Walkout or purge at FreeMalaysiaToday?

‘Soon only one reporter left’
Our story on Monday
FMT was hit by mass resignations of journalists in the past week. The chief editor K Kabilan resigned on Monday and cleared out his things on Friday. The chief sub-editor, news editor and regional editor then resigned two days ago, followed by five reporters and three other editorial staff. Yesterday, another reporter resigned. Four others are believed to be making plans to go. “At this rate only one reporter will be left,” an FMT insider said. Two other journalists at the Bahasa Malaysia section will remain.

A day after being left “shattered” by the sudden departure of the editor and a bunch of journalists, Free Malaysia Today’s management has said the site is to carry on, with recruitment of new staff.

It also pledged yesterday to remain “free and independent” to counter speculation that the clearout had been stage-managed to prepare for a more pro-Barisan Nasional leaning. Though nominally independent, since its inception FMT has displayed strong pro-opposition inclinations in its coverage and commentaries.

Over the past year, there had been friction between management and editorial over coverage, as well as editorial quality, to the extent of chief executive Nelson Fernandez appearing in the newsroom and losing his temper.

That was said to be a contributing cause of the departures, as well as fears over the company’s finances and long-standing grievances over non-payment or slow payment of company EPF contributions, and payments to contributors.

Chief exec puts in an ally

As part of its reorganisation, FMT yesterday announced the appointment of M Menon as chief editor to replace K Kabilan, and placed advertisements for sub-editors and journalists. fmt_jobs

Menon’s appointment had not been unexpected.

Formerly with the Star and the Sun, Menon, 70, had been with a trade publication until he joined FMT two years ago as a sub-editor. Over the past year he had become close to the chief executive and a month ago was appointed above Kabilan’s head, reporting directly to Nelson.

In the first step in the reorganisation, FMT has roped in its former managing editor, Phlip Rodriguez, a former colleague of Menon’s from the Star, to take charge of editing duties.

Friction at the top

FMT insiders said a major factor leading to Kabilan’s resignation last Monday had been Menon’s appointment over him, beside management issues and tension between company and editorial. A dozen others followed Kabilan in leaving, including three desk editors and five reporters, and more are expected to go in coming days.

Free Malaysia Today

Nelson had apparently been “shattered” on Monday by the exodus, FMT insiders said, and was believed to be on the verge of closing the site. Others said there had been indications, such as his alliance with Menon, that he had wanted to purge FMT and make a fresh start, perhaps with a view to selling off the site eventually.

The money men

Nelson, a former NST reporter turned adman and businessman, is the blunt, aggressive right-hand man of businessman John Soh Chee Wen, the chief financial patron of FMT. Nelson is believed to also have a stake in the company.

John Soh, at one time an ally of Anwar Ibrahim, is also believed to be the main backer of Raja Petra Kamaruddin’s Malaysia Today site.

There has been some speculation that Nelson’s moves could have been a result of John Soh having transferred control of FMT to Nelson after having incurred up to RM15mil in costs to keep FMT going. However this appears to be unlikely.

The site’s financial problems are common to other online news ventures, which must precariously depend on advertising revenue or financial patronage to keep them afloat. FMT is a poor third to MalaysiaKini (which has a strong subscriber base as well as advertising revenue) and the Malaysian Insider, which has a strong editorial and market presence.

Facing new competition

The Insider’s financial backing remains unclear but it has had enough resources to have survived since 2008, and ridden out a mass departure of editorial staff two years ago, when Leslie Lau and sister Joan negotiated a deal to produce the Malay Mail Online web site on contract.

The Malay Mail, part of the Redberry Group of media companies, is owned by politically well-connected businessman Siew Ka Wei, who has close ties to Najib Razak.

Still around

Still around, it says

Further competition has also arisen from HCK Media, owned by former Star chief executive Clement Hee, and which produces The Heat and Focus Malaysia weeklies and The Ant Daily web site.

In the face of such competition and a lack of a firm revenue base, FMT’s continued survival, and for how much longer, lies in the depth of commitment of its financial and political patrons, and their plans for the site’s survival.

It is a precarious balance, and leaves FMT a long way off its own boast of being “the go-to” news site.