New Naratif tests Southeast Asia’s appetite for a member-funded journalism service.

The Singapore-based startup is modelled loosely on the highly successful Dutch platform De Correspondent.

By Yunita Ong
Splice Singapore

Most of Southeast Asia’s legacy media are for-profit entities controlled by conglomerates or are family businesses. But New Naratif, a new regional startup, is now crowdfunding to test the market for a paid membership approach to journalism. Borrowing heavily from the ethos of De Correspondent, the Dutch news site that raised US$1.7 million from 20,000 subscribers in 2013, New Naratif aims to build a community of readers across the region. Members can access the site’s Southeast Asia-focused longform journalism, news and comic art and offer feedback on the editorial process.

Those readers will also fund all of the site’s operations — the project will be ad-free and the team has pledged to keep them abreast of how their money is spent. Annual memberships start at US$52, and since its Sept. 9 crowdfunding launch in Singapore, New Naratif has netted 163 members out of the 3,500 they hope to attract by early 2018 in order to begin operations. The site’s name includes the Bahasa Indonesian spelling of the word “narrative” and is a nod towards their ambitions to capture the sizable Malay- and Indonesian-speaking populations of the region.

This email interview with two of its founders, Oxford university academic Thum Ping Tjin (who is also known as PJ) and Kirsten Han, a journalist and activist, has been edited for length and clarity.

Thum Ping Tjin is one of the founders of New Naratif.
Thum Ping Tjin is one of the founders of New Naratif.

Q: What gaps in journalism, research and art are you hoping to fill in Southeast Asia?

Kirsten: New Naratif brings something important to the table in allowing the space for longform journalism that cares about context and background and reflects Southeast Asian lives and experiences, as opposed to relying on the shorthand of tropes and stereotypes to sum up complicated matters as quickly as possible.

There’s a lot of disappointment and disillusionment with democracy and citizen participation across the world, which coincides with the erosion of civil liberties like free speech and press freedom, and the difficulties faced by profit-driven media to cope and be accountable to the public. New Naratif presents a different way of doing things that I think is particularly necessary.

Q: What aspects of the De Correspondent playbook have you found to work particularly well in this market, and what aspects have you had to adapt?

Kirsten: Often in Southeast Asia we are told by those in power that we should allow them more control because “ordinary” citizens are somehow incapable of knowing what’s best for ourselves. An adherence to transparency and trust is a clear signal that we have faith in each other to be intellectually curious, to be able and willing to engage in discussion, to be able to work together and be able to build unity and solidarity outside of each country’s top-down power structures.

PJ: Southeast Asian governments are openly hostile to a free media, and set up a lot of roadblocks to prevent the existence of an independent press. The shutdown of The Cambodia Daily is the latest in a long series of such incidents in Southeast Asia. We have structured New Naratif to be very decentralized and internet-only. De Correspondent is a private company limited by shares. They have the flexibility to consider investment in the company and their founders have equity.

But New Naratif is published by a company limited by guarantee. The company has no owner, cannot be bought or sold, and can never pay out profits to investors. We do this so that we will never be affected by the profit motive, nor can anyone enact a hostile takeover of the company, like what happened to the Chinese newspapers in Singapore or Utusan Melayu in Malaysia.

Journalist Kirsten Han is a driving force behind New Naratif, the new member-based platform.
Journalist Kirsten Han is a driving force behind New Naratif, the new member-based platform.

What makes you confident that people in this region can and will pay up to $52 for journalism? Even in affluent Singapore, crowdfunding efforts for journalism, such as for The Middle Ground, remain a challenge.

Kirsten: We had long, hard conversations about this; we couldn’t deny the fact that Southeast Asia doesn’t exactly have a strong tradition of people paying for online journalism. But New Naratif seeks to offer more than just strong content; we want to be a platform where people are paying to be part of and help sustain a movement to build community and solidarity in Southeast Asia, and to participate in exchanges that are about understanding the issues we face and seeking solutions collectively.

Why publish in both English and Bahasa Indonesia?

PJ: Malay is the national language of Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, and Brunei, a de facto lingua franca of Timor-Leste, and is also spoken in Southern Thailand and Southern Philippines. That’s nearly 300 million people, or half of Southeast Asia. Publishing good work in multiple languages reflects our aspiration to connect across borders and barriers in Southeast Asia.

How optimistic are you that you’ll reach 3,500 members?

PJ: It is going to be hard. We never had any illusions about that. The important thing is to ensure that we are sustainable and that we do not take short cuts to growth, so we knew from the beginning that it will be a slow process. But I remain confident that, out of nearly 600 million Southeast Asians, we can find 3,500 to join the movement.

Yunita Ong is a Singapore-based journalist and a 2017 graduate of the Columbia Journalism School's business and economics program. Her work has appeared in publications such as Bloomberg, Forbes Asia and U.S. News and World Report. Follow Yunita Ong on Twitter.

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