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Oct. 3, 2017, 10:20 a.m.
Reporting & Production

This Singapore-based startup tests Southeast Asia’s appetite for a member-funded journalism service

New Naratif, modeled loosely on the successful Dutch site De Correspondent, has started a crowdfunding campaign with the goal of signing up 3,500 members.

Most of Southeast Asia’s legacy media are family businesses or for-profit entities controlled by conglomerates. But New Naratif, a new regional startup, is now testing the market for a paid membership approach to journalism via crowdfunding. Borrowing heavily from the ethos of De Correspondent, the Dutch news site that raised $1.7 million from 20,000 subscribers back in 2013, New Naratif aims to build a community of readers across the region. Members can access the site’s Southeast Asia-focused longform journalism, news, and comic art and offer feedback on the editorial process.

Those readers will also fund all of the site’s operations — the project will be ad-free and the team has pledged to keep them abreast of how their money is spent. Annual memberships start at US$52, and since its Sept. 9 crowdfunding launch in Singapore, New Naratif has netted just under 200 members. (It’s aiming for 3,500 by early 2018 in order to begin operations.) The site’s name includes the Bahasa Indonesian spelling of the word “narrative” and is a nod towards their ambitions to capture the sizable Malay- and Indonesian-speaking populations of the region.

This email interview with two of its founders, Oxford university academic Thum Ping Tjin (who is also known as PJ) and Kirsten Han, a journalist and activist, has been edited for length and clarity.

Yunita Ong: What gaps in journalism, research, and art are you hoping to fill in Southeast Asia?

Kirsten Han: New Naratif brings something important to the table in allowing the space for longform journalism that cares about context and background and reflects Southeast Asian lives and experiences, as opposed to relying on the shorthand of tropes and stereotypes to sum up complicated matters as quickly as possible.

There’s a lot of disappointment and disillusionment with democracy and citizen participation across the world, which coincides with the erosion of civil liberties like free speech and press freedom, and the difficulties faced by profit-driven media to cope and be accountable to the public. New Naratif presents a different way of doing things that I think is particularly necessary.

Yunita Ong: What aspects of the De Correspondent playbook have you found to work particularly well in this market, and what aspects have you had to adapt?

Han: Often in Southeast Asia, we are told by those in power that we should allow them more control because “ordinary” citizens are somehow incapable of knowing what’s best for ourselves. An adherence to transparency and trust is a clear signal that we have faith in each other to be intellectually curious, to be able and willing to engage in discussion, to be able to work together and be able to build unity and solidarity outside of each country’s top-down power structures.

Thum Ping Tjin: Southeast Asian governments are openly hostile to a free media, and set up a lot of roadblocks to prevent the existence of an independent press. The shutdown of The Cambodia Daily is the latest in a long series of such incidents in Southeast Asia. We have structured New Naratif to be very decentralized and internet-only. De Correspondent is a private company limited by shares. They have the flexibility to consider investment in the company and their founders have equity.

But New Naratif is published by a company limited by guarantee. The company has no owner, cannot be bought or sold, and can never pay out profits to investors. We do this so that we will never be affected by the profit motive, nor can anyone enact a hostile takeover of the company, like what happened to the Chinese newspapers in Singapore or Utusan Melayu in Malaysia.

Ong: What makes you confident that people in this region can and will pay $52 for journalism? Even in affluent Singapore, crowdfunding efforts for journalism, such as for The Middle Ground, remain a challenge.

Han: We had long, hard conversations about this; we couldn’t deny the fact that Southeast Asia doesn’t exactly have a strong tradition of people paying for online journalism. But New Naratif seeks to offer more than just strong content; we want to be a platform where people are paying to be part of and help sustain a movement to build community and solidarity in Southeast Asia, and to participate in exchanges that are about understanding the issues we face and seeking solutions collectively.

Ong: Why publish in both English and Bahasa Indonesia?

Thum: Malay is the national language of Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, and Brunei, a de facto lingua franca of Timor-Leste, and is also spoken in Southern Thailand and Southern Philippines. That’s nearly 300 million people, or half of Southeast Asia. Publishing good work in multiple languages reflects our aspiration to connect across borders and barriers in Southeast Asia.

Ong: How optimistic are you that you’ll reach 3,500 members?

Thum: It is going to be hard — we never had any illusions about that. The important thing is to ensure that we are sustainable and that we do not take short cuts to growth, so we knew from the beginning that it will be a slow process. But I remain confident that, out of nearly 600 million Southeast Asians, we can find 3,500 to join the movement.

A version of this interview was first published in Splice Newsroom.

POSTED     Oct. 3, 2017, 10:20 a.m.
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