30-year print veteran takes the online media plunge with KiniBiz
Speedier medium, but more breathing room for journalism as it is meant to be
SOME time during the early 2000s, while I was working at English daily The Star, I attended a course on advanced business journalism conducted by one P. Gunasegaram, who brought with him an impressive array of credentials.
He instructed us on how to dissect annual financial and stock market reports; gave us an understanding of the banking and financial services industry; and taught us how to decipher that financial gobbledygook that makes the language of the technology industry look a piece of cake.
But the most important point he stressed was actually the basics of journalism: How to collect, collate and interpret data, cutting through the marketing-speak, to tell our readers what was really happening.
It’s pretty much what Gunasegaram (pic) intends to do with KiniBiz, the business news portal he jointly launched with independent news portal Malaysiakini on Feb 19 as a 50-50 joint venture, where he is publisher and founding editor.
After years in some of the country’s premier business publications, and stints as an analyst, he joined The Star as managing editor (business) in 2008, on a contract basis for about three years, although he continued contributing columns for about year after he left in 2011.
However, his kind of straight-talking journalism landed him in trouble more than once: In 2010, police reports were filed against him for a column he wrote on the caning of three Muslim women. The Star itself apologized for the column, but was issued a show-cause letter by the Home Ministry, which threatened to revoke its publishing license.
The Malaysian print media is regulated and controlled by a plethora of laws, some directly such as the Printing Presses and Publications Act (PPPA); others more indirectly, such as the Sedition Act, the Official Secrets Act and more.
Online media have been spared the yoke of the PPPA, but they can still be reeled in with the other laws. With the recent amendment to Section 114A, they can even fall under the boot-heels of the Evidence Act, which makes any publisher – loosely defined -- legally liable for any comment posted on any of its digital properties.
Still, many journalists have headed out to the Internet to escape the draconian regulatory environment of the print media in Malaysia, though not many as iconic as Gunasegaram. For him, it was a combination of his calling as a journalist and serendipity.
After he declined to renew his contract at The Star, “I was doing a little bit of other work from home, but I was wondering what else there was I could do,” he tells Digital News Asia (DNA).
“There is only so much you can do in the print environment, given all the licensing and publishing restrictions and regulations,” he says.
“This environment has been made worse by the fact that elections have been ‘just around the corner’ … oh, for the last two-and-a-half years perhaps,” he chuckles, referring to the country’s on-going political war-footing as the current government kept delaying the general election it now needs to call within the next few months.
He was thinking of venturing into the online media space but was unsure of how to proceed when he got a call from Malaysiakini chief executive officer Premesh Chandran, who had noticed that Gunasegaram was being listed as an ‘independent consultant.’
Premesh invited him over for a talk with him and his fellow Malaysiakini founder, Steven Gan. According to Premesh, Malaysiakini had been considering launching an independent business news portal for years, but needed someone with the industry know-how and reputation to pull it off.
“I thought why not; Malaysiakini has a very strong brand identity,” says Gunasegaram. “I am not a technology person, but these guys know how to run an online portal and have been doing it for years. I thought it was a good fit.”
The trio started laying out plans last April, finally deciding on a joint venture between Malaysiakini and Gunasegaram himself after the latter said he was willing to invest in the venture.
The business publication scene has been very dynamic in the last few years, with the launch of the daily Malaysian Reserve, and while the highly-respected The Edge held the mantle of premiere business weekly for years, Focus Malaysia launched last December intending to challenge it for that spot.
It must have been a bitch trying to attract highly sought after business journalists to join KiniBiz in such an environment.
“Well,” Gunasegaram admits, “we did have three or four people who were going to come on board who suddenly changed their minds – they were either given better offers, or convinced by their bosses to stay on.”
“I don’t blame them,” he shrugs. “It is risky going into a new venture.”
KiniBiz now has an editorial staff of 10, working out of the Malaysiakini office in Kuala Lumpur, and is supported by the latter’s technical and sales and marketing teams. Two more editorial staffers are slated to come on board within the next few weeks.
The company itself began work on Jan 2, to iron out kinks on the website and to write stories so that by the time the portal launched last week, it had a full repertoire of articles.
KiniBiz has given a lot of consideration to the type of content it will carry, notes Malaysiakini’s Premesh (pic), who also acts as CEO for the business portal.
“Basically the content can be broken down into three categories: First would be exclusives, the breaking stories and unique opinions which is what the site’s really about,” he says.
“Second would be stories that people would want to share on social media, like our story on AirAsia … or any story on the iPhone, for instance,” he laughs.
“The third type of content would be for SEO (search engine optimization) purposes – we will run a lot of wire stories so that when people do a search, and they see foreign articles, they will still come to our site to read them.
“The first is about branding, the last two will give the site its overall shape and help drive traffic,” Premesh adds.
When it comes to wire services, KiniBiz subscribes to the usual suspects: Bernama, Bloomberg and Reuters.
“We prefer a small team, so you don’t spend so much time managing people and training them, which takes you away from developing the product,” says Premesh.
“It’s about finding the optimal size,” he says, later adding that the portal is still on the look-out for more writers and sub-editors.
Gunasegaram concurs on the need to find this optimal size. “You need enough people to do the stories you need to do, but a smaller pool of people can focus on the kinds of stories we want. I mean, we want to break stories, to have proper analyses, and commentary from not just us but external experts too.
“We will be very big on opinion pieces – we already are. Finally, we want to highlight issues. We will pick out some issues, and serialize them over a week, for instance,” he adds.
On Feb 26, one week after launch, it began the first such serialization with Selangor water: Privatisation gone awry, written by Aidila Razak, which will look at the politically-heated water situation in the state of Selangor over four parts.
Online vs. offline media
After about three decades in print journalism, what does it feel like being an online journalist now that he is a two-month veteran?
While never having allowed himself to be restrained anyway, “working in the print media meant that I had to pick and choose the topics I chose to comment on very carefully,” says Gunasegaram.
“There are no such constraints now,” he says. “So long as I can back it up, I can write about it.”
He says the print constraints were not just political either. “Many mainstream journalists feel constrained by what kind of business issues they can cover, particularly if these are businesses their advertisers are involved in.
“So here [in KiniBiz], we’re making it very clear to potential advertisers that it is in their interest to have an independent news portal – that is the strength of the portal, and that cannot be compromised,” he adds.
Not that advertisers don’t get any love – KiniBiz has sections on events, launches and advertorials where they can put “their stuff.”
There are other differences too, Gunasegaram sheepishly admits. “You can make a mistake and change it fast, not wait for the next news day.”
“But the news cycle is much shorter too – the speed is both an advantage and a disadvantage,” he adds. “So you can’t worry if you miss one or two things, just work on what’s important.”
But Gunasegaram, while he does not come out and say it, clearly relishes the sense of freedom he now has, and the space to do journalism as it’s meant to be practised.
“Premesh, Steven [Gan] and I share the same kind of journalistic ideals – independence, fairness, writing things the way they really are. Since we are essentially the major shareholders, we’re not beholden to any shareholder interests either.
“We can report anything freely and fairly. The only thing we have to worry about is conforming to the laws of the country and following the ethics of journalism,” he adds.
KiniBiz to bring Mkini’s indie journalism to business community
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