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“A platform for everyone, mouthpiece for no one”

Malaysia’s most reliable news source, Free Malaysia Today, an advertiser’s gold mine

Independent journalism in Malaysia has been on the defensive since the trend toward private ownership of newspaper groups started emerging in the late 1980s. This trend, combined with the government’s increasingly hardening attitude towards media freedom since the reformasi movement, which took place in the mid 1990s, has impeded any significant media liberalisation in Malaysia.

In April, the news that Malaysia had plunged 18 places in Reporters Without Borders’ annual press freedom ranking for 2021 raised valid concerns on the state of the country’s media scene as the ranking marked the steepest drop from last year among all countries.

One of Malaysia’s very few independent news outlets, Free Malaysia Today (FMT), is determined to change the narrative surrounding Malaysia’s media scene by shaking things up and leading by example.

FMT started in 2010. Since then, FMT has grown from a small alternative media platform to a leading digital news publisher with one of the highest readership (for English medium) at an average of five to eight million monthly visitors, taking in the top spot in February 2021.

Azeem Abu Bakar, Managing Director, FMT

FMT’s impressive engagement with its audience doesn’t stop at its website. Leveraging its Facebook and Instagram accounts, FMT delivers news to over 800,000 and 72,000 followers respectively. On its Facebook alone, FMT has a 3 million reach and 6.1 million engagements, and over 300,000 subscribers on YouTube.

“When we talk about changing the game, we want to set a culture that values critical thinking in storytelling,” said Managing Director of FMT, Azeem Abu Bakar. “Gone are the days where the state had iron-clad control over the media and so the time is ripe for change in how the media industry works and at FMT, we’re showing that it is possible to create a platform for all and a mouthpiece for none.”

As a news source, FMT’s DNA is rooted in providing intelligent and unbiased reporting which extends to all of its content. Azeem emphasised that each piece of content published by FMT must captivate readers and subsequently appeal to their intellectual curiosity.

Having a truly diverse editorial team made up of editors and reporters of different generations, is one of the ways FMT ensures the golden standard of journalism is upheld without risking being outdated.

Dorairaj Nadason, Managing Editor, FMT

“In FMT we have experienced journalists, the younger ones and those in between that enables us to provide the diversity in content for today’s competitive media world.” Azeem explained. “Our most senior editors have spent decades in The Star, Al Jazeera and TV3 while some of the younger ones worked in Facebook and ABC News in the United States.”

One senior editor is Dorairaj Nadason, who spent just under 40 years at The Star and joined FMT at the end of 2020. In February this year, he was appointed managing editor.

According to Dorairaj who goes by Raj, being part of FMT has reignited the fire in him when it comes to journalism.

“I joined The Star pre-1987 when journalism in Malaysia was at its best before owners became involved and started to dictate decisions when it came to how news was reported,” Raj said. “But the philosophy of true journalism from back then is not entirely lost because veteran editors and reporters who were in the scene continue to uphold a high standard while guiding the young ones to take over when the time comes, which is what we are doing at FMT.”

Imran Ariff, Senior Journalist, FMT

As Raj explained, the synergy at FMT is a result of the younger reporters’ opportunity to learn the art of quality journalism from industry veterans while simultaneously injecting energy and fresh ideas into the company. This approach has set FMT up for a clear succession plan which is vital for its long-term growth and sustainability.

Senior reporter with FMT, Imran Ariff, is one such young journalist learning the art of journalism hands on. In February this year, Imran interviewed former prime minister, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad for a FMT news special.

“I have reporter friends overseas who tell me that when they have a big story, it usually is assigned to more senior editors or the “big boys” because they are still new and are expected to wait their turn,” Imran said.

However, Imran said his experience at FMT has been different. “There are no shackles on us and as long as our core idea is strong, we get the backing from people above us to chase it,” Imran explained. “We are empowered to pursue big stories and they (senior editors) give us the opportunity to fail instead of holding us back.”

