What are some of the issues and challenges facing Christian publications, such as Asian Beacon, in Malaysia?
ASIAN BEACON (AB) is the most well-established interdenominational Christian magazine in Malaysia with a history dating back to 1969.
It is one of the few Christian magazines with an official publication permit issued by the government of Malaysia and Singapore. This enables it to reach out to the masses in West Malaysia – its primary audience – as well as across the South China Sea (East Malaysia) and across the causeway (Singapore). Many of the magazines produced by large churches and Christian NGO’s do not have this official permit as they are meant for internal circulation; hence they reach fewer people.
First, the issue of moving from print to digital platform as mobile technologies (laptops, smartphones, tablets, e-readers) impact more and more lives, especially the young. If so, is digital going to exist side-by-side with print or will it be standalone? In future, Asian Beacon has plans to go digital while retaining its traditional hard copy. It is currently available through subscription, distributors in church as well as secular and Christian bookstores throughout the nation.
Second, as our schools produce students who are more conversant in the national language, and we are demographically a relatively young population, will the language currently used (English) be suitable in future as the medium of communication? We have to ask ourselves, “Will youths be able to grasp the truths, values and testimonies shared in the magazine, given the deteriorating standard of English among the young in our nation?”
Third, the challenge of finding and developing human capital. How are we going to pass the baton to the emerging generation? How do we train and encourage budding talents so that there will always be competent people to write articles and run the magazine? How do we nurture in them passion and a sense of calling for a strategic media ministry such as AB? How do we instill in them a love for writing, editing and communication?
Fourth, the issue of target audience. From a recent survey, it was found that most AB readers belong to the above 40 age group. What will happen to its readership if these regular supporters grow old and pass away? Furthermore, some have objected that its target audience is far too inclusive – that AB is trying to be all things to so many different age groups; the young, aged and all those in between. Should AB focus on a particular age segment?
Fifth, the challenge of finding sufficient funds, which has always been the bugbear of a media ministry such as AB. At present, sales, subscription, advertisements and donor support barely cover the operating costs of running and distributing the magazine.
Once the magazine goes digital, the costs will definitely increase as staff will be needed to look into the content and the technical aspects of the new medium. Staff will also be needed to engage with readers on social media. But hopefully, sales of advertising space on the digital platform will help to offset, to some extent, the increased overheads.
Sixth, the possibility of sharing of human capital and funding through networking with various Christian publications. This is just a moot point: If the leaders of a few major churches can come together, put aside their denominational leanings and see how they can play a role in promoting a national media ministry such as AB, then some of the challenges that AB faces might be resolved. The churches will also benefit a lot. This move will conserve resources and minimise duplication of work.
Printing a magazine is not cheap. Yet there are many in-house publications by major churches in the country. Each church which networks with AB will be given a prominent place in the magazine. Thus testimonies and teaching material can be shared not only within the church but far and wide throughout the nation. If the church has video clips or Podcasts, these can also be made widely available.
Major church events and seminars with international speakers will get wider exposure. At the editorial planning stage, articles with themes related to the seminar/event can be arranged. Churches purchase magazines in bulk for distribution to participants of the seminar/event. In return, the church gets greater publicity for its seminar/event. The cost of the magazines can be factored into the cost of the seminar materials. So there is synergy; a win-win situation.
For a start, major Klang Valley churches can experiment with this idea. If successful, it can be extended nationwide. Churches are free to retain their own print or digital magazine. But they can also go solely digital (to save printing costs) and join hands with AB on print and digital. By networking and sharing resources, a national youth magazine (digital version) promoting Christian values is a possibility (please refer to fourth point).
A national Christian magazine should rope in the talents and resources of all stakeholders, including Christians from the media industry. Their creative input is invaluable even if they cannot be directly involved in the magazine.
All the foregoing mentioned in the sixth point are mere suggestions. No doubt it is a major rethink. We have to ask ourselves, Which is our “branding”: Christ or our denomination?
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