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Within a minute of talking to Tom Grundy, you quickly realize just how humble he is. He’s one of the co-founders of Hong Kong Free Press — a nearly two-year-old crowdfunded English-language news service that he put together with a small team of journalists.
Tom almost cringes at the thought of being called a entrepreneur because money isn’t the goal; he wants to build an outspoken advocate of press freedom and independent journalism in the city.
How did you start HKFP?
I originally studied journalism as an undergraduate at Leeds. But I couldn’t afford to move to London and do endless unpaid internships. So I did a gap year in Hong Kong and that became two years, three — it has been 11 years now.
I was always doing some kind of journalism on the side whilst travelling. For a few years, I ran a quite popular blog called HongWrong and I noticed that, whenever I did more serious news or reporting, it would get a lot of traction.
I saved up my money whilst I was teaching — and probably made more than I ever will in journalist. By the summer of 2014, I quit my job, gained permanent residency and enrolled on a journalism masters program at Hong Kong University. I figured I couldn’t roll out of bed one day after being a blogger and call myself a bona fide journalist. Plus, I needed to update my skills.
But then, suddenly, the Umbrella Movement occupy protests kicked off. I ended up cutting my teeth on the front lines with Kris Cheng, my number two at HKFP. He and I seemed to do well on Twitter, which is how I ended up getting a lot of freelance work — mostly broadcast. HKFP was born out of the tear gas of the occupy protests, though the idea somewhat preceded it.
On Christmas Day 2014, I was in Beijing. I registered the website and started building. The barriers to entry and the tools to get started have become democratized. We couldn’t have done it 10 years ago. It’s now more affordable — anyone can build a platform.
I never expected it to be this big. It was going to be crowdfunded, but more of a humble affair that resembled Huffington Post. Maybe two or three of us on staff — max. But when we went to crowdfund, we met our target within 36 hours and ended up with three times the amount we asked for — just over HK$588,000 (about US$75,000).
Whenever we’ve done crowdfunding rounds since then, no matter what the target is, donors donate around HK$600,000 (roughly US$77,000). We beat our target again at Christmas, which largely secures us for this year, if monthly donations continue.
The timing was right and that’s how we got so much support.
I had little clue with the entrepreneurial side of things and I’ve been very reliant on volunteers and help from others when it comes to things like bookkeeping. I just try to keep things as simple as possible and run things as I do my own finances — extremely carefully.
So you didn’t set out to be an entrepreneur. You wanted to tell the story of Hong Kong to an English-speaking audience.
Certainly, I don’t consider myself an entrepreneur — I didn’t have a meticulous business plan, nor had I ever set up a business before.
The aim was to tell the Hong Kong story to the world and fill a gap between Chinese and English coverage of the city. Although most of our audience in Chinese, I think many want to see stories reported in English so they can get global traction. Equally big for us is the Chinese diaspora in North America. They speak English and want to keep abreast with what’s going on back home. And when things go big on social media, we’re able to attract huge global traffic. Just today we were picked up by the New York Times. We’ve been noticed, and we’re punching above our weight.
But no, I had little clue with the entrepreneurial side of things and I’ve been very reliant on volunteers and help from others when it comes to things like bookkeeping. I just try to keep things as simple as possible and run things as I do my own finances — extremely carefully. Being a non-profit, there isn’t any pressure to make millions of dollars — I just want to ensure we pay decently and keep the lights on. Luckily, we also get a receive of goodwill, so companies help us out with discounted rates. I’m very grateful for that.
So what’s your place in HKFP?
I’m the Editor-in-Chief and co-founder. And I’m the only one who doesn’t speak Chinese. So I’m humble about my place in the company. I edit most of the copy which goes up, but am also responsible for the HR, PR, accounting, design, video, fundraising etc… We’re a small outfit, but I try to ensure the reporters do only that — reporting.
Our structure is quite flat. In fact, we were somewhat communist at first because we were all paid the same flat rate. Now we have different roles and we’ve got a fourth reporter coming in February.
So, I don’t use the word entrepreneur, or even startup. We’re not-for-profit and are not answerable to anyone but our readers. We have no shareholders — you can’t buy us out. We’re locked down in this way in order to protect our independence and press freedom.
What are some of the interesting ways in which you keep costs down?
83 per cent of our income goes to paying salaries. Nowadays, we’re now paying more in line with the industry and it’s pretty decent for Hong Kong journalism. We pay for the AFP newswire, as well as MPF (government pension fund) and insurance, of course. Our web costs are a little over HK$1,000 a month (US$130), which is still affordable. D100 Cantonese digital radio give us free rent at Cyberport, so we make a huge saving there.
