Digital media models in Asia

Paying for digital journalism looks to be a growing feature of New Zealand’s media landscape. In May, NZ Herald launched digital subscriptions for premium content. Newsroom uses a mix of sponsorship, donations, and subscriptions to support Newsroom Pro, but offers free content on its public site. And fellow start-up The Spinoff has just launched a membership programme to encourage collaboration with readers while maintaining free content.

These changes track with growing recognition internationally that digital journalism requires a new business model. The Asia Media Centre looked at how four newsrooms in Asia are grappling with this issue. 

New Naratif: Building a community

New Naratif is a Singapore-based start-up and non-profit focused on building a community to support journalism in and about Southeast Asia. It covers ongoing issues, people, and stories shaping the Southeast Asia region, as opposed to breaking news. Freedom of the press issues in countries like the Philippines, Singapore and Myanmar have also had an impact on the motivations behind New Naratif’s journalism — chief editor Kirsten Han recently spoke out on self-censorship in Singapore. There is also a focus on stories that mainstream platforms won’t or can’t cover, especially on issues that governments seek to suppress.

New Naratif has a combination paywall system, with some free and some paid content. There is no advertising on the website. Website users are able to read some of their free content, which includes selected original journalism, scholarly research, comics, videos and podcasts. If readers want to access paid content, the website offers the option to “join the movement”, reflecting New Naratif’s emphasis on community.

Malaysiakini: Independence from government

Malaysiakini was born of the online news era, launched in 1999 as Malaysia’s first exclusively digital newspaper. The news site claims that its independence allows it to hold the government of the day to account and contribute to an informed citizenry. In Malaysia, print and broadcast media are tightly regulated and subject to censorship, with the Home Minister able to approve and revoke publication licenses. The internet was up until recently officially uncensored, creating a loophole for digital media like Malaysiakini to operate with somewhat more freedom. But the news site has still been subject to government attention, including a 2003 police raid on the newsroom, accusations of inappropriate foreign funding, and 2014 lawsuit by then-prime minister Najib Razak for defamation.

Malaysiakini has run on subscriptions since 2002. It now operates a metered paywall, with 10 articles per month free for non-subscribers. While English and Chinese content is published behind the paywall, articles in Tamil and Bahasa Malaysia are free to all readers.

The Ken: Quality business journalism

The Ken is a Bangalore-based business news website that was launched in 2016 by journalists Seema Singh, Ashish Mishra, and Rohin Dharmakumar in collaboration with entrepreneur Sumanth Raghavendra. The team publishes one long-form story per day, with content focused on tech, business, science and healthcare stories in India or from an “India-specific lens.”

In part, the site's model was in reaction to the news environment in India, in which readers are bombarded with stories and advertising. The driving idea behind The Ken’s model is that people should pay for journalism, and that quality journalism takes time. Almost all of the content on the site requires a subscription, with just four free stories per month. The site has no advertising for paid content. Users in India pay a lower amount than those overseas, in recognition of their lower purchasing power. In 2017, the team also started working with investors.

South China Morning Post: Growing global readership

While many newsrooms are looking at introducing paywalls, the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post (SCMP) has gone in the opposite direction. The SCMP was founded in 1903 and has long been viewed as Hong Kong’s “paper of record.” The online version of the paper was launched in 1996 with full articles available only to subscribers. But after the 2016 acquisition by ecommerce giant Alibaba, the paywall was dropped.

Editor-in-Chief Tammy Tam said the removal of the paywall was intended to grow global readership and present a “within-the-region perspective.” The purchase resulted in an infusion of funds and period of relief from issues of profitability. However, it also sparked concerns over the paper’s editorial independence from Beijing, given that Alibaba and its billionaire co-founder Jack Ma hail from mainland China. Among journalists, suggestions that the SCMP now seeks to promote more positive stories on China are being weighed against wide recognition of the paper’s quality coverage of Hong Kong and mainland China issues.

 - Asia Media Centre