Meet the team behind Magdalene, Indonesia’s feminist website covering ‘taboo’ subjects on gender and sexuality.

They're adding new voices to society. But monetizing it remains a problem.

By Tomi Soetjipto
Splice Indonesia

(Updated traffic numbers. We initially said the site receives 15,000 site visits each week. More precisely, it gets 150,000 page views on average a month.)

In the wake of an attack on a church in the Indonesian town of Sleman earlier this month, feminist publication Magdalene published an article by a Muslim doctoral candidate urging followers of Islam to take greater responsibility for rising intolerance toward minorities in the country.

The introspective article issues a strong rebuke of the Muslim majority in Indonesia for failing to prevent the religiously motivated attack, saying that some have turned a blind eye to those who misinterpreted Islamic teachings. Peppered with criticisms, the article would never have landed in Indonesia’s mainstream media. But such rare narratives are commonly found on Magdalene, which prides itself on being a platform for “feminists, pluralists and progressives.”

Established in September 2013 by three veteran women journalistsDevi Asmarani, Hera Diani and Karima Anjani (Anjani has since parted ways)the bilingual website has published hundreds of personal narratives, journalistic articles and cultural reviews from contributors that range from students to film actors. Covering issues such as abortion and LGBT rights in Islam, the magazine has become a staple for readers who want to discover an alternative perspectives, particularly on women’s rights and gender equality.

“We believe that the experience of womanhood is a spectrum. But what mainstream media reports is very much black and whiteit’s not inclusive and authentic. So we provide this platform for women to share their voice and their experience,” says founder and chief editor, Devi Asmarani, a former Indonesia correspondent for Singapore’s Straits Times newspaper.

“We want to raise issues that are important… progressive issues that do not receive a lot coverage by the mainstream media because of reasons such as being taboo.”

Some of the people behind Magdalene outside their co-working office in Jakarta. The founders are standing in the back row -- Devi Asmarani (third from right, grey top), Hera Diani (third from left, with glasses). (Photo: Supplied)
Some of the people behind Magdalene outside their co-working office in Jakarta. The founders are standing in the back row -- Devi Asmarani (third from right, grey top), Hera Diani (third from left, with glasses). (Photo: Supplied)

Revenue challenges

The magazine is named after biblical figure Mary Magdalene in a tribute to her bravery and for the fact thatlike many women throughout the historyshe continues to be “grossly judged and misunderstood,” Asmarani says.

In the early days, Magdalene solicited content from contributors, publishing just three articles a week. They have ramped this up to three articles daily in English or Indonesian, including articles written by their three reporters. Magdalene has 20,000 followers across social media (Twitter, Instagram and Facebook), with about 150,000 page views on average a month, as measured by Google Analytics. Revenue comes from online advertisements, corporate event partnerships, and merchandise sales, but Asmarani says this doesn’t cover operational costs.

“We [the editors] are still not getting paid and we still have to fork out money from our own pockets,” says Asmarani. She and managing editor Hera Diani work full-time as communication consultants to keep the magazine afloat.

But the product has its fans. Based on their own readers’ survey in 2016, about 45 percent of Magdalene readers are women aged 18 to 24. Avid reader Hannah Al Rashid, an actress and television presenter, says that several Magdalene articles have helped her to shape new perspectives on politics, culture and gender.  

“[It provides] a new way of looking at things which is not found in the mainstream media,” says Al Rashid. She has even contributed two articles to Magdalene, on street harassment of women and the country’s unique relationship with Eurasian talents in the entertainment industry.

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Taking a stand

In the wake of recent attacks on Indonesia’s LGBT community, Magdalene has become a much-needed platform to rebut prejudicial views, publishing a steady stream of articles on the topic. “We believe strongly that this is something we need to be consistent [about]that we need to stop the discrimination, we need to stop the persecution of minority groups, including LGBTIQ,” said Asmarani.

The team is also focusing on the upcoming plan to revise the Indonesian criminal code to criminalize consensual gay sex and sex outside marriage for heterosexual couples. “The revision of the criminal codes is a major setback for Indonesia,” says Asmarani.

To widen its audience, Magdalene has begun establishing content sharing partnerships with regional news sites such as Rappler and Coconuts. Looking ahead, Magdalene plans to expand into multimedia content such as videos and graphics. And despite catering to a relatively niche audience, Asmarani believes the website can grow further.

“The fact that we are read by young peoplemostly womenbrings a lot of commercial potential,” she says. “The younger people are getting more critical; they want to read content that is different from what they’ve seen in mainstream media and they also find that we speak for them.”

“Right now we barely scratch the surface because of our limited capital resources. Basically we need funding to widen our reach, and we think that we definitely have the potential to widen audience.”

Magdalene’s other strong commercial appeal, Asmarani says, is the fact that it’s the only media of its kind in Indonesia. “There is no competition for us.”

Tomi Soetjipto is a Jakarta-based freelance reporter and communication consultant. He built his journalistic career at Thomson Reuters, Al Jazeera English and BBC. He's a former spokesperson for UNDP Indonesia and Communication Officer for the World Bank in Jakarta. Follow Tomi Soetjipto on Twitter.

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