Erin Cook’s newsletter is brash, funny, and an indispensable guide to Southeast Asia news.

Sometimes if you can't find what you want, you'll just have to write it yourself. This is how one Australian journalist is building a community around her newsletter.

Update: Erin Cook’s newsletter is now part of the Splice Network, a cooperative of smart, community-focused independent media in Asia.

Erin Cook’s Dari Mulut ke Mulut is a bit of a mouthful (it means “from mouth to mouth,” in Bahasa Indonesia). If you can’t remember its name, you’ll remember the voice: It’s hilarious. It’s also a surprisingly rare service that wraps up the weekly news cycle in Southeast Asia.

For a two-year-old newsletter, she’s become a popular weekly habit for anyone interested in the region — diplomats, students, academics, and journalists. She now has about 1,300 subscribers with an open rate of up to 50%. Confident of her loyal readership, she’s now taken her content behind a subscription paywall. 

It started with a problem: She couldn’t find the regional content that she wanted. So she wrote it. 

This conversation with Erin Cook has been lightly edited for flow. 

Erin Cook reports on politics, people, and food in Southeast Asia. She's also building a small newsletter business. (Photo: Alan Soon)
Erin Cook reports on politics, people, and food in Southeast Asia. She's also building a small newsletter business. (Photo: Alan Soon)

A lot of people read your newsletter. How did you get started in this? What gave you this crazy idea to go create a newsletter that takes a lot of work, and that you have to push out every single week?

It started about two years ago. It was really hard when I first moved to Jakarta to find news across the region without having to go to individual news sites. And I know this was true for a lot of other people. So I thought, I’d just have to do it myself.

I was slowly becoming quite obsessed about ASEAN; to understand the regional bloc, you’ve got to understand the issues. And it’s just a nightmare having to go from Frontier Myanmar to Cambodia Daily to Rappler in the Philippines.

When you created this, it was obviously for an audience of one — which is you. When did you realize that there was an audience? Who reads you?

Well, the first people signing up were friends of mine. They were also Australians living in the region, mostly in Bangkok and Jakarta. They were looking for the same thing that I was.

Then it got quite popular with the friends back home who have visited the region and were ostensibly interested, but would never look it up themselves. And it’s really hard to find Southeast Asia news in Australia. So I think that was a great resource for people back home.

Then after a while, I started noticing that a lot of my Jakartan friends were really really into it. And talking to them was interesting because they’re also interested in news from Vietnam or whatever, but that’s not something that Indonesian news covers. They don’t really do regional and I think that’s probably common throughout Southeast Asia — that everyone is a bit insular.

And what types of jobs do your readers have?

There are three main groups. One is just people that are casually interested. There are other people that will scroll through to get to the Thailand section because they like to go to Thailand for holidays or used to live in Bangkok, or whatever.

The second group are people in development and media who don’t necessarily cover these particular rounds or these countries, but want to get a good overarching view of where the region’s at.

And the third type is academic or commentator media types that are looking for just a gauge of what the conversation is.

I see that particularly with the bigger stories. For example, the Malaysian election is a big one: academics and other media professionals are interested, but the casual visitor to KL does not care.

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What kind of feedback do you normally get from people?

It’s mostly, “Thank you so much for doing this and I’m glad that I found it.” That kind of thing, which is nice. I didn’t realize when I started that so many people would want to be able to access that information. I actually love it. It’s really, really lovely.

But at the same time, covering 10 countries in ASEAN plus Timor Leste, it’s hard to get the nuances right, so I’m very general.

So occasionally I will get responses from people based in Myanmar where they would say, “You shouldn’t put that story in. That’s bad story.” But I think that’s just Yangon being a bit of a circle.

This was two years ago, and you first did this on Tinyletter. How did you decide between Tinyletter and Mailchimp, or something else?

I really like Tinyletter. Quite a few friends had used it for the newsletters that they started. They recommended it and it’s really really easy to use. I’m not a tech person and I don’t know anything about HTML, design, or anything like that. So Tinyletter is really really straightforward in that respect.

They have a great landing page and subscriber page, which I don’t think MailChimp does a great job of. So it would give you that Tinyletter link — tinyletter-dot-com-slash-erincook — and you could just sign up there. MailChimp’s got that complicated URL that I couldn’t work out.

Tell me about the workflow. You have a lot of stories in there with a lot of links. I would estimate you probably have about 40 to 50 links in a typical newsletter.