To save more money, we use free software and tools such as WordPress. We use Trello for workflow management and secure messaging apps to communicate. Everyone uses their own phone for photos, videos and voice recording.
Even with things like quality photos, we are able to make savings — you can embed almost anything from Getty. You may get a logo on it, but often readers don’t care. There are also images from Creative Commons and Wikimedia. This month, we got access to a few AFP pictures and our own collection is growing.
But if you look at some of the startups, they spend an absolute fortune on gear and office space. And they run out of money by the end of the year. We use our own laptops. Sometimes gear is donated to us — it helps to ask if anyone would like to sponsor our hardware first before we go out and buy stuff. It helps being a non-profit, and we’ve a duty to spend every cent wisely.
Tell me more about crowdfunding. You’re serving a very clear community of investors. What do you know about them?
I wish I could say we survey them and collect information like that — but I’m only one man. I spent most of Christmas packing envelopes and merchandise, and I try to reach out and email as many as I can.
579 people donated in our latest round. Most donate between HK$200 and HK$500 (US$25 and US$65) so we’re not beholden to any one backer. If it’s just five people giving a million dollars, then you’d feel some pressure if someone raises an objection or makes an awkward request. If it’s HK$100 (US$13), we can handle it.
We’re answerable to everyone and no one at the same time. From a press freedom perspective, it’s great.
With fund raising, the key is getting a good video and keeping it positive. There have been precarious times when I would worry about making it through, but we persisted and readers have backed us. And as a matter of principle, even if we were swimming in cash, we would always have an annual funding drive the way Wikipedia or NPR do. People should have a sense of ownership and understand that news needs to be paid for and is expensive.
If you could go back and set this up again, what would you do differently?
I would have given myself a bit more time to plan it all out. I wish we got the workflow and editing processes right. Slow the hell down. There was a lot of pressure, because we wanted to make an impact. I felt that quantity was the way to go in order to make a splash with search engines and social media. There was pressure to ensure that everyone was delivering five pieces each a day — now we don’t really put a number of it, and reporters are free to plan their own day.
The one thing I learned is to find people you trust and leave them to it. I 100 per cent trust these guys — some team members may have a slow day one day, but they’ll over-deliver another day. So I’ve learned to relax. And if you notice bad patterns occurring, you can have a chat. It’s very different to more pyramid-like corporate structures — we have little drama.
I didn’t know much about recruitment but learned the hard way that you need to test people thoroughly. It can be tough to find people who speak both languages, can write hard news and have the right to work in Hong Kong. I’ve been told to hire slowly and fire quickly — previously, I’ve been too hesitant.
As for everything else, funding and recruitment have taken up a lot of my time — I thought I’d be doing a lot more journalism!
What do you like most about what you do?
It’s different every day. When I was a teacher, you go through the same thing every day — it was monotonous. So you can’t beat getting global attention on a news piece, sometimes unexpectedly, like with our coverage of the Taiwan election, or when we’ve covered unrest in Hong Kong. You can’t beat the rush when you’re ahead of the story.
There’s also fundraising. There are times when you get cheques on the desk. Messages. Postcards. Someone even sent us a winning lottery ticket this week. I’ve also had people thrust cash upon me in public. Folks recognize us and what we’re doing.
It’s good to refine our workflow and make things more efficient. And from what I understand, the team are happy — in contrast with other media gigs in the city. I know we must be nice place to work because we’ve had people come back to us!
So do you sometimes feel like giving up?
In the early days, deep down there was a side of me that wished it would all stop. It was so physically demanding. There were high expectations. But now? No. I pinch myself sometimes. We’re in a great position.
Our biggest concern is always funding. We’ve got the basics to get us through the year. I want to get a freelance budget sorted and do more regional reporting and the anniversary of the handover. Another big issue is that we’re barred from government press conferences and press releases because we’re online. We’re fighting that and making good progress.
The longer we run, the more stories and original reporting we can do, as our audience and recognition grow.
It also blows my mind: We have a higher engagement rate with our stories on Facebook than the South China Morning Post. We see our stories take off. The same stories on the Post often fail to get traction. I don’t know what we’re doing right at times, but if you speak English in Hong Kong, you’ve probably heard of us.
We’re punching above our weight and I hope we can continue.
This interview is part of a series of stories around the journey of entrepreneurial journalism and the different ideas that could help build sustainable models.
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