Monday, July 27, 2015

Straight talk with the Czar of Malaysian Media!

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Tan Sri Johan Jaaffar has been Chairman of Media Prima Bhd (MPB) since 2009. He was heading the magazine division of Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka (DBP) before he joined Utusan Melayu (M) Bhd in 1992 as Chief Editor. He is currently Chairman of the Consultative and Prevention Panel of the Malaysian Anti Corruption Commission (MACC) and member of the National Unity Consultative Council (NUCC). He is also a regular columnist for the New Straits Times. He talked to MARKETING recently…
You were a journalist and editor...
Yes, I travelled and saw the world. I went to conflict areas; Afghanistan in 1989, Bosnia in 1994. I met Nelson Mandela before he became the President of South Africa. I had a great encounter with the late Václav Havel, when he was President of the Czech Republic. I interviewed President Suharto during his best years in office. I had conversations with Lee Hsien-Loong, when he was first making his mark in politics. I am always a journalist at heart. And I was also an editor. In fact for some years, I was editing a paper that is a rival to the one that we have in our stable now.
You seem to be enjoying your work in Media Prima...
To say I am enjoying my work is an understatement. This place is as much fun as it is challenging. One has to enjoy one's work to bring out the best. Just "cari makan" attitude won't work. We need passion, commitment and above all, the drive to do better. This is a "beautiful" company.
What is your take on creativity?
Creativity is the bedrock of a company like this one. Nothing matters more than its people being creative. Creativity defines us and differentiates us. We are in a creative content industry not a company that manufactures soaps or car body parts.
Is MPB becoming too big?
There is a cottage industry out there harping on the perils and evils of being big. Books are being written about the beauty and advantages of being small. They say, David is the new Goliath. Big sucks. Big is clumsy. Big is dead.
I don't fully agree with that thinking. The big companies ALL started small. They grew big as business grew. Of course there are companies that employ less than a hundred people but command a yearly turnover of billions of dollars. And yes, that is only possible in the digital era.
But how small can small be in the newspaper or TV business today? Yes, there are some legacy issues, but there is nothing wrong by being big. In fact big is might, big is a competitive edge.
Many media companies are diversifying to mitigate against uncertain futures.
We went through that before. It wasn't a pleasant journey. We almost went bust. We have wisened up. I can say for now, we will focus on the media assets we have. Diversification for now is not on the plate. At least not on my watch.
How "adaptable" is MPB?
We have gone through some tough times, and many good times too. At one point we believed having interests in almost everything under the sun was the right thing to do. We had stakes in banks and properties and whatever. Then we were hit by the economic crisis of the late 90s. We came to our senses. We hived out the non-media assets. We are lucky we did that. And when digitalisation started to change the newspaper business, we embraced it. The New Straits Times is the first newspaper to have a digital format. We knew the changing patterns regarding TV viewing. We needed the eyeballs. We are aware the young are not watching TV the way their parents did. So we bring TV to them. Content creation companies must learn to adapt, or we will perish.
Times are tough for media companies, you agree?
You don't need to be an analyst to see that. How things have changed since the Internet revolution. We have not seen this before at any time of human history. The tools we are using to embrace technology are now dictating us. As I wrote in my New Straits Time column some months back, tech advancements are writing new code into the fate of humanity. Undeniably, under such circumstances, media companies are facing tough challenges. My generation and the generation before me patiently waited for the news when the newspaper was delivered to our homes in the morning. Now, news alerts and breaking news on 24-hour news channels provide news as it happens. And citizen journalism is flourishing in blogs and various postings. Everyone can take a picture of an accident at the Federal Highway on a smartphone, click "Send" and presto, it becomes news. Raw, swift and unreliable…but still news.
What is the state of TV today?
A stylish, notoriously unpredictable, maddeningly creative but well-organised chaos, is my definition. Sustaining TV ad revenues is a real challenge. Advertisers are not convinced just by numbers. We have incredible numbers. Some of our programmes have ratings that go stratospheric. Advertisers have more options now, more platforms. The government has given a deadline for digital broadcast. The migration will be painful for us. As the challenges will be daunting.
Any thoughts on the art of journalism…
One valuable lesson I learned as a journalist: Never say you're right all the time. This is the answer I gave when I was posted the same question some years back: We are humans. We make mistakes. We report deaths, calamities, not to mention misfortunes of others. It is incumbent upon us to tell the truth. Then again, truth is a double-edged sword. Truth is elusive as it is debateable. Someone mentioned journalists are too fixated to sex, lies and pseudo-democracy. There is also a danger the press is "hurtling out of control" with a "herd mentality" in chasing stories. I am not a believer in consumerism rules. We don't sell newspapers at the expense of civility, good manners and truth. We shouldn't harp on other people's miseries. We have a role to play in nation building, whatever that means to us. Journalists are responsible people. Freedom of the press is a virtue, not a license to abuse. We should take pride in reporting happiness, triumphs and successes too.
You were active on stage?
When I was younger, I wrote plays and even won some awards. I directed a few and yes, I acted too. I was the Brad Pitt of my generation (chuckles)! I have tackled some of the most difficult roles written for the stage. To name one, I played the part of Dr Stockman in the play "Enemy of the People" written by Henrik Ibsen. It was directed by the maestro himself, the late Mustapha Noor, who had just come back from New York after many years there. I learned a lot from theatre.
You have been at Media Prima Berhad (MPB) for more than 6 years now…..
I am currently the longest serving Chairman in the history of this company. We have a wonderful team here led by Group Managing Director Dato' Sri Amrin Awaluddin.
What would you do when you leave the company?
I have some unfinished business, a memoir I have written in bits and pieces over the years. It is my story when I was in the eye of the storm during the years of living dangerously for editors – the political turmoil before and after the sacking of Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim in 1998. Too many people have written about what happened. I want to correct the wrongs in many of those writings. I want to give my perspective. The (still serving) Chairman of Media Prima can't be publishing a book like that, right? To hot for the company to handle (laughs)! I was there when it all happened. I was a small but significant player in one of the most intriguing and dramatic eras in Malaysian politics. Perhaps I'll go back to farming. I did that after Tun Mahathir Mohamad famously fired me in April 1998 and before I was "resurrected" and given the "kosher" label again. Who knows I might even stage a new play. Or do a cameo in a film or a telemovie. Or drive a taxi, just for the thrill of it!

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