Categorised | Columns

Supporting The Nut Graph’s Plan B

Retrenched! (© Nick Choo)

[Updated 11.10am, 19 Oct 2010: See update under Monetary contributions]

AND so it’s finally happened. We packed up our stationery and notebooks, sold the fax/printer/scanner, cleared out the pantry and shut the office. As of 1 Sept 2010, The Nut Graph is officially operating under Plan B.

Contrary to some perceptions, we haven’t “closed down”. It’s not over for The Nut Graph. Sure, the entire team has been retrenched. But we all understood that Plan A was not sustainable and that we needed to respond to that reality as best we could.

And so we have transformed into Plan B till we figure out a way to make the business of online journalism more sustainable. We’d certainly like to keep The Nut Graph going for as long as we can with whatever resources we have. So, here are some ways readers can continue supporting us under Plan B:

1. Buy a book or two

Found in Malaysia

Found in Malaysia — pick it up the next time you're in a bookstore!

My book, Shape of a Pocket, which is a compilation of my columns in theSun newspaper from 2005 to 2008, is still available for sale. It’s selling for RM25 and can be mailed out with no additional charge within Malaysia. The book can also be mailed overseas if the reader pays for postage. The book is no longer available in bookstores. Find out how to make payment here. The book will also be sold at all Found in Conversation events, and by the Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ). CIJ gets half the proceeds from the sale of a book for those that it sells, while the other half goes to The Nut Graph.

The Nut Graph‘s compilation of 50 of our best Found in Malaysia interviews, plus an additional four exclusives, has also been published into a book by ZI Publications. The Found in Malaysia book is retailing at all good bookstores for RM45. Every book you buy earns The Nut Graph royalties.

2. Give us content

If you’re a photographer with a story to tell, share your photos with us. Or if you’re an event organiser for an event that serves the public interest or provides an announcement of an upcoming cultural performance, send in your pictures to [email protected] and we will publish them with the appropriate credits.

All you need to do is send us a selection of between 12 and 15 photos which tell us a story about an event or issue that is interesting, significant or revealing. Give us the captions and the relevant information that will help us write an introductory blurb to your picture gallery. For what kinds of galleries get published, check out our Picture Gallery archives.

Similarly, if you’re a writer with something timely, intelligent and critical to say, send us your essays. Essays must be not longer than 1,000 words, must be exclusive to The Nut Graph, and must carry the author’s name and contact details.

Deadlines for our weekly Monday publications are Thursday noon.

Unfortunately, we will not be able to pay for these contributions.

3. Come for our Found in Conversation events

The next monthly event will be in late September on eco-friendly living. Entrance fee is RM30 with drinks and finger food, or RM45 inclusive of a copy of Shape of a Pocket. Stay tuned on Facebook or Twitter, or check out our ads on our website for more information.

4. Sign up to follow us

Because we’ll only be publishing once a week on Mondays, instead of five times a week from Monday to Friday, it may understandably be hard to remember to come to our website to read us.

But we still need readership if we are to continue to sell online ads. If you’d like to support us in that way, one way to remember to come to our site to read fresh articles would be to follow us. We need your eye balls and your feedback.

5. Monetary contributions

I know that I said in my earlier column when I announced Plan B that because our overheads would be reduced significantly once all of us were retrenched, we would discontinue the public donation appeal come end of August 2010.

Despite announcing this, however, several readers have continued to contribute financially. We welcome readers’ financial support especially if this results in us having the means to continue paying our writers and editors a fee for their work.

At the same time, we’d like to be honest about how much we need and how much we have left for Plan B so that readers can decide for themselves if they would like to continue giving.

(© goosmurf | Flickr)

(© goosmurf | Flickr)

Under Plan A, we were originally spending RM80,000 a month. In the last few months before we closed the office, our monthly overheads were reduced to about RM60,000. Under Plan B, we are hoping to cap our monthly expenses to RM10,000 a month unless a by-election or general election takes place and it becomes necessary for us to spend more in order to cover these events.

With a RM10,000 monthly expenditure, we should have enough to continue operations for at least another year based on some tentative cash flow projections that I will only be able to update later. This means that under Plan B, our financial situation isn’t so dire even though clearly, we will still need funding to keep going beyond the next 12 months or so.

It may be interesting to see if Malaysia can develop public-funded journalism like in the US where sites like Spot.Us, NewsTrust and The Huffington Post Investigative Fund rely on public donations as one source of income.