Yeah, and sometimes it’s quite hard. You can easily do the whole thing based off Reuters links, but they’re not gonna tell the whole story. It’s a matter of balancing that hard, wire news with the kind of color that you get from New Naratif or Rappler, or whatever. So it’s a matter of reading a lot.

So, you’d read something and would you put it into a notepad?

I just have a Google Doc, and I’ll just collect links straight into that. I’ll put pretty much every link that I read in there and once it comes time to write, that’s when I decide whether it’s actually a story or just something that’s interesting.

What’s your routine like? For the entire week you are reading and sourcing, and compiling. When do you start writing?

The writing comes out on Fridays. So it’s usually Friday afternoons that I kind of get that moment to sit down and actually write. I can’t believe how much faster I’ve become at writing it than when I first started. I could pump it out in an hour or two now, whereas it used to take three to four hours.

Sometimes actual work gets in the way, and that pushes it over to the weekend. But usually it’s a Friday afternoon.

Do you start tracking the opens right there or you leave it a couple of days? How obsessed are you about the analytics?

I used to be really, really into it. But as it’s grown, as long as the open rate stays around the same 40 to 50 percent mark, I’m happy. Yeah, I don’t really get too deep. I don’t understand all that stuff.

So 1,300 subscribers is quite a lot for a two-year-old newsletter. How did you promote this?

I’ve gotten very lucky. It started off just with friends and then I pushed a lot on Twitter. So it built very, very slowly. I’m pretty sure that most people have told at least one or two people to sign up to it.

It grew really really quickly after about three months and it just hasn’t stopped.

How does the Substack subscription plan work? How did you decide that this was the right time to move to a subscription model?

I’ve recently gone freelance, so that means a lot more flexibility, but also the hustle that comes with it. So that’s pushed me to go paywall because I know that it’s one of my favorite things to write every week, but I have to prioritize the paid work over it. I wanted to be able to be in a position where I could justify spending a few hours a week working on it and still pay rent.

How did you come up with the pricing?

When you sign up to Substack, they suggested a nominal pricing of $7 a month or $70 a year. That seemed a bit crazy to me. I have a broad selection of readers. I’ve got people that work for the U.S. State Department but also students in Jakarta. I don’t want to price them out of the market while trying to tap these rich guys. That was something I was really conscious of.

What did you settle on?

It’s a $5 a month and $50 for the year.

What is your social workflow like?

I’m such a philistine. I just use Twitter. I almost don’t really push it anymore. I no longer put it on Facebook because it just wasn’t worth the hassle. But a lot of readers will tweet it and that seems to get a lot more traction.

Tell me about the future plans around this stuff. You obviously have a lot of ideas. You just rolled out Shorts, which I thought was a fantastic idea as a free product. What else do you have cooking?

I really want to get into more original content. I want to get to the stage where I’m doing the weekly wrap up, and every now and then Shorts, and then a weekly or fortnightly original reporting piece of something that I’m personally really, really interested in that isn’t necessarily going to be picked up if I pitched it elsewhere.

What advice you have for anyone who wants to start a newsletter today — like a young journalist, or someone who’s able to own a beat, like you have?

The big one is to stay consistent. I wasn’t so great with that when I started. I still have trouble with that. If you want to go weekly or fortnightly or whatever, it just has to come out when you say it’s coming out.

I feel like I’ve missed out on opportunities in the past because I’ve not necessarily prioritized it. I did not see it for the value that it had. You just have to be really consistent.

And you have to find a niche. Weirdly, my niche ended up being extremely general and broad. As the market gets more crowded, you’ve got to get really, really hyper-specific.

You also have a very unique voice in the way you write. How have you cultivated it?

My first dozen subscribers were all my friends that I have beers with and talk about Southeast Asian politics with. So it felt very much like a conversation. “Oh, hey Matt, this is what’s up in Thailand.” That kind of thing. It just stuck.

I really enjoy writing that way where it’s a bit of editorial mixed with heavily-sourced hard reporting from far better journalists.

There’s this idea that talking about Southeast Asia has to be really serious and hard-hitting when it doesn’t.

I don’t think we need to be so serious about it, even though they’re very serious issues. Sometimes journalists treat their work with too much reverence when it doesn’t need that.

Co-Founder, Splice Media. Supporting media startups in Asia. Follow Alan Soon on Twitter.

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