Whither the print media in Malaysia?

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KUALA LUMPUR (Oct 16): The deaths of four Malaysian newspapers in less than a year have raised questions about the survival and relevancy of the print media industry in the country.

The Malay Mail English-language daily called it a day in December last year after 122 years, and is now available only online.

The Tamil-language Tamil Nesan newspaper shut down in February this year after having seen print for 94 years.

Earlier this month, the nation’s oldest Malay-language newspaper, Utusan Malaysia called it quits after 80 years in the business. Its sister publication Kosmo! also faced a similar fate.

Is this a sign that newspaper readership is on the decline The consequence: dailies are closing down and journalists, production staff and other employees are finding themselves without the jobs they have been ‘married to’ for years.

Is there light at the end of the tunnel for the conventional media industry

Going by what veteran newsman Tan Sri Johan Jaaffar, who was once the chief editor of the Utusan Malaysia Group, had to say, the industry has “a very bleak, difficult and uncertain future”.

Newspapers have been slowly dying over the past decade or so, he said, adding that it is a sunset industry and that whether one likes it or not, one has to accept the reality.

"Yes, it's very scary. It pains me, but I'm being realistic. There are even naysayers who believe that in the next five years, almost all newspapers in the world will cease to exist in their traditional form based on the declining ratings and sales.

“I believe that's a possibility," Johan, who was crowned Tokoh Wartawan Negara 2019, told Bernama.

He said that looking at the shift in media consumption, the days when people used to get news from newspapers are over and that every time a reader dies, no one new is taking his or her place.

"Having said that, I reckon that there is a silver lining to this. I believe very few newspapers - only the best - will survive and sustain in the years to come as they provide quality news, despite having to deal with the skeptical view that every newspaper is a government mouthpiece," he said.

Johan said the epidemic of the media industry needs a lot of rethinking and rebooting of the old formula, and there is an opportunity to relook the entire scenario for a new beginning or the rebirth of a new news agenda.

"The business models, too, must be changed. Old systems are not workable anymore. They must relook the way they do things, how they operate and how they derive their income, including their dependency on street sales and advertising," he said.

Johan said he does not buy the idea of media consolidation as he believes it won't work due to the decline in the number of readers of the traditional media.

He said journalism schools, public or private, must also reassess their courses and training, with students being reminded of the new realities of the media business and operations and the entire discipline of news-gathering, processing and disseminating in order to produce good journalists.

Datuk Seri Azman Ujang, chairman of the Malaysian National News Agency (Bernama), did not sound optimistic either.

He said the profession of journalism per se, as everyone knows it, is also at stake because the role of trained journalists is slowly but surely being taken over by the untrained ones, including Netizens, who come from various backgrounds.

"The print media is facing its worst-ever market condition all over the world. At one time, the public depended on newspapers to catch up on the news, but that need is no longer there as the role of newspapers has been taken over by gadgets which provide readers with more news and information than they can possibly consume.

"Then came the fairly new wave of fake news which is making a great impact on the news scene. The money seems to be evading the print business," he said.

Azman said one way out is to move towards quality journalism to revitalise and generate renewed interest in the print media.

He also said that the shutdown of newspapers such as Utusan Malaysia, Kosmo!, Tamil Nesan and Malay Mail and the possibility of other newspapers having to face the same fate in the future will have an impact on Bernama, too, as the agency was formed to also serve the newspapers.

Star Media Group chief content officer Esther Ng said the print media should not be discounted just yet although newspapers are, undoubtedly, facing a tough time and technological advances have hit the industry hard.

She said that in many parts of the world, the print media has experienced a revival of sorts and the news it carries is in a different form, more in-depth and analytical.

"To move forward, the newspapers of today should also be more visually stunning and engaging, which is why we strived to make The Star newspaper the way it is. We have received a lot of feedback, and almost all have responded that they love the way we look and sound.

"Media, like other industries, has moved fast to ride the waves of change and the Star Media Group is proud to state that we were among the first to go digital. We were the first media in the country to push our content online, 24 years ago, and, today, we are a digital-first media house,” she said.

Ng said media houses have to adapt to the current trends, and not just focus on print and online but all other platforms that are out there today.

"Journalism is very important and journalism will always be journalism. The tenets of journalism will never change but journalists must learn, and learn quickly, to tell their stories in different ways via multiple platforms.

"Instead of fearing change, just embrace it. The platforms may be new and ever-changing but content is content. In the era of fake news, it is the traditional media houses that the people look to to get accurate news in the end," she said, and added that the company will continue to work with universities to do internships and galvanise young talents for the future.

News Straits Times Press interim CEO Mustapha Kamil Mohd Janor said that, traditionally, the strength of mass-market newspapers has always been measured by their circulation numbers and, within the past decade or so, circulation numbers have gone nowhere else but south.

However, he said, to say that society does not consume news is not entirely correct because the online versions of Malaysian newspapers, including Utusan Malaysia and Kosmo!, are still enjoying a good number of readers.

"Perhaps, while the consumption of news itself has not changed, the desired platform has.

"It is quite like music. Live music paved the way for the gramophone, which gave way to the eight-track cartridge, which gave way to cassette tapes, which gave way to compact discs, which then were rendered obsolete by music streaming sites such as Spotify.

“While the platforms have changed over the years, music has remained a constant," he said. - Bernama