Article 54 – No hope beyond Starbiz

by Tan Thiam Hock

Is there life after Starbiz for a small time columnist? I will be lucky to have 1% of The Star readership logging in to read this blog but 1000 genuine readers is still an achievement of some sort….for a small timer like me.

No, I did not stop writing for The Star because I was asked to. Nor was it because I wrote on controversial topics. I decided on my own to withdraw my column. Their Directors did encourage me to continue writing the column despite the common knowledge that my stark viewpoints could potentially caused them political discomfort and loss of commercial revenue. They have been very supportive and I would like them to know that I truly appreciate their friendship.

I wrote on issues that most people already know, whether it is business issues or business related politics. Nothing original. Being an impatient writer with limited vocabulary, I have no idea on how to be politically correct so I normally write from my heart and straight to the point. A bit raw in terms of content and intent but I am learning word by word and sentence by sentence about responsible journalism.

Many people complain about government bias reporting by The Star and other main dailies. Through the publication license, the government have a stranglehold on the editorial direction of all the mainstream media. In addition, these dailies are majority owned by political parties that constitutes the government. So any Chief Editors who wants to keep his job will have to play by the rules set by their bosses. Either that or he will be replaced by someone who does not care about journalism integrity. Tough way to make a living.

On the other page, the political news available via Internet is skewed the opposition way. Being cut off from mainstream media, the opposition fully exploits the cyber space which is unrestricted by law. Finally, the opposition possesses a weapon of mass disruption that can match the reach and depth of pro government mainstream media. Game on.

Human beings are typically news hungry animals with a bottomless pit to consume. We want to believe what we read. If you are pro government, naturally you will want to read the pro dailies and likewise if you are anti government, then you will swallow every Internet word that your eyes can feast on.

From a business perspective, let’s assume that pro government readers have shrunk from 70% to 50% market share. That constitutes a 20% drop in readers to the new competitors, the Internet news portals. Reflective of the current 50:50 political support for both coalitions, the market is now clearly divided right down the middle.

For dailies that are entirely dependent on advertising revenue, the loss of eyeballs will be matched proportionally by the loss of advertisers. No media agency worth it’s salt will recommend to their commercial clients a medium that is shrinking in terms of circulation and readership. If you want to reach 100% of your target market, then they will recommend that you park equally your advertising budget into both mediums, the pro government dailies and the Internet news portals.

You read the newspapers for the latest news and you watch TV for its entertainment programs so presumably TV and radio mediums will be less affected by political affiliations. If you are the publisher of a pro government daily, how will you address the problem of dwindling readership? How should you re strategise in terms of editorial content to win back the lost eyeballs? How do you win back customers that has lost faith in your product quality? How do you repair a damaged brand?

A newspaper business is just like any other business if you read its audited Balance Sheet and Profit and Loss accounts. Revenue less operation cost equals net profit. A no brainer. So to improve (or reverse decline) revenue, you need to increase eyeballs which draws in advertising dollar. To increase readerships, you need to offer products that caters to the whole market or differentiated products to different segments but ultimately covering the entire market. Then you have a fighting chance to survive.

If you want to remain in your niche segment and continue to offer the same products, you better pray that your segment does not continue to shrink in size or you will become a midget in no time. On the same note, the same product quality in new packaging will win you no new customers since everybody is so darn smart nowadays.

Winning back customers who has lost faith in your brand will be your toughest job. A complete rebranding exercise will only be possible if you discard your legacy problems. To rebuild trust, you will need a new editorial team that can instill confidence amongst the readers that the new product is impartial and genuinely news worthy. Just make sure your editorial team is impartially skewed to no one.

For a news daily, timely delivery of news content is the core of the business model. CNN is successful because they rushed the latest major news to their viewers via live TV and also the Internet. Even though they try to be impartial in their reporting, most instances, they look at the rest of the world through their American eyeballs which translates into lecturing the rest of the world on American ideals and cultures. So they lose eyeballs to Al Jazeera for Middle Eastern news and BBC for boring ‘hard’ interviews and insights into Europe.

I believe there is a major gap in the Malaysian news delivery business for entrepreneurs to exploit. Fed up with the current buffet of mish mashed skewed news, there is a growing segment of disenchanted but well educated portion of the population who are willing to pay for truthful, unbiased news reports and analysis. Neither pro government nor pro opposition. News and analysis delivered as it is for intellectuals to make up their own minds on what to believe in. I am not just talking about current disenchanted Gen X intellectuals but also the potential of the Gen Y market. This is the undeniable future.

Fortunately for the entrepreneur, the current political media owners can’t think beyond their survival instincts and will lose out eventually on the commercial potential of the new era of news delivery. But setting up a news gathering team costs big bucks with a long gestation period before you see any returns on your investment. But it will still be easier to build a new brand than to try to resuscitate an old damaged brand.

Is there a Malaysian billionaire willing to sponsor such a venture as a personal CSR project for the good of all Malaysians? I will be your first customer.