Malaysia’s R.AGE builds a business from advocacy journalism

R.AGE staffers pose for a photo at the Asian Media Awards ceremony in Bali, Indonesia. Courtesy photo.

In mid-2016, R.AGE—a team of millennial reporters based at The Star, Malaysia’s largest English-language paper—released a documentary on sex crimes against children. Called “Predator in my Phone,” it exposed how men were using popular messaging apps like WeChat and WhatsApp to reel in children—and how, under a quirk of Malaysian law, doing so was not illegal.

The story shocked the public and galvanized political support for child protections—a rarity in Malaysia, which has a notoriously divided parliament. R.AGE followed up with an advocacy campaign, teaming with the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund to put pressure on parliament for a new law. Ten months after the story ran, the government delivered.

For old school reporters, especially in the US, there is supposed to be a bright line between journalism and anything that smacks of advocacy. But in Malaysia the division is more complex. Newspaper owners, including those of the Star, are typically tied to political parties, and the quasi-authoritarian government (ousted this year after a 60-year run) often hit newsrooms with arrests, suspensions, and sedition charges for anything deemed out of line. The result is a patchwork: some media—such as Malaysiakini, a digital outlet—forbid activities like advocacy; for others, such as the Star, minding political sensitivities is more important. As the young reporters of R.AGE began forging a new journalistic model—exposing social problems, then organizing lobbying campaigns to address them—senior management had to weigh whether that fit into the Star’s overall strategy. “Initially, there were concerns raised by our higher-ups against how R.AGE was actively campaigning, as it was felt reporters were going beyond what they should be doing,” June Wong, the Star’s Chief Special Projects Officer and R.AGE’s supervisor at the time, tells CJR.

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R.AGE was given a chance. Ian Yee, the team’s editor, believes their approach appeals to young audiences. “What a lot of journalists do too often is we focus on reporting the problem,” he says. “If you really do your research properly as a journalist, you should also know what the solution is. And if you know the solution, then I think there’s sort of a moral obligation to take it to the next level.” It helped that, at a company with shrinking print revenue and interest in digital growth, Yee and his team stumbled upon a new business model: R.AGE’s advocacy work started bringing cash into the parent company. Yee estimates that 80 percent of the revenue R.AGE has earned is from “social impact and content campaigns” that his team dreams up and sells to sponsors, such as an anti-bullying campaign launched last year. “At the end of the day, The Star is essentially a business,” Wong Chun Wai, the paper’s outgoing managing director and CEO, tells CJR. The ethics could be rationalized. “When lawmakers or politicians do not do their work, then the media can play its role to help our lawmakers.”

R.AGE started in 2005 as a classic newspaper pullout, targeting young readers with celebrity, lifestyle, and student-focused stories. Yee, who came on as a cub reporter in 2008, contributed plenty to the section but felt it could do more hard-hitting work. His proposal: switching to “hardcore” investigative documentaries—a sort of Malaysian answer to Frontline, geared to millennials. Management wouldn’t pay for it but said he could raise the money on his own. He and a couple colleagues obliged, moonlighting as videographers-for-hire.

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In late 2015, R.AGE released its first documentary, exploring mysterious child deaths in an indigenous community. “Predator,” however, was its breakthrough, and its first foray into advocacy. The plan was not, at the outset, to pursue an agenda. It wasn’t until after the piece was posted—and R.AGE heard anguished feedback from viewers—that the team felt compelled to act. With advice and funding from UNICEF, R.AGE launched a website to build support for a new child-protection law, which had already been proposed in response to an unrelated pedophilia case. The site had an interactive map showing which members of parliament had expressed support; a tool enabled users to send letters to the rest. R.AGE recruited celebrities to appear on Facebook Live and helped UNICEF organize town hall events for the public. After months of lobbying, in April 2017 the law passed. “Predator” was nominated for a Peabody Award and won journalism awards in Malaysia and Asia.

“Calls to action” have since become key to R.AGE’s formula. Last year, R.AGE revealed that Malaysian colleges were practicing “student trafficking,” bringing in foreigners who wanted to go to school, and forcing them into low-wage labor. After the story, R.AGE urged students to petition their colleges to take actions against the practice. (Coincidentally or not, Yee says, the government has cracked down on student trafficking in the past year.) This year, R.AGE profiled a refugee community from Myanmar that’s terrified of being sent back. R.AGE hasn’t called for keeping the refugees in Malaysia but instead pushed the UN to review its profile of the group’s homeland.

Does advocacy money affect the team’s reporting? Yee’s response: sponsors aren’t allowed editorial input in stories, and when R.AGE does a campaign, the paycheck goes to the Star, so R.AGE cannot directly profit from lobbying. “All our sponsored projects clearly spell out who is involved and what their roles are, so if we ever soft-shoe our coverage in the future, our audience can take us to task,” he says. “If it means we have to lose a sponsor to maintain our editorial integrity, then so be it.”

June Wong doesn’t consider the campaigns violations of journalism ethics. Journalism isn’t only about reporting on both or—more sides—of a story,” she tells CJR. “If there is an important issue that affects society that is crying for attention and relief, and if a journalist or a group of them take ownership of it and show why and how they are doing it, it is indeed an honorable thing.”

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Saqib Rahim is a freelance reporter based in Southeast Asia. From 2008 to 2018, he was a staff reporter at E&E News, covering US energy and climate policy.