by Oon Yeoh
MALAYSIA, 6 July 2000 (MSCTimes.com) - When Asiaweek's respected IT cum financial journalist, Assif Shameen, wrote Merger Mania in Malaysia's Media on March 28, he highlighted the Internet plans of each local media group and concluded "That leaves only one Malaysian media company out in the cold: Star Publication." According to Assif, as far as Internet strategy was concerned, "Star is seen to be a laggard."
As it turns out, this laggard is looking to be the first one off the block with its soon-to-be-launched portal, simply to be called TheStar.com.my. "It will no longer be called The Star Online because it's going to be much more than just an online newspaper, said Davin Arul, vice-president of iStar. "It will be a portal -- for want of a better word -- with many features and functions that the printed newspaper won't have." iStar is a wholly owned subsidiary of The Star and serves as the company's Internet research and development arm.
MSCTimes was given a sneak preview of the new portal and it certainly looks different. The color scheme of the beta version is green and blue with a white background. The layout and design also allows for easier navigation than the current Star Online, where, as Davin puts it: "content is all over the place." There is a conscious effort to make the new web site more user-friendly, streamlined and focused. It will end up looking less like a newspaper and more like a portal.
But the change is not only cosmetic. The management plans to expand the role of the web site from just being an online version of the printed newspaper. "A newspaper is a place where people come for information and news," Davin said. "TheStar.com.my will be a place where people come to interact." In line with that, the development of interactive functions such as e-communities, chat rooms and forums will become key components of the new web site.
Internet analyst Yeoh Keat Seng of MalaysiaStreet said that the direction The Star is heading in transforming its online newspaper into a portal, is the correct one. "Media companies that think they can make money just by having an online version of their newspapers are gravely mistaken," he said. "It's only by having a portal, with a multitude of services that they can develop multiple revenue streams and be more attractive to advertisers."
Although The Star's management has decided not to assemble a dedicated news team for the portal, this does not necessarily mean that what you will see online and on the printed copy will necessarily be the same thing. "There has been talk of having the online version of the news a little different from the offline version," said a management-level source in The Star. "People on the editorial board understand that you can afford to be a little freer and daring online than you can on the printed copy."
This doesn't mean, of course, that TheStar.com.my is about to become a MalaysiaKini - that fiercely independent online-only newspaper known for its investigative and often critical reports on the local political scene. But, the option to have a slightly different version of the news is there. "Frankly, we at iStar are just enablers," Davin said. "It's really up to The Star's editorial team to decide on editorial policy."
Another important difference: unlike The Star Online, where reports of today's events are usually posted only the following day, it is highly likely that the new portal will carry important news within hours of the event. For example, if the prime minister were to make an important announcement, you would probably see a report posted online by that evening. "In fact, it might be even faster than that," Davin said. "We could have our reporter call in the story just like the wire agencies."
But iStar is not without any staff writers. There are currently three who have been hired to generate content normally not covered by the newspaper, mainly lifestyle-related issues. Eventually, there will probably be a content team of five, Davin estimates.
Part of TheStar.com.my's marketing plan is to engage as many distribution channels as possible. The company currently provides free headline and summary feeds to any established and respectable web sites. "Of course, we won't provide our feeds to porno or gambling sites," Davin said. "But if you are a legitimate site, we can provide this to you for free."
The Star does not envision its portal to be just an advertising and promotion tool but rather, a commercially viable entity that will actually make money. One main source of income is classified ads, which The Star is very strong at. This is understandable because classified ads can be very useful for the end-user as they can easily find for what they are looking for using a search engine. With offline classifieds, the user has to scan through pages and pages of ads.
Interestingly enough, The Star Online has never required readers to register in order to gain access to the news. When the new version comes online this policy will remain. "People don't like to register," Davin said. "So, we want to keep it as easy for anyone to come and use our site." However, for certain services like free e-mail and bulletin boards, users of course, will have to register.
The downside to this approach, though, is that it does not allow you to monitor who your visitors are. The Star Online is currently able to tell which countries the visitors come from and how many page views are achieved per month (15 million and climbing). However, it cannot track the number of unique visitors. Most online publications -- local and abroad -- do require registration for the very purpose of tracking who actually visits their sites.
One would naturally assume that TheStar.com.my's main competitors would be the web sites of the other two English-language newspapers: The Sun and The New Straits Times. However, the Sun's portal is not quite ready yet and will only be launched at the end of this year. NST meanwhile, recently changed its NTSPi website into e-Media and is still struggling to establish its new brand name and image.
So, what is TheStar.com.my's competitive advantage? "Branding," Davin said in a word. "Over the years, The Star Online has made its presence felt. It's now an online brand that most Malaysians recognize. Even if some other company is able to come up with some very innovative stuff, at the end of the day, consumers will generally gravitate towards branding. This happens in the real world. It's the same online."
TheStar.com.my is slated to be officially launched on July 8.
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