TMI publication suspension: Could paywalls have saved the day?

In a statement to A+M, editor and CEO of The Malaysian Insight (TMI) Jahabar Sadiq, who recently announced plans to cease publication this week, said that its staff members will remain on payroll as it recalibrates the news portal for a sustainable future. He added that revenue was impacted as TMI had yet to implement a paywall.

TMI unveiled plans to cease publication to review its direction, news operations and commercial viability. This was due to a “challenging financial environment” faced by the publication as it missed launching a paywall and its page views traffic did not reach the targeted critical mass.

Prashant Kumar, senior partner of ENTROPIA, said in a statement to A+M that TMI’s situation is unfortunate but not unexpected. While online news offers low barriers of entry, commercial sustainability is the main challenge.

For Kumar, paywalls are necessary to keep online publications afloat, but whether or not a paywall is successful depends on various factors. These include quality and scale of audience, their propensity to pay, how unique and compelling the news portal’s content is, how frequent an average visitor comes to the side and the availability of other supplementary incomes, Kumar said. He added:

Edited news costs money and someone has got to pay for it. Ad dollars just won’t suffice.

He described the competition for consumers’ attention as “crazy”, with content creation getting cheaper and publishing platforms being free. All this while consumers are spending more time reading, listening and watching content today.

“The challenge lies in carefully building scale with a high quality segment, for a well-defined and sufficient role in the reader’s life, in a unique way,” Kumar said. He added that if that can be done, consumers will pay for the content and that it will be easier to get a premium for advertisements.

Also weighing in on the issue is Chanchal Chakrabarty, managing partner Asia Pacific and managing director of Malaysia at MediaCom, who said that revenues from digital advertising is a “fundamental and necessary factor” for journalistic publications, not just in Malaysia but also worldwide.

He added that news sites that stick to pure news or content and are not producing frivolous click generating content to boost their numbers are suffering. Examples of such content include pet videos or cute baby videos.

“The flip side however is that those anchoring on frivolous content are bound to lose serious audience and would have the floating non-loyal audience looking for lean back entertainment,” Chakrabarty said.

Chakrabarty said one potential way for online news publications to sustain themselves is to leverage their credibility and establish themselves to the advertisers as a credible key opinion leader, and gain influencer campaigns which are and would continue to gain advertising dollars.

Agreeing with Chakrabarty is Karan Tyagi, GM, Carat Malaysia, who said that while most content nowadays is free, having strong, relevant, insightful, exclusive and original content will convince consumers to consider paying for it at the right pricing.

However, he said that having a paywall is not the one and only solution to keeping online publications afloat. It is crucial to have other components in place, such as advertising, data management, and very importantly, content. All these need to work in sync.

One way to attract advertisers is having the right audience traffic to the news site. He said:

Advertisers buy audiences these days, and for that to happen, you need relevant content.

Traffic to the online news sites also mean that the company has valuable cookie or audience data, which is highly suitable for programmatic buys that generate high profitability. The recent formation of the Malaysia Premium Publishers Marketplace, Tyagi said, is once such example of having key news portals come together to offer advertisers premium inventory.

“Relevant traffic on a news portal make inventory premium,” he added.

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