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So, why did they fail with paywall as their ultimate safeguard?

THE buzz question in online media circles: Why paywall has failed for many and only a few made it with the online subscription model?

If we go by Google’s standards that content is king and should be free, then the idea of a paywall for a website will be a hard sell.

Except for Malaysiakini which survived for more than a decade with a successful paywall system that has defied the norms for a purely online portal.

But in Singapore, where cash is really king due to the power of the currency, independent news portals with paywall did not fare well.

Thus the question, why did most portals fail to get a paywall running successfully to bring in much-needed revenue? It is not that these sites did not have great content or a massive number of followers.

There is no ultimate or proper answer to the question, but the fact remains that in most cases paywall does not work if you are adamant to remain stuck in your armchair while waiting for the manna to fall onto your lap.

Manna being the edible substance which fell from the sky during the 40 years of the exodus of the Prophet Moses’ people in the Sinai desert.

To make it work, one has to be on the ground to reach out to the potential readers, which in turn demands a lot of physical and personal efforts that may or may not reap the expected benefits.

The other way around it is to have a lean but mean workforce, one that has adapted to the rapidly changing condition of the news industry in order to provide potential subscribers with the stories they want to read.

Yes, the last part of the above sentence says it all: Provide the readers what they want to read, not what you think is good for them to read.

I read today in the Independent.sg portal (TSIG), a very successful portal based in Singapore — that good journalism is “a vanity metric”.

Its editor-in-chief Kumaran Pillai said good journalism is not defensible as a business model.

In this business, there is no customer lock-in, said Pillai. This is because people read what they want to read and often read the news that comes in through their social media feeds.

Pillai added that the preferences of readers about what they read changes over time, and it is difficult for a small media outfit to monitor these habitual changes.

He was talking about the demise of popular news site The Middle Ground (TMG) that could only generate S$3000 monthly (RM9,330) from 200 patrons, and they were patrons who could not accept any change in tone or focus from the portal.

Paywall is a death trap

Explaining the demise of TMG, Pillai said in the business world nobody owes anybody a living, and if you are going out there to raise funds to bankroll your operations you will soon find that you have few friends.

That is exactly what is happening to both print and online media altogether. There are few companies willing to dish out their hard earned cash to sustain your project and you will need truckloads of money if you want to survive.

This sums up what all startups are facing on a daily basis and why most of them are failures from the start, while some can only rear their heads further than a few more months on the block.

But the crux of the matter in this sorely competitive business of news dissemination today, as my friend Sathish Govind will say, is the business model.

TISG has found the right business model. It is surviving and it will make it for a longer time than we may think, while we will start seeing other portals both in Singapore and Malaysia flinch and abandon the race.

The danger in these super disruptive times is that established newspapers in Malaysia are struggling to come to terms with the harsh reality.

Changing the business model is one way to go, but what is the real model here that is needed for the local dailies in English, in particular, to survive the hurricane?

With the scores of jobs at risk and the future of many old and young journalists, editors, subeditors, and not to forget the entire ecosystem of sales, circulation, human resources, marketing and admin at stake, the right model to sustain a business could not be far from madding crowd!.

Kazi is the Business Editor for Malay Mail and can be reached at kazi@mmail.com.my

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