While public-funded journalism is fairly well-developed in the US in the interest of investigative journalism, The Nut Graph cannot promise at this juncture to do the kind of investigative journalism that these news sites do. Firstly, all these news sites actually have some kind of news team on their payroll where if not journalists then editors work full-time for the outfit. Secondly, while the US has a Freedom of Information Act and an ecosystem that supports investigative journalism, Malaysia still has the Official Secrets Act and a culture of secrets.

Investigative journalism — the kind that exposes abuses in high places — requires a dedicated team and often long hours digging for information. Without any full-time staff under Plan B, The Nut Graph is not in a position to promise the kind of investigative journalism that publicly-funded news sites in the US can.

We will continue to write critically on matters of public interest through our columns, commentaries, analyses and interviews. And we will continue to offer Found in Malaysia interviews because we think it’s an important conversation about who is a pendatang in Malaysia and whether it even matters if one is a citizen. For now, that is what we can promise.

[Updated] After finally sorting out our book keeping, we now know that we have enough funds to last under Plan B till the end of 2011. As such, we are terminating our call for monetary contributions from the public from 19 Oct 2010 onwards.

Public donations and accountability

Additionally, because we no longer have full-time staff or an office administrator, the company will not be able to account for how public donations are used. For example, whether one’s contribution of RM50 is used to partially pay a columnist or to host a server.

To be fair, no individual donor has actually asked for that kind of accountability. Still, if anyone chooses to give us money, I believe it’s important for donors to know what kind of accountability we can provide with regard to how their money will be used. Our only way of accounting for the money given to us right now is to keep publishing the kind of critical content that we have been doing for the past two years.

We also promise one other thing. Should The Nut Graph not be able to keep publishing after a while for whatever reasons and we decide to close the company, whatever money we have, after taking into account company expenses, will be donated to CIJ. That way, donors’ intentions in supporting independent journalism can continue to be honoured beyond The Nut Graph.

So, there you go. This is the scenario under The Nut Graph‘s Plan B. We are thankful there is a Plan B and that we didn’t have to stop writing and publishing. And we are also thankful that people continue to read us and comment on our site.

I believe it’s important as citizens to keep exercising critical thinking and speaking up and holding those in power accountable. The Nut Graph allows some of us to continue flexing that muscle in the democracy that is Malaysia.

Jacqueline Ann Surin is trying to find a structure to her days post-retrenchment and is enjoying the new sensation while she’s at it.

The Nut Graph needs your support

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20 Responses to “Supporting The Nut Graph’s Plan B”

  1. Shahril H says:

    Such a shame. You guys were (are) the best online news site in the country, by a country mile. Always had the highest regard for your standards of journalism.

  2. lkl says:

    Keep going, that’s the most important thing.

  3. hanana bt abdulla says:

    Just like the phoenix, TNG will rise from the ashes…

    Insya Allah

    Best wishes

  4. truth says:

    What a shame… no more daily free news….

  5. Mikazuki says:

    I’m glad that TNG is still available to provide eye-opening articles, even if it’s only on Mondays.

  6. mike says:

    I think The Nut Graph is a worthy pursuit, at the very least, it raises the bar for the rest.

    Here’s one view why it didn’t work: The perception, however, is that it’s still more a blog, not so much journalism. This is not necessarily a bad thing.

    Here’s my 2 sens worth: Get more depth in your selected space, bring in the bigger personalities to contribute/write/discuss. You might get a more committed base. Much as I dislike hagiography, the reality is we are in Malaysia, so idols/brands/popularity all adds up.

    Pls email me if you guys need more than money, especially if you’d like some insights on media and technology for The Nut Graph — my day job.

    All the best. mike.

  7. Mo says:

    Well, keep up the good work guys, i’m glad u guys are taking it well, out of tis experience you shall grow bigger.

    Since yr doing once a week, it would be nice to see a Video roundup to accompany the text if possible.

    Cheers

  8. Joon Ian says:

    So you don’t pay freelancers, don’t have an office, don’t have staff, and yet have RM10,000 in monthly running costs? How about a breakdown of those costs?

    • We don’t pay for unsolicited material. That’s standard editorial policy in any newsroom. We do pay the columnists we commission.

      We’re also paying the TNG team of writers and editors, who are keeping the site going on a weekly basis, a contributor’s fee. On average, we’re allocating RM2K a week for editorial costs.

      There’s also the cost of organising Found in Conversation, and the cost of keeping a company going — from secretarial to auditors fees. Plus other miscellaneous costs along the way. And so, on average, we need to budget for RM10K a month.

      I sense from your tone that you think RM10K is an unbelievable amount to spend if TNG has no staff and no office overheads. We believe, however, that journalists should be paid for their time and expertise. And why shouldn’t they for the role they play in a democracy? Should they work for free?

