behind the news that matter. Thus, we need to relook at media studies. It cannot be business as usual. The old curriculum sucks, and sucks spectacularly. We must revamp the entire media scholarship, not looking at journalism from the prism of the old schools but incorporating all the other relevant disciplines.

Journalism schools must be re-assessed, students must be reminded of the new realities of media business and operation and the entire discipline of news-gathering, processing and disseminating.

The business models, too, must be changed. Media companies must relook at the way they do things, how they operate and how they derive their income. The news industry must look at itself as more than just about providing news. Industry players need to remember the mistake made by transport companies before, those who forgot that they were in the logistics industry. The outlook should be more holistic and inclusive.

Probably news do not sell the way they used to. Not via a newspaper. Or on TV. There are many platforms where news can be accessed. Perhaps the newspaper companies must not fight social media platforms but use them to their advantage. Media companies of course have been utilising social media as a marketing and promotional channel.

As newspapers begin strengthening their online content, they face the challenge of monetising part of it. It is harder to make money with online newspapers. Most people believe that everything online is free. The experience of the digital video platform, Tonton, is an eye-opener. Despite boasting 3.4 million registered viewers, Media Prima Bhd had a tough time in monetising its potential. Why do we need Tonton when YouTube is free?

It is time that media practitioners look hard and deep into themselves. Things are changing. The time when Rahim Kajai started Utusan Melayu in 1939 was an era different from the time of the company’s legendary editors – Said Zahari, Tan Sri Melan Abdullah, Tan Sri Mazlan Nordin, Tan Sri Zainuddin Maidin. And their time was different from mine in the 1990s.

Media practitioners need to make adjustments. And adaptations. Or they will perish.

The truth of the matter is, I am not just looking at a total revamp, I am looking at re-booting the total industry.

Let me put all these in perspective.

Firstly, I am using examples of places that I am familiar with. Secondly, I am not a naysayer. I am not even a sceptic. I am just trying to be realistic and pragmatic.

The death of the newspaper is perhaps a bit of an exaggeration. But in years to come, I am looking only at the survival of very few newspapers. The great days of newspapers have long gone. They will become smaller and even less influential. But only the best will survive. 

The news media organisation is at the crossroad. No one can predict what will happen from now on. Are the threats seen now merely the tip of an iceberg? Or is there hopelessness on the whole? The entire ship is floundering. The next big question asked by buyers and subscribers of newspapers is, why do we need newspapers when we can get news elsewhere? Are we still relevant?

Let us ponder the future – the challenges that will be formidable for the industry, for practitioners and for people like me – an unrepentant former newsman.             

Thank you.