Friday, May 23, 2008

Three online portals make a crowd?

Thursday May 22, 2008

Three online portals make a crowd?


Two seasoned journalists are hard at work building a yet-to-be-named online news site, expected to be launched within months.

THEY say two’s company but three’s a crowd. If that’s true, does that mean now that there’s Malaysiakini and Malaysian Insider, there’s no more room for yet another online news site?

Not if you ask Cindy Tham and Jacqueline Ann Surin, two seasoned journalists, who are hard at work building a yet-to-be-named news site, expected to be launched within months.

The two of them, together with freelancer Danny Lim, had created shortly before the general election. It was not meant to represent what their eventual news site would look like but you could say it’s a curtain raiser of sorts.

They had actually started planning their online news venture well before the polls were announced but once a date was set, they figured they might as well do something for it.

With a limited budget and armed with just their mobile phones, digital cameras, laptops and a working knowledge of the WordPress blog engine, they managed to launch MalaysiaVotes within a week.

What separates MalaysiaVotes from the many political blogs and websites out there is that, like Malaysiakini and Malaysian Insider, it’s helmed by trained journalists.

As such, there is a strong dedication to professionalism. Some people feel perhaps a bit too much. Many people actually like reading the loose and fanciful stories that can be found in sites like Raja Petra Kamaruddin’s Malaysia Today news portal.

Still, it’s hard to argue against strin gent fact checking and tight editing. Quality journalism is never a bad thing. The big question is what niche can the revamped version of MalaysiaVotes carve for itself?

Malaysiakini has pretty much got the “breaking news” market cornered. Malaysian Insider is good for opinionated news features in the tradition of The Economist. Where does that leave MalaysiaVotes?

“We have some ideas but we’d rather let our readers and the market be the judge of how different we are when we launch,” says Tham.

Unlike its previous incarnation, the new website will be staffed by a proper news team. They are actively recruiting but it won’t be easy as supply of good talent clearly outstrips demand when it comes to journalism.

They are now competing for talent against two other online players and the mainstream media newspapers. In a sense, the online players are at a disadvantage, but in another sense they have the upper hand.

Mainstream media offers job stability, as there is no danger of established newspapers closing down anytime soon. Online media start-ups – precisely because they are not established and because their business models are unproven – are by their very nature risky.

On the other hand, mainstream media has a credibility issue in the eyes of many young people. From the start, Malaysiakini has not had a problem attracting idealistic young writers who are gung-ho about journalism.

Unlike Malaysiakini though, the new version of MalaysiaVotes won’t be just about politics. Tham and Surin want it to cover a broader range of topics. In that sense, it’s closer to Malaysian Insider.

Another area where it shares a similarity to Malaysian Insider is speculation about its owners. Many industry folks think MalaysiaVotes’ financier is a newspaper owner who has been known to fancy Internet ventures.

“We are contractually bound not to reveal who our financial backers are, unless they themselves decide to reveal their identities,” says Tham. “We can only tell you that they are Malaysian investors who do not belong to any political party or government agency or NGO.”

Tham emphasises that their contract gives them full control over editorial content, direction and policy of the website. “We would ask readers to judge us by the quality of our journalism and by the journalistic standards of fairness, factual accuracy, accountability and bala nce,” she says.

Fair enough, but the question of who actually owns the site will continually plague them. People will naturally wonder why the owners are so secretive, especially since they are in the news business, which is supposed to be about transparency.

MalaysiaVotes was the subject of criticism over a couple of its articles on Umno Youth deputy head Khairy Jamaluddin. One reader complained that Khairy had already been given enough coverage in the mainstream media, and he didn’t need online media to give him more.

That’s a frivolous charge. Online media should not avoid a particular person just because he’s been well covered by mainstream media. However, there is another criticism that’s more valid, which is that they let Khairy off too easily on some contentious points.

When asked what kind of issues he would push for if he got into parliament, Khairy, now Rembau MP, said: “I’d like to have a clear discussion on inter-ethnic relations and where we’re going in the future ? talk about places of worship for non-Muslims, talk about the whole issue of how non-Muslims feel.”

Online journalist Helen Ang wrote that Khairy ought to have been “strenuously challenged” on that point given his “long and wide notoriety” on the topic of race relations.

Ang’s criticism is valid, but MalaysiaVotes has an effective response, which is that journalists no longer have the final say about the stories they write as the audience can post comments. This, after all, is what Web 2.0 is all about.

For good measure, at the recent Bloggers’ Universe Malaysia 2008 event on May 1, Surin highlighted some very critical comments of Khairy, written by readers, which appeared on their site.

Three may indeed be a crowd but when it comes to online news sites, I say the more the merrier. News junkies never had it so good.

Oon Yeoh votes in Wangsa Maju but this year he wasn’t able to do so because he was in Penang covering the elections on polling day. He can be reached at