KUALA LUMPUR, Sept 10 — Malaysian newspapers are experiencing a fall in circulation as readers turn to the Internet for hard news and tabloid-style scandal sheets for their diet of entertainment and sensationalism.
Circulation at the traditional mainstays of the local media landscape — The Star, New Straits Times, Utusan Malaysia and Berita Harian — has fallen over the past five years, in some cases dramatically so. The only exception is Chinese daily Sin Chew which saw circulation jump.
Figures from the Audit Bureau of Circulations (ABC) show that during the period 2005 to 2009, The Star’s circulation dropped from 310,000 to 287,000 (-7.4 per cent), the New Straits Times from 139,000 to 111,000 (-20 per cent), Utusan Malaysia from 213,000 to 169,000 (-21 per cent) and Berita Harian from 204,000 to 155,000 (-24 per cent).
Sin Chew, however, saw circulation rise from 324,000 to 382,000 (+18 per cent).
The downward trend has continued for this year with NST’s circulation going below 100,000 copies on several days recently.
Apart from the drop in circulation, mainstream newspapers are also not selling much outside the Klang Valley, which leads to questions about whether they can shape public opinion as hoped for by the Barisan Nasional (BN) government.
The Malaysian Insider understands that senior editors at many newspapers would like to give the opposition and alternative views more airing but control from Putrajaya and Umno remains severe.
A combination of changing tastes and competition from the Internet have contributed to the decline.
Many corporate readers have switched to going online and reduced the number of subscriptions for their offices.
The general public also appear bored with political drama and suspect that mainstream media is controlled by the government and tends to filter the news.
A recent poll by the independent Merdeka Center found that 54 per cent of Malays polled and 55 per cent of Chinese surveyed did not trust reports in the mainstream media.
College students, meanwhile, either feel distrustful of mainstream media or are ignoring it entirely, preferring to get their information and entertainment from multiple sources.
Fewer people are reading newspapers these days. — File pic
One Malaysian, who heads the local office of an MNC, said he has stopped subscriptions for The Star and New Straits Times at his office and buys one personal copy of The Star for the business coverage and the advertisements.
He also reads The Sun which distributes about 300,000 free copies around the nation daily.
“There seems to be more propaganda than anything else,” said the frustrated country manager who spoke on condition of anonymity. “A lot of people buy newspapers just to look at supermarket and job advertisements.”
One country manager of an international transportation company said he has stopped reading news in print but has switched instead to accessing the Internet via his mobile phone.
“Getting updates via the mobile phone is so fast,” he said. “People prefer to get business and political news from the Internet but buy tabloids to read gossip to pass the time.”
One media analyst with a local research house said the Internet is now the “longest running medium” in most people’s lives, given that practically all offices have computers that are hooked up to the Internet all day.
“Mainstream publications are also moving towards more lifestyle and sensationalist news because they put their hard news online the day before,” said the analyst.
Fortunately for traditional print media, despite the falling circulation, advertising expenditure continues to grow although more slowly than other channels such as free-to-air television (FTV), point of sales (POS) and the Internet.
Figures from market research firm Nielsen show that print media revenue grew 18 per cent during the first six months of this year compared with 55 per cent for the Internet, 29 per cent for FTV and 27 per cent for POS.
The Star alone — which dominates the valuable urban readership market with 178,000 copies sold in the KL/Selangor region, far ahead of No. 2 Harian Metro at 120,000 — sold RM497 million in advertisements in the first half of this year, up 28 per cent.
“The circulation trends don’t affect advertising,” said Margaret Lim, executive chairman of Carat Media Services.
Bucking the trend, however, are the so-called “light reading” newspapers such as Harian Metro, China Press and Kosmo.
A large chunk of the reading public have been drawn to the “hot” gossip stories, catchy headlines and large sensational photographs in the light reading titles as evidenced by the surge in circulation.
ABC’s figures show that from 2005 to 2009, Harian Metro’s circulation shot up from 250,000 to 350,000 and Kosmo went from 101,000 in 2006 to 172,000 in 2009.
Jamal, an insurance executive attached to a motor workshop, said he likes Harian Metro due to the “hot news”. He is also an occasional reader of Sinar Harian and Kosmo and buys The Star to scan job advertisements.
“There is too much political news and I feel the coverage isn’t very neutral,” he replied when asked why he doesn’t buy Utusan Malaysia or Berita Harian. “Malas nak beli (I don’t feel like buying).”
One Utusan reader, who works in the 3D animation industry, said one reason the paper’s circulation has dropped is that he has switched to the online version instead of buying a copy.
“I just pick and choose which stories I want and it’s easier to go online,” he said.
Sin Chew, which saw circulation rise, could be the beneficiary of the move of the majority of Chinese parents to shun national schools in favour of Chinese schools.
Rita Sim, executive director of Sin Chew media, said 85-90 per cent of Malaysian Chinese can now read Chinese.
“The Chinese language has gone mainstream,” she said. “And we’ve got the pulse of the Chinese community.”
She also said English titles had suffered as English is the language of the Internet.
“It is easier for English readers to switch to the Internet,” she said.