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A version of this profile first appeared in Mekong Review, a wonderfully produced literary magazine from Southeast Asia. It’s beautiful and it’s worth subscribing to. Here’s a piece we wrote about them earlier this year.
This article is reproduced from Mekong Review with permission.
Splice Newsroom’s office is wherever Alan Soon and Rishad Patel park their laptops. Today it’s a Starbucks in downtown Singapore, with glacially slow service and a soundtrack of ubiquitous cafe jazz. Their arrangement — lean, physically rootless, fluid — is the quintessential twenty-first-century media startup: the kind of business that they now spend their time studying.
Soon, forty-four, a journalist and Patel, forty-eight, a design specialist, founded Splice in 2017 to chart and shape the transformation of Asia’s media industry, starting with a website and newsletters and culminating in an ambitious, US$1 million project to launch 100 startups.
In North America and Europe the press is highly introspective, with a symbiotic ecosystem of academic institutions, think tanks and consultancies that feed into an industry with an acknowledged social role; albeit one that is mostly privately owned and functions — or fails — on its ability to turn readers into money. In Asia, where the press is generally less lauded and where the media industry is far more heterogenous, there are few such organisations.
Splice aims to fill that gap, and to ask important questions about the future of the industry at a moment of profound change, Patel says. “What’s going on with the legacy media businesses? Why is there doomsday, but no business plan? Why doesn’t the startup energy [across the region] infuse itself into what’s going on with media?”
What they are offering, partly, is optimism, a commodity in short supply in the global media.
The demonization of the press in theoretically liberal democracies; the manipulation of political narratives by trolls for hire; filter bubbles, polarization and the end of news as a collective experience are all harmonics to a bass note of decadal decline as technology giants capture the dwindling revenues of the newspaper industry. Newsrooms around the world are shrinking or disappearing entirely. Great bastions of magazine journalism have disappeared or are wallowing in the grim, hyper-colored morass of trending content.
A glass half full
After years of attrition by technological, social and economic change, the media feels uniquely vulnerable, and more so in Southeast Asia where autocratic governments keep up their bruising assaults on the freedom of the press — the jailing of Reuters reporters Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo in Myanmar; the arrest of veteran photographer Shahidul Alam in Bangladesh; the sale of the Phnom Penh Postto a government-linked PR company in Cambodia.
In short, it all seems to be going to hell.
“We have a different view on it,” Soon says. “We think this is a golden age of media.”
Soon and Patel’s thesis is that the great 1990s promise that the internet would democratise the media and put the means of production in the hands of the many has come true.
Technology has allowed journalists, publishers — pretty much anyone who wants to put a message out — to do so with a limited outlay.
“Your barrier to entry as a journalist has come down significantly from where it was ten years ago,” Soon says. “When I started out I was carrying a huge chunk of hardware. Machines were more expensive, getting online was more difficult. We built this entire business completely by hanging out in cafes.”
Beyond that, though, digitization, analytics and the fast feedback mechanisms of the internet mean that publishers can identify special interest audiences and rapidly prototype, test and roll out products that serve them.
“I think what’s amazing about that is that anyone who wants to start something can do it almost immediately, which you couldn’t twenty years ago. You had to go and buy a printing press,” Soon says. “It also allows for a lot more voices in that space. I think that’s great. You just have to look at YouTube to get an understanding of what is possible for that long-tail type of content that’s out there. Every single niche interest that exists can be fulfilled by someone with the right point of view about this stuff. Something that mass media could never do, because mass was just too mass. Now you’re able to create something that’s very niche that serves a very specific community, by addressing a problem that they have.”
This is the basis for Splice itself, which is targeting an audience of perhaps 10,000 media professionals in the region with its four newsletters. “That’s all we care about. And if we can continue meeting in cafes and keeping our costs down, we should be able to service [that audience] for a long time,” Soon says.
Launching media startups
In July, Splice announced that they had taken funding from Civil Media, a U.S.-based company that has developed a blockchain-based system for distributing, verifying and monetizing news. The resulting “Splice 100” initiative aims to support 100 media startups in Asia in the next three years to prototype new ideas.
