The Star: March 4, 2008By RASLAN SHARIF
PETALING JAYA: Malaysians are gripped by election fever, and this time around, the temperature has risen in both the physical and virtual worlds.
Political parties on both sides of the divide have seemingly taken to the Internet like ducks to water. Messages and appeals are being sent out online in a manner unseen in previous general elections.
It’s clear that no one is taking for granted, even though recent surveys have shown that Malaysians still rely largely on the traditional media – television and newspapers – for political news and information.
But it’s not only the parties and candidates who have invaded cyberspace with slick websites aimed at garnering support from the Net generation.
Several individuals have also launched election-related forays online, riding on the excitement that unfailingly surrounds a general election each time one is held.
One such website is Malaysia Votes (www.malaysiavotes.com), which was launched on Feb 20, just a few days before nomination day.
The prime movers behind the website are former newspaper journalists Jacqueline Ann Surin and Cindy Tham.
Combined, they have more than two decades of experience working as reporters – Surin was assistant news editor with The Sun while Tham was assistant editor with The Edge.
Both left their respective publications earlier this year to get Malaysia Votes off the ground, but it wasn’t a spur of the moment decision, according to Surin.
“Cindy and I had already been thinking, since last year, about the need to set up an online news site because of the limitations we faced working in the mainstream media.
“We figured that under present circumstances, it was unlikely that the Printing Presses and Publications Act would be reviewed or repealed, so the only way to continue practice the sort of journalism that we believed in was to go online,” she said.
Malaysia Votes was exclusively set up to cover the 2008 general election. It aims to provide news about the main issues faced by the nation as it heads to the polls. The site is zeroing on hot seats across the country and the battle for Kelantan.
Surin, Tham and Danny Lim – a former senior writer with Off The Edge magazine who left recently to join the two – write much of the content, but external contributors have chipped in as well. Recent contributors include Dr Mavis Puthecheary of Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia and Maria Chin Abdullah of Women’s Development Collective, a non-governmental organisation.
“We don’t aim to cover every single news event or political party or candidate because it would be impossible with our limited resources, so we are very focused on niche areas,” said Surin.
Malaysia Votes will also “offer as much analysis as possible”.
“If they wanted to read straightforward news reporting, they can easily get it from the traditional media, and obviously we can’t compete in that area,” she said.
It has only been about two weeks old, but the site has already become a non-stop endeavour for the site’s founders.
“It’s 24/7 – from the moment we wake up in the morning to after midnight most nights.”
Part of the reason, as any reporter knows, is the considerable effort required in covering elections.
“It is also just the three of us multitasking and managing everything: the site, interviews, press conferences, getting people to write for us, writing and editing. It’s been very intense,” said Surin.
But the effort has been rewarding on several levels so far.
“We’ve received loads of feedback, mostly very encouraging, but we’ve also received brickbats,” she said.
Much of that came after they published an interview with Umno Youth deputy chief Khairy Jamaluddin, who is running for the Rembau parliamentary seat.
Surin ascribes it to what some Internet users believe alternative online news sites should be about.
“I think some people just assume that because we are online, we have to be anti-establishment and carry only a particular point of view. But we’re a news site that aims to be fair, accountable and factual about all legitimate stakeholders in this general election,” she said.
Such “controversial” items have no doubt helped attract attention to the site.
The site received more than 61,000 page views and about 18,000 unique visitors for the seven days after it was launched. It currently averages about 3,000 unique visitors a day.
While it is encouraging, the site’s founders said they viewed success as not just in the numbers.
“Our goals were to report as independently and fairly as we could on the elections, in the areas that we promised we would try to cover.
I think we’ve managed to keep that promise so far despite our limited resources. We’re glad Malaysia Votes has been able to create and provide that kind of space for readers,” said Surin.
And it won’t just stop there. A plan is in the pipeline for a full-featured news website after the elections, “a visit to the spa at a beach resort, and our collective recovery from exhaustion.”
“Malaysia Votes is the beginning of a bigger online news site project that we are planning to launch in the next few months. We still need to put in more thinking and research so that we get the business model and branding right, so once this is over, Cindy and I will concentrate on setting up our company and the news site,” said Surin.
An insider view
That would put them in competition with Malaysian Insider (www.malaysianinsider.com), a news website that went live on nomination day.
The site is the brainchild of Png Hong Kwang, former executive editor of editorial production at New Straits Times, and Sreedhar Subramanian, former chief operating officer of NTV7.
Cluttered as the alternative media scene might seem to Malaysian Internet users, the site’s founders believe there is still an under-served niche for it.
“On one side you have the bloggers, who I think champion narrow causes, and on the other side you have online newspapers like Malaysiakini, which I feel has a strong anti-establishment bent, so there is an untapped middle ground between the two,” said Png.
It’s barely two weeks old, but Malaysian Insider already has the looks of a full-blown news site, with sections featuring local news and politics, opinions, sports, entertainment, and foreign news. The site also carries the works of cartoonist Cheah Sin Ann and exclusive articles from motoring blogger Paul Tan.
The site aims to provide to offer “an unvarnished take on events and personalities in Malaysia.”
“We will strive for balance, although I understand that not everybody is going to agree with what we publish,” said Png.
Much of the current content is focussed on the elections, which is the result of the decision to launch the site during the period of the general election.
“You don’t have to be genius to see that it makes perfect sense to go live in the middle of all the excitement,” said Png.
Malaysian Insider currently has about 10 people on board, including writers, contributors and site administrators, and is looking to add more reporters to its full-time staff.
Png could not provide any statistics on the site, but said he hoped Malaysian Insider’s focus on “the unvarnished truth” would translate into page views and eventually revenue via advertisements on the site.
“I think we can be self-sustaining after about a year, and of course, we would like to be profitable eventually,” he said.
Appealing to the Net generation
The Star: March 4, 2008By RASLAN SHARIF