Uncovering Asia 2018: What we can learn from Asia’s media startups

Independent media is under siege across Asia and the world. But some small startups are fighting back, writes Stuff journalist Katie Kenny.

OPINION: On 5-6 October, than 400 journalists from 48 countries gathered for the third Asian investigative journalism conference, Uncovering Asia, hosted by Global Investigative Journalism Network.

With sessions on digital security to data-driven reporting to tracking corporate crime, it was an inspiring meeting of minds at a time when journalists and media organisations are under siege around the world.

During the plenary session on the new landscape of threats – both real and digital – the managing editor of India’s NDTV, Sreenivasan Jain, said the country’s media organisations have become “deeply nervous about speaking truth to power”, but the number of publishers has actually has increased.

“The highest-rated stations are propagandists of government and amplifiers of fake news,” he said. “It’s actually good business to be a crony media institution in India today. Media versus media is as big a problem as government versus media.”

But investigative journalism startups across Asia are fighting back. The business practices and revenue models underlying these successful enterprises were recurring themes throughout the conference.

Here are three to check out:

1. KCIJ-Newstapa, South Korea

Kim Yong-jin, KCIJ, South Korea (Photo: GIJN)

Kim Yong Jin, editor-in-chief of KCIJ, is a bestselling author and long-time investigative journalist in South Korea (Photo: GIJN)

Kim Yong Jin said the lack of independent voices in mainstream media is one of the biggest challenges the industry faces in South Korea; the three biggest media moguls control three-quarters of the newspaper and broadcast outlets.

Kim started his journalism career in 1987 at KBS, the country’s public media broadcaster and the biggest media group in South Korea, and led the first investigative unit there.

Against a backdrop of shrinking press freedom, in 2011, with other veteran broadcast journalists, Kim founded the Korea Centre for Investigative Journalism (KCIJ) – the first non-profit, online investigative reporting organisation in South Korea. Newstapa is its publishing platform, which produces “watchdog journalism in video form”.

Non-profit investigative models are a way out of the traditional, broken media system, Kim said. KCIJ-Newstapa survives off a donation-based model, with donations coming from members as well as casual readers. It doesn’t accept money from advertising or sponsorship.

During a conference session, Kim showed a graph of revenue over time. Whenever the outlet published a major story, the line shot up.

“We cover overlooked, or misrepresented stories,” he said.

Kim and his colleagues contributed to the international effort to analyse the Panama Papers, detailing powerful figures’ tax avoidance, and, more recently, the Paradise Papers, also relating to offshore investments. Newstapa published names of South Korean nationals and companies identified in the law firms’ documents.

Feature-length films have proved an unexpected source of wealth, as ticket sales from screenings at theatres around the country have made hundreds of thousands of dollars. (Members get the benefit of preview screenings.)

In 2016, Newstapa journalist Choi Seung-ho made headlines around the world with his documentary, Spy Nation, which exposes corrupt espionage charges by South Korea’s National Intelligence Service. (The agency was created in the 1960s to catch spies from North Korea, but under successive military dictators it was accused of fabricating spy cases to detain and discredit dissidents.)

2. Splice Newsroom, Singapore

Alan Soon, Splice, Singapore (Photo: GIJN)

Alan Soon of Splice Newsroom works with reports around Asia to cover the trends, threats and tools in media. (Photo: GIJN)

Started in 2015 by Alan Soon and Rishad Patel, initially Splice worked as a consultancy, to aid newsrooms in their digital transformations.

But it changed direction in 2017, when it was awarded funding from Facebook to create its own site and document the transformation of the industry at large.

Now, Splice Newsroom aims to help launch 100 new media startups in Asia over the next three years.

“The industry in Europe is five years ahead of where it’s at in Asia,” Soon said. “But we’re seeing a slow creep towards opening up this ecosystem for new media.”

A lot of experimentation in the space in Asia has been based on United States models, he said. “A lot of conversations are about the need to move to subscription models, and I don’t think that works [in Asia].”

But that doesn’t mean people won’t pay for “stuff that entertains them, or makes them money”, he said. “People are always willing to pay for things that are useful.”

That means thinking outside traditional methods of storytelling, he said. “As a journalist, if you think your only valuable output is a newspaper article, and to create more articles, that’s limiting.”

3. Rappler, Philippines

Maria Ressa, Rappler, Philippines (Photo: GIJN)

Maria Ressa, CEO of Rappler, has worked as a journalist for more than 30 years. (Photo: GIJN)

Founded in 2012 in the Philippines, Rappler, a digital-first platform with a focus on independent reporting, is recognised as one of the most innovative media companies in Asia.

While Rappler has benefited from social media (it started as a Facebook page and quickly amassed a large social following), the site’s CEO and executive editor, Maria Ressa, said technology has taken away the “gatekeeper” role of media organisations. As a result, “lies are being injected directly into society’s bloodstream”.

Now, Rappler is on the front lines in the war over misinformation, as the internet, particularly Facebook, in the Philippines has become an outlet for threats and deceit.

Owing to its criticisms of President Rodrigo Duterte’s government and its brutal war on drugs, the site has faced many legal battles. Yet crowdfunding has often come to the rescue, said Ressa.

While it still relies on advertising, Rappler has revamped other parts of its business model to make it more resilient in today’s tough media market.

An in-house, but separate, “digital customer intelligence consultancy” sells granular audience data. Branded content is produced by a marketing team, and sponsored content is published in a section called BrandRap. Its entertainment arm also puts on annual summits, regular workshops and other events.

“You need to work out what advertisers want,” Ressa said. “Page views? Social followers? Members?”

When asked if she’d felt she’d had to compromise her ethics as a journalist for commercial gain, she said she hadn’t.

“You need money to survive, but what’s the point if you don’t have impact?”

Katie Kenny travelled to Seoul on a grant from the Asia New Zealand Foundation. 

– Asia Media Centre