As transformation sweeps Malaysia’s newsrooms, millennial-focussed R.AGE finds a surprising niche: investigative journalism.

The Star newspaper's scrappy reporting team shows how a fresh product can build a new audience for old media.

By Kate Mayberry
Splice Malaysia

In June 2016, the online documentary “Predator in My Phone” exposed an alarmed public to the dangers faced by Malaysia’s increasing connected children, inspiring a campaign that captured the attention of celebrities, NGOs and politicians, and spawned a new law targeting child sex crime.

The result of a ten-month undercover investigation by R.AGE, a millennial-focussed multimedia unit at Malaysian newspaper The Star, the series has now accumulated some 4.5 million views on its Facebook page alone.

Audience engagement is an integral part of R.AGE’s work and campaigning is central to its remit, says executive producer Ian Yee, who argues that journalists can offer solutions to problems when they are confident their reporting is objective.

R.AGE executive producer Ian Yee (center) surrounded by the multimedia team and their awards. Photo courtesy Ian Yee.
R.AGE executive producer Ian Yee (center) surrounded by the multimedia team and their awards. Photo courtesy Ian Yee.

“I don’t see there being any kind of conflict. I think a lot of millennials don’t see that either, don’t see that there should be that line,” he says. “People can get involved in causes and issues so much more and they’re much more invested. They’re not just passive readers.”  

The law to protect children against sexual exploitation was passed in April 2017, representing a major victory for investigative journalism in a country where the mainstream media often shies away from covering sensitive issues.

Declining readership, new realities

Most Malaysian media outlets are owned by politically connected powerbrokersor by political parties themselvesincluding the Star, which is linked to the Malaysian Chinese Association. But the internet has upended the once-cosy media scene, spurring some to experiment with digitization and hard-hitting journalism.

“Traditional newsrooms cannot afford to sit and sulk.”

“They must learn from what [the new media] do and move forward,” Yee says.

Over the past three years, circulation at nearly all of the country’s newspapers has slumped, in some cases precipitously.

Average net paid circulation at the English-language New Straits Times more than halved between the first six months of 2013 (115,570) and the last six months of 2016 (54,490), according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations (ABC). At the Star, circulation fell from 289,362 to 220,972 over the same period.

Malay-language dailies also fared badly, with Harian Metro’s circulation falling from 385,554 copies in the first six months of 2013, to 142,262 in the last six months of 2016. Rival Berita Harian declined from 158,552 to 91,229 in the same period, while Utusan Malaysia dropped from 191,302 to 123,575.

The country’s three Chinese-language newspapers were not immune either, with Sin Chew Daily, Malaysia’s best-selling newspaper, reporting a drop in circulation from 385,229 to 316,564.

Are Malaysian journalism schools producing the right talent for the industry?

Apparently not.


From newspaper to news agency

At Berita Hariana Media Prima tabloid targeted at the country’s “discerning millennial Malay”—the focus has shifted online over the past three to four years.

“We have to face the problem that the younger generation is not reading the papers anymore,” explains Berita Harian journalist Luqman Arif, one of the paper’s digital pioneers. “They like to scroll through Facebook, so we try to cater to that niche, putting up snippets of videos, and highlighting exclusives that are coming up so they will follow the next day as well.”

There is a heavy focus on regular news updates, live reporting from breaking news events and short video features covering four key areas: celebrity gossip, sport, education and religion.

Luqman says print now plays second fiddle, and the paper’s priority is now to become what he calls “the number one news agency”. Berita Harian has 4.8 million Facebook followers and the company is stepping up efforts to turn that audience into income through advertising, sponsorship and advertorials.

The shift to online has necessitated major changes in newsroom operations. Berita Harian now operates a single news desk for all its output, a move that has necessitated engagement with staff via a “change agent “We need to cater to all those who are uncertain, have doubts or are apprehensive,” Luqman says.

Change brings rewardsand awards

The Star, meanwhile, has been building up its website rather than relying on Facebook traffic, and moving into digital products with radio and internet-based TV. The Star Online is currently Malaysia’s second-best performing digital media brand after Malaysiakini, but lower revenue from advertising continues to eat away at profits.

Yee says it took nearly two years to convince a cautious management that R.AGE as a video platform (it started life in 2005 as a newspaper pull-out targeted at students) was worth the investment.

“They would say, “What’s your two-year plan? What’s your three-year plan, what’s your projected P&L?” Yee recalls.

“Journalists really don’t like to [think about money], but we stuck with it, refined it.”

For its first project, the team had to find its own advertising sponsor but was told it could keep a percentage of any profits to buy equipment. Yee won’t reveal the unit’s budget but says it’s now increasing.

The 10-member team has won 18 awards since the site relaunch, and its latest exposé investigates a trafficking scam under which Bangladeshis travel to Malaysia expecting to be studying, only to be forced into work. Videos garner about 500,000 monthly views and Facebook followers have increased from 25,000 to 65,000.

