Lee Duffield

Edited by Lee Duffield
Freedom and Truth

Citizens bite: New media ideas come to Brisbane

Steven Gan presenting a video about Malaysiakini's impact on Malaysian politics at Brisbane's Southbank last month

Steven Gan presenting a video about Malaysiakini's impact on Malaysian politics at Brisbane's Southbank last month

The Malaysian editor that US President Barack Obama and the New York Times see about new media trends in Asia-Pacific was the star attraction of a conference in Brisbane’s South Bank last month.

Steven Gan, editor of news site Malaysiakini, was in town to speak at an all-day Citizen Byte symposium on the topic of new media and the informed citizen on 24 July.

Australian-based management consultancy firm Paradigm Infinitum organised the conference that brought the cream of Malaysia’s new media talent together with one of Brisbane’s own most clued-in digital citizens, Graham Young.

Keynote speaker

But it was keynote speaker Steven Gan that everyone wanted to hear. Under his guidance, Malaysiakini (which means “Malaysia Now”) has grown from an four-person citizen journalism start-up company to become Malaysia’s most popular and influential media site.

Mr Gan said the online venture now employs 30 journalists and has moved into video at www.malaysiakini.tv.  The Obama presidential campaign and the New York Times online editors both came knocking on his door looking for the secret of his grassroots success.

Mr Gan attributes Malaysiakini’s growth to luck. He said it grew steadily with a subscription-only model but made a crucial decision to open it up for free during the 2008 Malaysian election. Hundreds of thousands flocked to the site as its crusading citizen journalism became an important antidote to the pro-government positions of Malaysia’s press and television.

By voting day on March 8, Malaysiakini had overtaken The Star newspaper as Malaysia’s most popular political site. The election saw the country’s 50-year-old government lose power in five key states.

“It was a tsunami that almost completely overturned Malaysia’s political system,” Mr Gan said.

Social web services

But politics is not the only area where Malaysian media are at the heart of innovation, nor is subscription the only successful model.

The content manager at Malaysia’s biggest media company Media Prima Berhad, Mohammad Zulkifli, told the conference how he used the power of social web services to give his audiences a total media experience. Mr Zulkifli said 838,000 Malaysians had registered for free access to Berhad’s websites.

He says their biggest differentiator is video content but they are also streaming content on mobiles, as well as providing Tweetdecks, SMS alerts (with video alerts starting next month), and blogs where fans can interact with their favourite soap opera and potentially influence plots. In 2007 Berhad released Malaysia’s first made-for-web drama called “Kerana Karina” which told the story of overnight pop star Karina in 20 four-minute episodes. As well as overseeing the project, Mr Zulkifli showed his versatility by writing the theme song. 

Harnessing social networks was the company’s next big challenge, Mr Zulkifli said.

Political challenges

On Line Opinion chief editor Graham Young, who is also a former Queensland Liberal strategist, then gave his perspective on the big political challenges for Australian new media.  Mr Young also blogs at Ambit Gambit, and conducts online polling at What the People Want.

Mr Young said Internet technology was pervasive in Australia  and 72 per cent of people use it for news, sport and weather updates. But he also said that online users were consistently turning to large media organisations for their news. He says the message from the data was that “tyrants rule” in Australia.

He says existing brands count because of the number of resources at their disposal, their national presence, and the fact that Australia is such a small and competitive marketplace. Mr Young said the few exclusively online operations that have been successful serve niche markets.

He said the limited impact of Australian blogs on politics was a result of tight central control of party funding and candidate selection and the fact that Australia is, generally speaking, well run.

“What that means is that people generally don’t need to think about politics in daily life,” Mr Young said.

“They have more exciting things to do.”