      We’re not asking anyone to give us money if they think the cost is unjustifiable. Indeed, individual and institutional donors have given of their own free will. Truth is, good journalism isn’t cheap, and quite a few people recognise that.

      Some, of course, must believe that good, experienced, talented writers and editors should be paid nothing or next to nothing for the work they do. They are entitled to their opinion but unless they run a newsroom, I’d be circumspect about where that view is coming from.

      • Joon Ian says:

        Thanks for that.

        Surely the post above asks for submissions, yet it also says that the contributor won’t be paid?

        I agree that good journalism is expensive. I think many journalists are paid poorly in Malaysia and I wish it were otherwise. But shouldn’t good journalism also be transparent and accountable? Particularly if the journalistic entity is asking for public donations and claiming to supply a public good?

        Would it be too onerous to post a quarterly earnings report on the site, for example? Would it not strengthen The Nut Graph’s — and independent media in Malaysia in general — editorial stance on transparency and accountability? Surely more transparency is only for the good — and that applies to good journalists as well.

        • Thanks for the clarification.

          Firstly, there is a difference between crowd-sourcing and commissioning work to be published. The above post invites people to send us content that either promotes an event or issue and in publishing this content, we aim for a win-win situation where either a cultural event gains publicity on our site or a public interest is served. I believe that’s crowd-sourcing. Correct me if I’m wrong.

          We pay for commissioned content e.g. when we tell a columnist, “We’d like you to write about this particular issue for us.” or “We’d like you to cover this particular event for us.” and the cotent must be delivered by a particular deadline. Such content follows specific direction and criteria from the newsroom.

          Secondly in terms of accounting for how donations are being used:

          1. There are different ways the public can support us should they choose to. They can buy a book if they don’t feel comfortable giving us money. Or they can come for our Found in Conversation event if they think the money they give us will be misused. Or they can give us content so that it’s a win-win situation — we get content for free, they get publicity for free. Nobody should give us money if they think their money is not going to be put to good use.

          2. Yes, we claim to serve public good. If anyone disagrees with that claim, and we believe each individual and institution is capable of ascertaining that for themselves, then please do NOT lend us your support. In whatever form.

          3. I think I’ve made it amply clear in my column what the collective is capable of doing in terms of accounting for the money we receive. That in itself is a form of accountability. It’s surely not as high as we would like it to be, for certain. And we agree that some individuals, such as yourself, and institutions would want a higher level of accountability. If that’s what you need, and we are not able to meet your needs, please, please, do NOT give us money.

          Having said that, we can’t stop others from wanting to continue supporting us in whatever form including financially. For quite a few donors, it’s enough that we report on the issues we do in the way that we do.

          For now, I can tell you that we’re allocating RM2K a week for editorial work. That’s RM2K for five to six stories per week where each story requires three persons working on it — the writer, the editor and the copy editor. That’s about RM300 to RM400 per story. That means each journalist/editor is paid about RM100 per story. Actually it would be less since that RM100 payment is also meant to take care of expenses in pursuing a story — petrol, phone calls, parking, internet connection.

          So, RM8K a month, plus an additional RM2K a month for company-related expenses makes up about RM10K a month.

          In terms of how much the company has left in its coffers, I’ve already stated that I can only update that information when we update our cashflow projections. That is taking some time because there’ve been several hiccups along the way.

          But once we are clearer about just how much money we have and how long we can survive under Plan B, readers can also better decide if they want to continue giving money or supporting us in another way.

          I understand that this explanation may not be ideal for you. And can be problematic for many. But this is what we can do at this juncture.

          And like I said, if it’s not enough, please, nobody is compelled to give us money or support of any kind. Support us if you want to and if this explanation is enough for you. If you don’t, that’s also a legitimate and reasonable decision.

        • One other thing. You say we need to make public our company’s audited financial report in the interest of accountability and transparency. I believe we only owe that information to the company’s shareholders who own a stake in the company, and directors who have to sign off on the audited accounts.

          Individual and institutional donors are not company shareholders. And none are company directors at this juncture.

          We owe donors some explanation of how the money they give us will be used. We do this by explaining how much our editorial costs are and what other expenses we may have. That may or may not be enough for someone to give us money.

          Think of it this way. Giving The Nut Graph money to continue writing and reporting what we do is no different from readers paying a subscription so that they can continue to read reports on The Nut Graph. While those who give us money don’t have special access to the site compared to those who don’t give us money, in essence that is the kind of relationship that exists between a donor and TNG. Subscribers, I’m sure you’ll agree, whether to Malaysiakini or to McKinsey Quarterly, don’t have access to those company’s financial records.

