From left: Magdalene's Devi Asrami, New Naratif's Kirsten Han and Frontier Myanmar's Sonny Swe (images: supplied)

The incredible vitality of Asian media told through five startups

One startup was banned by the government. Another founder was thrown in prison. Duncan Greive describes what he found on two trips to Asia earlier this year.

The moment I realised where I really was is etched into my mind. Kirsten Han, the editor-in-chief of New Naratif, was explaining the constraints under which her news organisation operates, and casually dropped this bombshell.

“We cover eleven countries in this region,” she said. “The highest ranked on the press freedom index is 95. And that’s East Timor.” 

It was March and I sat in a small lecture theatre at Singapore Management University, attending Newsgeist Asia, a conference organised by Google bringing together media people from around Asia and the Pacific. To this point I had been uncritically enjoying all the things which make Singapore hum – the density, the transport, the co-mingling of different cultures, the phenomenal ambition evident everywhere. 

I had only dimly thought about what it might be like to practise journalism there.

The reality is terrible: New Naratif is a bold startup publishing podcasts, comics and longform on socio-political issues throughout the region. It’s also banned in Singapore, where Han and many of its key people live, and its press is heavily scrutinised and directed by the government.

Alan Soon and Rishad Patel at the opening of Splice Beta (image: Jittraporn Kaicome)

Six weeks later I flew back to the region, to Chiang Mai, a gorgeous small city in Northern Thailand, for Splice Beta, another Asian media conference, this one entirely focused on startups. Many of the same people attended both, the best and brightest of the region’s innovators all there to learn and share.

Thailand (136) is higher than Singapore (151) on the press freedom index, but the difference is marginal. Coming from New Zealand (7), where what the government thinks of your work is something you rarely, if ever, contemplate, it was a lot to take in. 

Splice Beta was easily the most professionally nourishing couple of days I’ve ever had, and I’m very grateful to the Asia New Zealand Foundation for helping me attend. Run by Splice, itself a startup, which aims to be something like a Nieman Lab for Asia, helping media businesses large and small grapple with the new commercial reality for 21st century media in the region.

What I learned at Beta has profoundly shaped The Spinoff Members, a programme which allows readers to contribute to the growth and development of The Spinoff. I’ve also made friends and contacts with many organisations which have helped move us away from the more anglosphere-centric view I’d had before. 

Below I’ll briefly background five of the Asian startups I found most interesting and admirable.

Rappler – Philippines

Begun as a Facebook page in 2011, Rappler has gone on to become one of the most successful startups in the region, despite operating under unimaginable pressure. Founded and led by Maria Ressa, a veteran of CNN who was named one of Time’s people of the year in 2018, Rappler harnessed the explosive growth of social media for both news-gathering and distribution, and has become something like the de facto opposition to the ugly presidency of Rodrigo Duterte. Ressa has been subject to extraordinary persecution for her work: When I get back I’ll be arrested for a seventh time. I expect to lose every one of those cases,” she said in Singapore. That attitude, a refusal to allow ever-present danger impact your mission, was common to a number of those I heard speak.

The Ken – India

Rohin Dharmakumar is a former Forbes journalist who set up The Ken along with a pair of former colleagues. The site runs hard against the click-driven grain, with a model I love: publishing just one story a day, distinguished by an emphasis on deeply reported longform work on business, policy, healthcare and more. The site has a neat formula for growing its audience, publishing a daily email with sharp, voicey summaries of the day’s story, and giving away one story a week to subscribers. This list, which numbers over 75,000, is dominated by university students who will soon graduate and be able to afford a subscription.

From left: Malaysiakini’s Premesh Chandran, Magdalene’s Devi Asmarani, Frontier Myanmar’s Sonny Swe and Deal Street Asia’s Joji Philip (image: Jittraporn Kaicome)

Frontier Myanmar – Myanmar

During a roundtable organised by Facebook, I sat across from a lean, bald man named Sonny Swe, who spoke engagingly about his startup magazine, Frontier Myanmar. It was only later I learned that Swe spent eight years in prison for his work at the Myanmar Times, which was declared to have retrospectively broken censorship laws. “I had to keep hope,” he said of his time inside. “I wanted to get out and do it again.” Do it again! After nearly a decade in prison! He was the spirit of the new Asian journalism personified, hopelessly committed to his work regardless of the personal hardship he endured.

Magdalene – Indonesia

A strongly feminist publication operating in yet another profoundly difficult environment – more than 80% of Indonesian MPs are men, and women and LGBTQ+ people have few rights or legal protections.

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Magdalene was reprented by its founder and editor-in-chief Devi Asmarani. It’s funded by a mixture of advertising, live events and merch, along with branded content – a topic Devi and I have exchanged emails on subsequently. It emphasises “the voices of feminists, pluralists and progressives, or just those who are not afraid to be different, regardless of their genders, colors, or sexual preferences.” 

New Naratif – Southeast Asia

No one impressed me more than New Naratif’s Kirsten Han, who literally wrote the book on the relationship between government and political journalists in her home country, due to both the complexity of her job and the creativity of New Naratif’s solutions to its many challenges. The complexity comes in part from geography, with New Naratif covering 11 countries and publishing in five languages. It’s compounded by having been banned in Singapore within months of launching, and its founder being hauled before a select committee. Yet rather than be cowed by the scale of what they face, New Naratif seems energised. 

The site is funded by members, and operates with an innovative hard paywall – the site requires a login, but members can share links with whomever they choose. Those reading see a banner atop the site letting them know the name of the individual who funded the link they’re reading. It has a relationship with its readers like no one else in media, with its audience translating its stories and transcribing its podcasts, bringing food to the office on late nights, and handing over cash in brown paper bags due to the risks of being associated with the organisation. It’s an example of the extraordinary level of innovation going on in the region, despite operating in circumstances unimaginable to us in New Zealand.

Duncan Greive attended Splice Beta thanks to a travel grant from the Asia New Zealand Foundation


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