“We feel that someone needs to nudge entrepreneurs and small media companies along,” Soon says. “We’re now in a stage of evolution where we can test an idea… We think that by being a catalyst for ideas and for testing, we can drive some real change in this space.”
The idea of embracing the limitations of a given audience and designing specifically for them is more radical than it sounds. For the past decade, media companies have been engaged in an ongoing battle for eyeballs, with success measured in simplistic metrics. The core skills of journalists have changed, with newsrooms demanding search engine optimization and the use of traffic analytics alongside reporting skills — some may say instead of them. The problem with these kind of analytics is that they are often misleading.
“You sliced it one way, it told you one thing, you sliced it the other way, it told you another story. It’s like accounting in the old days,” Patel says.
“Mafia accounting,” Soon interjects.
Off a cliff
Chasing these metrics has driven companies into a race to the bottom on content, trying to attract as many hits with as little outlay as possible, with the inevitable consequence that quality — and trust — has fallen. But the money didn’t come, pushing publishers to try to do even more with even less and perpetuate the downward spiral.
This was exacerbated by the rise of social media platforms, which offered a devil’s bargain — huge traffic numbers in exchange for a reduced share of the overall advertising take from that content. The result is that perhaps the most significant player in the media industry is now Facebook, which creates no content, has no editorial policy and has to be pressured into removing content that glorifies terrorism, denies the Holocaust or incites ethnic violence.
The social and political implications of the dominance of platform companies in the news media have been significant. Algorithms designed to push people towards content and products that they are most likely to consume have narrowed, rather than broadened, the range of viewpoints that huge swathes of the public are exposed to. Rather than entering an age of mass information enabled by the democratization of content creation, Facebook and others risk creating studied ignorance on a large scale. Sometimes stories from one niche — credit default swaps, constitutional law, climate change — are suddenly relevant to everyone else’s. Traditionally, it was the news media that made that call.
Commercially, chasing clicks from Facebook seems, in hindsight, to be folly. Even companies that were able to game the algorithms to “win” have found that the ground shifts underneath them when Facebook’s policies or priorities change.
“The Facebook problem,” Patel says, “is a strategy problem … there were maybe too many eggs in this one blue basket.”
“You don’t build your house in someone else’s backyard,” Soon says.
In all of this change, one of the biggest losers has been “pure” news. The state of the industry is eloquently captured by Time’s Twitter feed, where clickbait headlines — “6 things to do to improve your relationship”, “4 ways to learn anything in 20 hours” and “These 2 questions will help you stand out in an interview” — sit awkwardly alongside earnest news reports.
In recent years, click-chasing media companies such as Buzzfeed and Huffington Post have tried to get into the “real” news business, partly motivated by a desire to give themselves some credibility and legitimacy. What they have tended to find is that the numbers do not stack up; they certainly do not justify the kind of investments that are needed to sustain a genuine news- gathering operation.
So where does news fit into Soon and Patel’s vision of an “unbundled” industry, separated into specialist streams of content? News is not niche.
“I think we may retire the term news in fifteen, twenty years,” Soon says. “Because people won’t think in terms of is this news, or is this not? People will think … if I’m affected by a shutdown on the MRT today, is that a transportation story? Is it a politics story? People don’t think along those lines anymore. That’s why when you ask young people do you read the news, they say no.”
Both Soon and Patel have done their time in the industry; Soon at Kyodo News, CNBC, Bloomberg and Yahoo; Patel at Ogilvy & Mather and the Straits Times. Neither are wide-eyed about the challenges to the business they’re in. The media in Singapore, where both are from and have spent much of their careers, is going through a difficult patch. Singapore Press Holdings, the largest media owner in the country, has cut deeply into its newsroom staff and invested in property instead.
The country’s second-largest newspaper, Today, ended its print edition in October last year. Others have done the same. A few independent operations have started up, but have butted up against the government’s resistance to a free press. New Naratif, a subscription-based digital publication, was denied a business licence on the basis that it had taken foreign funding to conduct “political activities”.
It is hard to ignore this backdrop, but at least Soon and Patel seem to be enjoying the ride.
“I think Splice came about precisely because we didn’t see anything like this here,” Patel says. “[It’s] the culmination, or continuation, of a conversation that we’ve been having for ages.”
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