          One other thing to think about. We’re not trying to profit from public support. We’re trying to use whatever financial support we have to continue doing the journalism we do. As it is, under Plan B, none of us are being paid our actual worth as writers and editors.

          • Kong Kek Kuat says:

            @ Jacqueline Ann Surin

            I think you´ve said enough about TNG´s position. But, obviously, it´s never enough for some people. You can´t please everyone lah.

            But, on the other hand, I think this fellow didn´t start out with the intention of being critical lah. I think he was merely thinking out loud. I think your reply to his first comment sort of challenged him a little, hence his second reply. I think he doesn´t understand the value in good journalism and the value in having quality employees (he probably understands the importance of having quality employees, though). Hence the difference in expectation of costs and in value. I think he is not alone, though.

            But then, I may be thinking too much. :-J

        • KW Mak says:

          @ Joon Ian

          I have on numerous occasions requested the public to write in to the Petaling Jaya City Council to request for data that the public is entitled to, but no one seems to care.

          It is therefore ironic that there are people who can be so critical of a private company whom they can choose to donate to or not yet no one wants to challenge and request from a local council meeting minutes or accounts, which is their entitlement under the law.

          Could you please direct some of your scrutiny over to your own local council? I’m sure your local council will appreciate you for any constructive criticism you may have.

          Regards.

          KW Mak, MBPJ councillor.

        • Kong Kek Kuat says:

          @ Joon Ian

          Dude, just take a tour of this website, and dip in here and there.

          Compare the quality of what you read with those of The Star, The Sun, The Moon, The Pluto, etc.

          Don´t you think you can trust the people who run this website with MYR10 of your money?

  9. Joon Ian says:

    @KW Mak: I don’t live in Malaysia, so I don’t have a council to write to. That’s why publishers like The Nut Graph are important to me, so I know what’s going on in Malaysia. Your point is taken, but isn’t it also ironic if said private company demands accountability but doesn’t provide it?

    @Kong: I’ve subscribed to Malaysiakini, for example, for years. My point is simply, if The Nut Graph espouses such ideals, then they should just live by them. Of course it was my intention to be critical — isn’t that the point of discourse?

    Let’s not conflate The Nut Graph’s model with the only viable model for ‘good journalism’. There’s plenty of innovation in journalism right now that takes advantage of the internet’s low distribution cost without a potentially expensive traditional newsroom set-up. Footnoted.com is an example.

    @Jacqueline: Thanks for that. Your point is well made. But I think my point remains: Why not hold yourselves up to a higher level of accountability than you are required to? Of course you are a private company and you don’t have to disclose your finances. But where’s the harm in doing so? Doesn’t it add to your credibility, increase the number of people who would be convinced to lend you their support, and advance your stated editorial mission?

    Why not take the chance to embody transparency and accountability? The Nut Graph could break new ground with radical transparency.

    Malaysia’s urban, English-speaking class have proven too few in number or are unwilling to support various worthy journalistic endeavours. Look at Kakiseni.com for example. Or Off The Edge. They can’t or won’t pay you what you want. That much was clear for even the casual newsstand customer. It shouldn’t come as a surprise to a startup publisher.

    I hope The Nut Graph makes it the end. But it’s better to burn out than to fade away, as someone once said.

    • Kong Kek Kuat says:

      @ Joon Ian

      If it was your intention to be critical, then you are either not so intelligent or quite naïve. Either way, I am referring to your first comment above. And no, your point about TNG´s ideals was neither simple nor clear. You see, the thing about being critical, in the first place, is to be clear and precise. That’s the point of ‘discourse’. Or else, it’s just talk.

      For example, you appear to confuse good journalism with “innovation in journalism right now that takes advantage of the internet’s low distribution cost without a potentially expensive traditional newsroom set-up.” No matter how much you try to stretch the word ‘conflate’ (as seen in your “Let’s not conflate The Nut Graph’s model with the only viable model for ‘good journalism’), it can never substitute the word ‘confuse’.

      I really don´t know if you were trying to be critical, or merely talking here. And I have never met you. But I think your money is worth as much as your talk.

  10. After finally sorting out our book keeping, I can confirm that we have enough money to last till end of 2011 under Plan B even if there are by-elections and a general election. Hence, we will from today stop our call for monetary support from our readers.

    Thank you everyone who gave us money to continue the work we do. If you’d like to continue supporting us, please consider the other ways I have highlighted above instead of giving us money.

    Sincerely,
    Jacqueline.
    Editor


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