Malaysians wouldn’t pay for quality news content… or would they?
By Zan Azlee
So there has been a lot of talk in the news and current affairs world about the online platform being very unsustainable financially.
I know a few months ago, we saw the shutting down of The Malaysian Insider after eight years in operations, due to them not being able to maintain their costs.
And, with my own experience in the digital news world, I know all too well the struggle of trying to get the sponsorship and advertising for the ‘new’ media.
Somehow, advertisers and sponsors still like to fall back on the traditional media, which is funny to me since the numbers online just blow traditional media out of the sky!
This isn’t just something that is happening in Malaysia, but all around the world. Digital media practitioners are slowly losing belief that advertising will pay for their way.
The tradition that content needs to be free on the Internet might have to be killed soon because everyone now is talking about charging viewers and readers for the content they produce.
Ernst-Jan Pfauth, co-founder of the Dutch news site De Correspondent, recently wrote about how journalism should move away from advertisements and rely on subscriptions instead.
He makes valid arguments saying that advertisements will influence a news organisation to care more about clickbait articles and will destroy journalism.
Pfauth also says that branded content is a lesser-evil but eventually will cause readers and viewers to lose trust in a news organisation if it is done too often.
And that’s why De Correspondent is ad free and relies solely on subscriptions. They have steadily grown so far and currently have 40,000 paying subscribers.
Take a look in Malaysia and we have Malaysiakini which happens to be the only online news organisation that actually has a paywall and charges readers a subscription fee.
They have managed to do this and have survived for 17 years. And they are a success too, consistently staying in the top viewed news websites in the country.
And, remember, they have a paywall while all the other news sites are totally free. And still they’re kicking butt. Interesting.
So maybe Pfauth does have a point. Build a trusting relationship with your audience and they will see the benefit and the worth of good content.
But of course, Malaysiakini does not solely rely on subscription fees. They have advertisements and branded content on their site too.
Forbes recently published an article titled ‘When should you charge for online content?’ and they argue for a more balanced strategy that combines ad and subscription revenue.
The writer, Assistant Professor Anja Lambrecht of the London Business School, says that news sites should charge a subscription fee for their loyal audience who sees a worth in their content.
Then, increase and open up more (but not all) free content for non-subscribers during seasonal spikes such as during certain sports seasons, elections, etc.
This will then allow the organisations to have a subscription revenue model, yet still able to approach advertisers with the high numbers that a free site would get. Makes sense too.
So here’s the thing. Would online news organisations in Malaysia be open and brave enough to experiment and try new models to ensure their own sustainability? Let’s wait and see.