Robin Augustin, News Editor, FMT

According to FMT’s news editor, Robin Augustin, the reason FMT editors do not confine their reporters based on the years of experience they possess is because they believe the more new challenges a young journalist faces, the more nimble they become as reporters.

“This helps them understand that the core of news is about telling a story and this quality can extend into branded content pieces which sometimes is tricky to angle captivatingly,” he said.

More than just a news platform

While FMT has been a reliable news source that has been critical where necessary, it is also universal in its content offering with sections including national news, world, business, tech and lifestyle.

By diversifying its content without compromising on quality, FMT has paved its way to becoming an advertiser’s asset. In order to sustainably and independently finance its operations, the media outlet has embraced branded content as part of its growth model.

FMT’s balanced reporting attracts quality, thinking audiences and because the news portal commands this type of audience on a mass scale of five to eight million readers every month, advertisers who choose FMT have access to a massive number of Malaysians with strong purchasing power.

Zazilia Rawi, Head of Ventures, FMT

Zazilia Rawi is the head of ventures at FMT responsible for business development. According to her, FMT readers are mostly English and Malay speaking individuals whom she categorises as “thinking Malaysians”.

“While FMT’s news content is extremely popular, our readers seem to appreciate quality lifestyle content too,” Zazilia said. “We know this because when we put out intriguing human interest & social stories, they get shared by thousands and this shows our audience have rich character.”

By consistently producing intelligent content that is widely read, the products and services FMT showcases in its platforms are also seen in the same light. This has enabled them to uplift the profile of these brands and products.

Using advertorials, FMT helps advertisers reach the desired target audience strategically.

“One example I can think of is when we published a story on a property product for one of our clients which resulted in a few homes being sold,” Zazilia said. “These are big ticket items and it goes to show that FMT commands a premium audience.”

Faye Kwan, Senior Journalist, FMT

Even reporters at FMT see advertorials as an added benefit because it gives them the chance to write about different products and services that could add value to their reader’s life.

“While we do branded content, pure journalism remains our core offering,” said FMT reporter, Faye Kwan. “Commercial content ensures sustainability of the company, allowing us to continue writing great stories.

“The senior editors always support us by suggesting potential relevant experts we can contact for a specific product or service so the credibility of our branded content becomes stronger,” she said.

“We evaluate a product the way we see fit and tell stories about the product in a way our readers can connect with emotionally,” Azeem said. “That is what we do better than platforms such as Facebook where you would just pay and boost which is a very direct way of marketing whereas ours is more subliminal with an emphasis on truly connecting a brand with potential customers.”

FMT’s credibility and the large readership it possesses

In January of this year, REV Media Group (RMG) chose FMT to be an additional platform for its News Network. The partnership which became official in January of this year has not only enhanced RMG’s offerings but also added immense value to advertisers due to FMT’s credibility and the large readership it possesses.

FMT’s mobile app is available for download on Apple Store & Google Play

Commenting on the partnership with RMG, Azeem said that FMT’s positioning within the group offers a bit more “spice” to the flavour when it comes to news.

“We now have access to a larger network of media channels that we can work with,” Azeem said. “With REV we are also commercially stronger as FMT can offer our audience to the vast clientele base Media Prima have built for decades.”

FMT has also strengthened its production unit tremendously with quality video content produced in house, that commands higher commercial value. Currently, FMT produces five main types of video content which include news capsules, special reports, human interest, explainers and commercial content.

For its commercial content, the videos are beautifully designed to showcase products, services and profiles of its clients to appeal to potential customers.

“The videos are doing fantastic, especially in contributing millions of views to our overall traffic and expanding our sources of revenue,” Azeem said. “Most importantly the visual nature of videos engrains the FMT brand in the minds of our audience and this helps catapult FMT’s profile over the more traditional media brands that have been around for over half a century.”

At the rate FMT is growing, Azeem predicts that the brand sentiment among the public will reach a tipping point by the end 2021.

“Before this year, we were rather quiet when it came to promoting the FMT brand, as we were more focused on content to drive readership growth,” Azeem said. “2021 is the year we are coming out in the open with our guns blazing.”