When The Malaysian Insider went dark in March 2016 after the government blocked access to the news site for its reporting on the multibillion-dollar 1MDB scandal, many wondered what was next for its editor and CEO, Jahabar Sadiq.
A year later, they got their answer: The Malaysian Insight.
At first glance, the Insider and Insight don’t seem all that different. Like the Insider, the Insight covers Malaysia, mainly its politics, and is text-heavy. It also publishes in both English and Malay.
But rather than following political minutiae, the Insight is on a mission to give its readers news that will help them better understand what’s happening in the place they call home.
Jahabar, who is targeting the country’s under-30s, says the two ventures are “fundamentally different”.
“The Insight is trying to provide an explanation of Malaysia to an audience who has no sense or context of what Malaysia is; the ones with no institutional memory of what the country was before 1997-1998 and the ones excited about the idea of change,” he says.
And that explanation is necessary. Like the rest of Southeast Asia, Malaysia was hit badly by the Asian Financial Crisis, which brought to a head disagreements between then Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and his deputy, Anwar Ibrahim. The situation came to a head and Anwar was sacked, accused of sodomy (a crime in Malaysia), and eventually jailed.
Two decades later and the now 92-year-old Mahathir, who retired in 2003, is once again teaming up with Anwar (who is back in jail following a second sodomy trial) in a battle against current prime minister Najib Razak (another protégé-turned-nemesis)—a good example of the country’s convoluted politics.
The 2016 shutdown
Sipping on tea in the mamak shop beneath the Insight’s newsroom, Jahabar likens it to a Malaysian “Game of Thrones.”
When the one-time Reuters journalist took editorial control of the Insider, his aim was to improve political reporting and provide an independent viewpoint in a country where traditional media is either closely linked to or owned by the parties in power, and freedom of expression hobbled.
But as the 1MDB scandal deepened, the Insider’s reporting landed it—and its parent company Edge Media Group—in trouble. Jahabar and his boss, Ho Kay Tat, spent a night in the police cells, and in February 2016 authorities blocked access to the site.
Communications and Multimedia Minister Salleh Said Keruak said the Insider was blocked because it had “flouted” Malaysian law and published articles that could “confuse the public.”
A month later, despite the creation of a mirror site, it closed permanently. Edge Media said it could no longer afford to operate the Insider after losing RM10 million (US$2.32 million) in two years since buying the publication.
In his farewell note, Jahabar vowed never to put down his pen: “I won’t shut up and I won’t be blinkered,” he wrote.
That spirit—a determination to deliver journalism that is independent and impartial—now informs the Insight. Jahabar raised the RM5 million (US$1.16 million) to start the site mainly from friends, and is dismissive of local commentators who suggest he is in the opposition’s pocket. “I have never taken money from a political party and will never take a cent from them,” he says.
There’s no room for listicles but photography and video—“produced in a snappy, breathless way”, according to Jahabar—are key.
Four months after launch the site has 40 employees, including 15 reporters and seven photographers, based in a suburban Kuala Lumpur office. About half the team used to work for the Insider and the same proportion belongs to the key under-30 demographic.
To keep readers under 30 interested, Jahabar says, he encourages his reporters to write with confidence and panache, and consider formats such as Q&As. There’s no room for listicles but photography and video—“produced in a snappy, breathless way”, according to Jahabar—are key.
Building a community-supported service
As a veteran of both traditional and online media (he started his career at the mainstream New Straits Times), Jahabar is aware of the difficult decisions confronting media owners in today’s challenging environment. That includes their relationship with Facebook and Google, which are hoovering up the revenue that publishers once used to fund journalism. “We have got to deal with the big boys,” he says.
And with running costs of about RM200,000 ($46,500) a month, he must find ways to make the site pay. The Insight is planning to introduce a metered paywall by the end of the year, with subscriptions expected to contribute about 60% of revenue in the long-term and the rest coming from advertising.
The Reuters Institute of Journalism found that while only one-fifth of Malaysians were willing to pay for news, online sites were their main source for information. Jahabar is confident that, presented with the right product at the right price, readers will open their wallets.
He hopes to reach a target of 25,000 subscribers, who could end up with a stake in the company when it breaks even. And while rival Malaysiakini charges subscribers more to read archived stories, the Insight will charge a flat RM10 ($2.32) a month for full access to exclusive content.
“[Malaysians] need to be able to make an informed decision, so we need to provide the context of what’s going on,” he said.
“What’s ten ringgit? One latte? We break it down that way.”