Digerati50: Fighting for free and fair journalism

Digital News Asia (DNA) continues a weekly series that profiles the top 50 influencers, movers and shakers who are helping shape Malaysia’s Digital Economy. These articles are from Digerati50, a special print publication released in January 2014. For information on customised reprints of Digerati50, email [email protected].

  • Entrepreneur, mentor and investor keeping the dream live for nearly 15yrs
  • People realise that better, independent news … ‘slowly changes the country’
Digerati50: Fighting for free and fair journalism

MENTION Malaysiakini and most, if not all, Malaysians would recognise the name as one of the country’s most famous online news portals, publishing in three vernacular languages besides English.
Founded in November 1999 by a pair of young and idealistic friends – veteran journalist Steven Gan and entrepreneur Premesh Chandran (pic above) – Malaysiakini is now acknowledged by many as more than just an independently-run news media website: It is also an icon for free and balanced journalism.
But it has certainly not been easy for the 14-year-old publication to get to where it is. Maligned, harassed and constantly observed by government officials, Malaysiakini can indeed testify to having gone through a long and winding road – it was raided by the authorities and had its equipment seized in 2003, and is routinely targeted by hackers trying to disrupt its news services to the public.
Still, 45-year-old cofounder Premesh, or Prem as he is better known, says that despite all that, Malaysiakini has outlasted some other websites which believed that it would not survive beyond a few years.
“Only a few entrepreneurs are able to go beyond the startup phase as it’s extremely challenging. But it has been an incredible journey, and definitely worth it,” he says.
“Malaysiakini succeeded not because of any individual, as I believe it was something that the public really wanted.”
As an entrepreneur, Prem has always tried to push the envelope further in the media space. In 2004, he started the South-East Asian Centre for E-Media (Seacem), a not-for-profit organisation that helps other publications in the region strategise their digital roadmaps and build their online presence.
Following that, he started up Malaysiakini’s New Media School, a revenue-generating arm of the online portal with an emphasis on new media training and consultancy.
Prem also got involved in the technology startup scene by being a founding council member of the Technopreneurs Association of Malaysia (TeAM).
He is now an investor, coach and mentor to tech startups in a programme – targeted at tech startups in the pre-commercialisation stage – known as AllStars.
“As a coach, mentor and investor, I’ve helped coached the first batch of startups comprising 12 companies, and we have since invested in two – Netizen Testing, a website performance testing company; and GEOB International, a diabetes monitoring medical device firm,” he says.
Asked what the greatest challenge in his journey has been so far, Prem says it was getting the general public to pay for content.
“Our biggest gamble was adopting a subscription-based model and we would have failed if Malaysians were not ready to put some money into an independent media company. Our growing readership and subscribers then got advertisers to realise that they needed to reach out to this influential audience,” he says.
Despite this, he acknowledges that it’s not easy to stay alive. The online media business hasn’t been very successful in winning advertising revenue.
“Online advertisements are slow to come in and for those that do, they go to Facebook, Google and Yahoo, and not to news organisations, which means we’re left with not much of the share. And because we’re not a lifestyle-based but a political-based news website, it’s even tougher.
“Add to that, to try to grow a business in four languages under a government that doesn’t look kindly at us, is really tough,” he says.
Still, Prem believes in the mission he set out on 14 years ago, and hopes that being partially ‘publicly funded’ through subscriptions will keep the dream alive for him and his team.
“What turned out to be our greatest challenge was also our greatest victory to date – in that people have come to recognise that a small contribution can go a long way to better, independent news … and that slowly changes the country,” he says.

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