BY LESLIE LAU MANAGING EDITOR
The fall of Utusan Malaysia also serves as a stark reminder of the state of the media in Malaysia. — Picture by Shafwan Zaidon
COMMENTARY, Aug 20 — Between politics and digital trends, it is no surprise that the oldest Malay-language newspaper in the country Utusan Malaysia will publish its last edition tomorrow.
But it is still a tragic day for journalism when yet another newspaper prints its last copy. It is understood that Utusan Malaysia will continue online for now but with seemingly insurmountable debts, any chance of a recovery is a long-shot.
I do not share the politics of Utusan Malaysia but its demise is still a loss of another Malaysian institution which has not only played a role in our country’s formation, but in my education.
In the 1980s, I would read Utusan Malaysia on a daily basis in school to improve my command of the Malay language. For the record I scored a C3 for Malay in my SPM examinations which I then thought was not bad for a boy from a Chinese school in a town where I had very few Malay friends.
One of the first things that I learned when I first became a journalist at The Star newspaper in the early 1990s, was that there was a de facto alliance we had with Utusan Malaysia where we would share stories with each other because of our common rivalry with the New Straits Times, Malay Mail and Berita Harian.
As a young reporter on the crime beat, I would share my stories with our Utusan ‘brothers’. Sometimes when I was desperate I would call their crime desk up and ask them if they had any good stories to share.
When I worked briefly in the east coast towns of Kuantan and Kota Baru, where Utusan had a big presence, I would actually report for duty at the Utusan Malaysia offices there because they would usually share their daily coverage with me, the lone correspondent for an English language newspaper in these Malay-dominated regions.
Even then I did not share the politics of many of my colleagues in Utusan Malaysia, or even in The Star for that matter. But we were all fellow journalists and all that we ever wanted was to write the next good story that would appear on our respective front pages.
Why am I telling you this? It is not because I want to reminisce or to look back on the good old days of my nascent career then. It is because there is a need to separate Utusan Malaysia the newspaper and Malaysian institution, its reporters and other employees from some of our grievances with its ownership.
It is certainly a sign of the times and of the kind of country that we live in that mean-spirited and downright cruel comments have also accompanied news of Utusan Malaysia ceasing operations.
The collective schadenfreude I have seen expressed is probably a result of the frustrations and anger of many Malaysians with the newspaper’s political masters and the somewhat aggressive racial rhetoric of its editorial position in recent times.
But the employees and the newspaper as an institution itself are equally if not more victims of politics.
Utusan Malaysia‘s mountain of debts and falling circulation did not happen overnight. It did not happen when Pakatan Harapan took power from Umno and Barisan Nasional last May.
Truth be told Utusan Malaysia‘s fall in popularity has been happening since at least the beginning of this decade and has been a barometer of the fall of the Barisan Nasional coalition. In other words as BN and Umno kept finding the going tough, so did Utusan Malaysia.
And as a weakened Umno kept retreating to its base of race politics, Utusan Malaysia reflected those views.
But beyond the politics, the fall of Utusan Malaysia also serves as a stark reminder of the state of the media in Malaysia.
The fact is no one in the world wants to pay for news anymore, let alone a newspaper.
It is not viable to print newspapers when no one wants to pay for something which tells you stories that happened yesterday and which you already read online for free.
At Malay Mail we published our last print copy on December 1 last year but we continue as an online publication.
I can tell you that most other media organisations with real reporters and photographers and editors who actually practise journalism are also struggling to stay afloat.
Online or in print, Malaysia’s news rooms are struggling to stay alive.
It costs real money to practise real journalism.
And there isn’t a whole lot of money going around as the media industry continues to search for a solution to make it viable for us journalists to continue to keep Malaysians informed.
The truth is the tragedy that has befallen Utusan Malaysia is happening all around us in every media organisation in this country.