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July 23, 2018, 10:37 a.m.
Reporting & Production

Hybrid, a collection of targeted news sites in Asia, embraces growing slowly and knowing its audience

It recently passed 10 million unique visitors per month, and it’s profitable: “We’re not going to hire 50 reporters and a whole video crew and pump in all these resources and not have the revenue to support it.”

Which comes first, the readers or the content?

The sites in the portfolio of the modest media company Hybrid have been exacting about matching specific audiences to relevant news and information, and relevant advertisers to those relevant readers. It’s a strategy that’s easier said than done but executed faithfully across all Hybrid’s news sites.

“We saw an opening in Asia, where it seemed like there was a mixing pot of individual bloggers saying what they wanted to say, in the middle of a lot of mainstream media that was at the time — and still is — owned by rich people who wanted influence. What started as I suppose a bit of blogging project, got bigger,” James Craven, Hybrid’s managing director, told me. “We had a vision for a young, upwardly mobile audience, who we’d really try to inform with independent and hopefully compelling content.” Craven grew up in Australia, but lived and worked across Asia, the U.K., and the U.S. Hybrid the company now spans three cities: Bristol in the U.K., Kuala Lumpur, and Sydney.

Asian Correspondent — the original site in Hybrid’s collection, focused on news and current affairs — launched in 2009 and continues to reach a primarily Asian audience, concentrated in 14 countries in the region (e.g., Everything you need to know about the Cambodian election).

“We thought it was banks who’d knock on our doors to advertise, but it was universities — the University of Queensland, the University of New South Wales — that were trying to reach this international student diaspora. It helped focus what who else we wanted to write for: A young 18-to-35-year-old audience, from undergrad to postgrad, uncovering a whole niche we didn’t think existed from a commercial perspective,” Craven said. “We’ve always funded our growth organically, we’ve always been profitable — though not always hugely profitable. We’ve never had big backers. So how do we monetize what we did fairly quickly?”

Study International spun up a few years later, providing news, university and visa information, and advice for a more dispersed global audience of students who study abroad (e.g., Trump travel ban: What will happen to international students’ visa status?). Then came Travel Wire Asia, which covers buzzier stories on travel and lifestyle in the Asia-Pacific, attracting a majority of its readers outside Asia. Tech Wire Asia, which followed, covers tech and business in the region, reaches professional audiences in major hubs like Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, Taipei, and Tokyo. Hybrid’s newest site, Tech HQ, first launched in beta earlier this year and is the company’s first site focused on a majority U.S. readership.

In aggregate, the sites has passed 10 million unique visitors “consistently in the last six months,” according to Craven. At the beginning of 2018, the company was advertising among Boston-area universities for interns who would train three months in Bristol and nine months in new Boston offices. But “we just got very busy on a couple of large contracts that took resources away from it,” Craven said. He estimates a February 2019 launch instead. “We’re sowing the seeds for our Boston future. We still have aspirations for higher education media in the U.S.”

The company is currently about 65 people spread across its three offices; it’ll grow to about 80 by the end of the year, Craven said.

“We’ve got nice sustainable revenues from a lot of longterm contracts now, which we didn’t have a couple of years ago, and that makes it a lot easier to plan for employment,” he said. “We’re not going to hire 50 reporters and a whole video crew and pump in all these resources and not have the revenue to support it.” He estimates Hybrid will bring in roughly £4.8 million in revenue this year, about three-quarters of which come from advertising on the sites, including branded content, and the rest from the Hybrid digital agency’s long-term contracts with clients.

Hybrid’s staff is split roughly into thirds — editorial, product and analytics, and advertising and campaigns. A single editor-in-chief, Clara Chooi, oversees the journalists for all five sites, most of whom are based in Kuala Lumpur. Each site has about four to five dedicated writers. Asian Correspondent publishes eight to 12 articles per day; Study International around six to eight; Tech Wire Asia, five, Travel Wire, three to six, and Tech HQ, four to five. The sites sometimes cross-publish. Most stories across the sites aren’t exactly robust features or investigations, though they aren’t all pure aggregation either.

The process is by now well oiled: Monday meetings that bring in the analytics team to discuss high-performing stories and why they succeeded, updating leaderboards that rank by unique readers and pageviews, daily numbers for the writers to aim for, and occasional branded content assignments if the branded content team is overwhelmed. The team leans on monitoring tools like NewsWhip Spike, and a “campaign hub” developed by Hybrid’s chief digital officer Chris Cammann, which tracks how both editorial and sponsored content pieces are performing across the web.

“We actually give our writers as much exposure as possible and let them see what makes the money and what drives readership. They’re all very versatile, able to write tech, travel, and politics,” Chooi said. “And maybe I am blessed with a very good team, but any competition is healthy, and I don’t see anyone chasing clicks. I know sometimes giving people numbers can be crippling, that it encourages someone to write for popularity. If I ever hear ideas or see copy that is anywhere near being too much like low-hanging fruit, we’ll walk it through together.”

What the writers are chasing exactly, varies site to site, as does how readers come to the site. Asian Correspondent sees the most direct traffic and a high proportion of regular, loyal visitors “who come to check up on what’s happening in the news, not just one story,” according to Cammann. TravelWire is, unsurprisingly, more driven by social referrals; Study International gets social and organic traffic; TechWire is a mix. (Judging from CrowdTangle, these sites’ Facebook pages have, like everyone else’s pages, seen marked declines in interactions in the past few months: “We definitely started monitoring after the algorithm change, but we didn’t see too much of a change in terms of traffic coming from Facebook,” Cammann said.)

“We look at whether stories get actual engagement: time on page, bounce rate, will a reader come back to us organically afterwards, are they engaging with our social platforms outside of any targeting, are they really reading the content on the site, or can we tell they just have the tab open?” Cammann said. “TravelWire can be more fickle, by nature of travel. Sometimes the trigger is more image-based, or they might have an interest in a location that brings them to the site, and then they skim through other posts we have. It would be different from a piece on Study International, that’s, say, an extensive guide about applying to an American university, which is something that would be read again and again and again.”

The recent Malaysian election, Chooi said, put their editorial strategy to the test. “Hundreds of publications around the world were parking themselves here, with their reporters, TV crews, videographers,” Chooi said. “Since the elections were mostly Asian Correspondent-related, I couldn’t even take all the Asia-based journalists on our team to cover the races. And we have 220 parliamentary seats.”

Instead, Chooi divided the newsroom into six teams, one of which stayed in the office while other reporters went out to interview voters and cover specific seats (they scheduled some stories to publish to the other Hybrid sites in advance). Asian Correspondent then ran a liveblog that everyone on its editorial team had access to; the team based at the office helped with editing and publishing. Later in the day, the writers scoured other news coverage and social media activity from other journalists, politicians, NGOs, and voters to supplement the live blog.

“I think we were the second Google search for the morning. It showed us if you’re a tiny newsroom, you can still cover a big event like this comprehensively,” Chooi said. “Our strategy lets us pretty much cover every topic we want to cover.”

Choi said she has aspirations for longer stories (particularly for Asian Correspondent) which currently require more reporting time away from the day-to-day than its sites can spare, as well as bigger trend reports on, say, migration or students and mobility. Reviving video and trying podcasting have also been on her mind: “One day, when we grow bigger!”

Photo of Petronas Towers at night in Kuala Lumpur by Naz Amir used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     July 23, 2018, 10:37 a.m.
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