How financially-distressed Utusan can survive, according to former staff, media experts

Azril Annuar
Fernandez said Utusan must work to regain public trust and rebuild its credibility with critical reporting and analyses. — AFP pic

KUALA LUMPUR, Aug 23 — Malaysia’s oldest Malay daily, Utusan Malaysia, needs wholesale reforms if it is to stay relevant, according to news veterans commenting on the newspaper’s current liquidity issues.

Its publisher, Utusan Melayu Bhd, was classified as a PN17 firm last week owing to loan delinquencies. The classification means it does not have the liquidity needed to maintain its current listing’s requirements.

Industry veteran and former Utusan chief editor Tan Sri Johan Jaafar said the newspaper must now choose between its own survival and loyalty to its main owners, Umno, which lost the general election and can no longer help fund it.

“Do they want to sell paper or be a formal mouthpiece for Umno? The problem with that, after GE14, people are beginning to question the Umno associated brand. They don’t want to touch that brand,” Johan told Malay Mail when contacted.

He pointed out that other news organisations such as MCA-owned Star Media Group and Barisan Nasional-friendly Media Prima Berhad immediately adjusted and embraced the new political reality under the Pakatan Harapan government.

Unless it can find a “white knight” to rescue it, he said the future was bleak for an unreformed Utusan.

“I feel sad about it because I was a chief editor (at Utusan) for many years with sentimental view on Utusan. Unfortunately I think unless they wake up to the new reality they are going to be in deep, deep trouble.”

Shunned by advertisers

Media consultant Terence Fernandez observed that Utusan’s woes were largely due to the firebrand image it has cultivated, which led many advertisers to steer clear of the controversial broadsheet.

Saying that the newspaper has lost the trust of its readers, Fernandez said this perception further exacerbated the exodus of advertisers.

“Second, advertisers, [multinationals] didn’t want to associate themselves with Utusan due to racial hate and promoting bigotry,” he said, adding that Utusan was fuelling its own demise.

In a Bursa Malaysia filing on August 20, Utusan Melayu said it has defaulted on loans from Bank Mualamat Malaysia Bhd and Maybank Islamic Bhd. It must come up with a regularisation plan within a year or risk being delisted from the stock exchange.

The company has consistently operated at a loss in recent years and most recently reported a RM5.8 million loss in the first quarter of 2018

Its accumulated losses topped RM71 million as of June this year, leading to the current PN17 status.

A veteran journalist who requested anonymity said the company is now surviving hand to mouth as it needs up to RM7 million each month just to operate.

Claiming the outlet to be virtually insolvent, he said an abortive voluntary separation scheme proposed by former chairman Datuk Nasir Ali could have been beneficial.

“But Umno did not allow the VSS, pitying the company’s staff. Honestly, a VSS would have been better than just losing your job outright,” he said when claiming that staff sometimes did not know when they would be paid.

“I don’t think they can survive unless there’s a bailout.”

As part of efforts to address it financial difficulties, Utusan is also trying for a private placement,  which is a funding round of securities offered only to selected investors instead of the open market.

When asked if private placement can work for the firm, Johan responded pessimistically and simply wished his former company luck.

“If you really have the money, would you want to put into an entity that most people believe is almost unsaveable? More importantly I look at it, the business model is not appropriate,” said Johan.

Fernandez said the print media is a sunset industry and the news outlet must fully embrace digitalisation if it is to have any chance of survival.

More than that, he said Utusan must work to regain public trust and rebuild its credibility with critical reporting and analyses, possibly by carving out a niche as a watchdog to the government, adding that its links to Umno will raise questions about its motives.

The newspaper must also ensure that its journalists report factually and refrain from insulting readers’ intelligence, he added.

Utusan now has a greater role to play as a check and balance of the current government,” he said.

Former Bernama chairman Datuk Seri Mohd Annuar Zaini suggested the paper position itself as the premium Bahasa Melayu daily instead of being a political tool, saying there was growing demand for centrist reporting and less so for the right-leaning.

“It doesn’t mean they stop being a Malay champion but they should stop attacking other people and races due to political differences,” he said.

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