“One thing we’ve been able to show is that content really is king,” Yee says. “If the content is good, people will watch it from start to finish. Our most successful videos have always been three to four minutes in terms of audience views, but in terms of impact the longer documentaries stay with people longer.”

Kate Mayberry

Kate Mayberry has been a print and broadcast journalist in Southeast Asia for more than 20 years, and was part of the team that launched Al Jazeera English in 2006. She currently freelances for media including Mongabay, Al Jazeera, BBC Capital and Nikkei Asian Review. Follow Kate Mayberry on Twitter.

From this week


Columbia Journalism Review takes a hard look at the journalism funding done by Facebook and Google.

There are millions of dollars going into this space. While many are happy to take the money on the table, others question the ethics behind it. “The British Empire wanted trains in Kenya and India to run well, too. So their concerns are sincere, but the effect is more often than not a deeper immersion in and dependence on these platforms.” Of course this isn’t an issue unique to the tech giants — grant-giving NGOs have also faced similar critics.
Columbia Journalism Review

Governments & policy



New Naratif put together a solid story on how the Muslim Cyber Army works in Indonesia.

If you haven’t heard of the MCA (no, not that MCA in Malaysia!), they have been spreading fake news and driving hate speech along religious and ethnic lines. Worrying trend, especially in a country that’s been fighting fake news factories like Saracen. What makes this one different? “MCA looks more ideological, has thousands of networks in different parts of Indonesia and therefore the destructive power of this group is greater than that of Saracen.”
New Naratif


The New York Times is partnering with FX and Hulu on a weekly documentary series called…The Weekly.

It centres around stories from the Times and the journalists that work them. This comes hot on the heels of The Daily, their incredible podcast about one daily story from the Times newsroom. This is part of the Times’ ongoing foray into entertainment: A New York Times Magazine feature is going to be a Netflix documentary series, and Brad Pitt bought the movie rights to the story of how the Times broke the Harvey Weinstein story. Also coming: a four-part series for Showtime about the Times newsroom during the first year of the Trump administration.
New York Times

Media startups



SilverKris, Singapore Airlines’ in-flight magazine, nailed it with their recent redesign by Ink.

I usually have the same attitude to in-flight magazines as I do to, say, a swift slap across the face: I’d really just rather not, thanks. But this reworked version was good enough for me to forget my Economy Class kneelessness, even though the cover is easily the most forgettable part of the whole redesign: a crowded image with no focal point. But here’s why I love this redesign: 1. The layout and typography have integrity in that they are led by the content. 2. The section fronts have bold, opinionated design. 3. The reading experience is immaculate — even though they crowd little surprise nuggets in the gutter. 4. The illustrations by Stuart Patience are delicious. 5. The writing isn’t all travel-fluff and doesn’t suck. 6. Those are some mad infographics skillz. Here's an interview with the Ink creative director.
The Design Air

The Malay Mail did a website redesign.

Load times were a priority, and the new site scores well on that front. The digital team also prioritised monetizing content and enhancing their “programmatic setup”. For me, this is translating into lots of badly-placed ads for pointless leather accessories in duplicate and Outbrain-forward sewage. They are testing a new section with Mandarin content for Malaysians working in Singapore, which says good things about their user research. Structurally, the website is fine, although better hierarchy on the home and story pages would be a good idea. (Also, those Open Sans headlines need some kerning; they’re w a y t o o l o o s e.) I’m impressed with how their head of digital responded to a question about the cost of the revamp: he said the company saw it as an investment rather than an expense. Respect.
Marketing Interactive

The article page is arguably the most vital page for a news website.

Getting it right across platforms is the Holy Grail. Last week, The New York Times took a giant step towards getting it right. This involved streamlining internal efficiencies on their CMS as well as a better user experience across mobile and desktop on web and native apps. Advertising also got a major overhaul: they killed their cluttered right rail of smaller banner ads for larger, full-width, midstream ads for a much cleaner read—and it’s working: “Ads on the new page are achieving twice the click-through rate of our old design, and initial studies show higher brand recall and four-times the reader attention to ads.” Read about the process here.
New York Times

“Hi, so did you hear that crazy phone call that, umm, the Google Duplex robot assistant made to the hair salon?”

She had the whole uptalk (ending verbal statements with that millennialesque question mark subconsciously designed to maximise responsiveness) thing going on? as well as an “mmm-hmmm?” and even an “er”? It wasn’t just how real it was that blew my mind; it was that the person on the other end of the phone was able to have a complete conversation without suspecting anything. I think the tech is amazing; I think the the whole construct is creepy. Would Turing give the bot full marks? Hear it for yourself.
The Guardian

Google’s Duplex bot will now identify itself as a robot on the phone.

There were some serious concerns that Google was putting the ‘dupe’ in Duplex: “Silicon Valley is ethically lost, rudderless and has not learned a thing”. The company has clarified: “It’s important to us that users and businesses have a good experience with this service, and transparency is a key part of that.” What is it going to say, though: “Hey there, I’m Rishad’s bot assistant, so don’t be freaked out.”?