AND so, it’s finally happening. After six years of publication, The Nut Graph will cease publishing from tomorrow onwards, making this column the last article.
We’ve had some really good years of independent and responsible journalism since the days of MalaysiaVotes, which Cindy Tham, Danny Lim and I started in February 2008. MalaysiaVotes was set up to cover the 8 March 2008 general election (GE12) and to help us prepare for a more fully operational news site.
MalaysiaVotes was the precursor to The Nut Graph, which was launched on 15 Aug 2008 in time to cover the Permatang Pauh by-election. That by-election was historic (as was GE12) because it witnessed the return of Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim into Parliament. Since then, we’ve covered numerous by-elections and even managed to hang on long enough to cover the yet again historic 2013 general election.
Throughout the six years, we have attempted to fulfil our brand promise of making sense of politics and popular culture. Instead of competing with other news portals in terms of swift breaking news, we looked for the big picture, connecting the dots for readers so that they could better understand the forces behind the news events that were being reported.
It would have been ideal for us to keep The Nut Graph going in the interest of maintaining another Malaysian news site that is independent, accountable and responsible. But we have known for a while already that this would not be possible, because of the circumstances that The Nut Graph operated under.
What was needed
MalaysiaVotes and The Nut Graph were made possible because Tham and I were offered funding to start up an independent news portal in 2007. Our investors said they wanted to expand the democratic space in Malaysia because of the winds of change they were noticing before GE12. We were promised up to five years of funding.
Unfortunately, the investors had a change of heart, purportedly because of the 2008 financial crisis. Tham and I were told not long after we started publication that our seed funding would end in March 2010, hence providing us with only two years of funding. We were told we could wrap up operations months before the two years were up and retrench everyone. In return, we could use the balance of our two-year seed funding to pay everyone a handsome compensation.
Tham and I decided against doing that. It would have been unconscionable to shut down something that so many people had a part in building simply because they believed in an ideal or in Tham and me, so that a small group of us could gain financially from it.
That’s when we launched a public donation drive, which many readers generously contributed to in cash and kind. As it became public knowledge that we were financially in dire straits, one politician offered to financially sustain us. He said we could cover anything we wanted and only had to cover all of his political campaigns. I declined the offer, reminding him and myself of why I had started The Nut Graph in the first place – to be completely free to make sound editorial decisions without fear or favour.
And because we still didn’t have a sustainable business model in place, the money we raised from our donation drive wasn’t enough to keep us going as a fully operational news organisation. In order to stretch the money we had left to keep The Nut Graph going for as long as possible, I made the decision to shut the office.
By that time, Tham had left The Nut Graph already. Everyone else who had stayed on was retrenched in August 2010. And by September that year, a small and dedicated collective started maintaining The Nut Graph from home. We published once instead of five times a week. And we each got paid a small token for the work we did with what was left of the money we had. That was our Plan B.
And so, we managed to keep The Nut Graph going for four years more beyond the two years that we had money for from our investors. Presumably, we could carry on as a weekly publication in this way.
Unfortunately, even that is not sustainable. Like the legs of a stool, three things are needed to keep The Nut Graph’s Plan B going: funds to keep paying our editorial team; funds to pay for the company’s expenses, which include annual secretarial, accountant, auditor and web-hosting fees; and a team of intelligent and dedicated writers and editors.
We were fortunate to have loyal readers who gave us funding so that I could continue to pay the team for their editorial work. I will, however, run out of funds soon to sustain the company. Additionally, the dream team that I had has been moving off in different directions – a couple are pursuing their postgraduate degrees, one external columnist no longer wants to write, and one editor will be moving on to a full-time job.
My own dreams have also changed, and running a news site is no longer as compelling as it was six years ago. The truth is, it is no longer possible for me to pour in the energy required to maintain The Nut Graph while also pursuing my new dreams.
What we’ve achieved
And that’s just the way it is. Businesses don’t work out and people move on. I have no regrets, even if The Nut Graph is currently facing a defamation suit for a 2009 Bernama report which we carried as the news agency’s subscriber. And I believe none of the team – whether external contributors or the staff who remained on board – have any regrets in having worked for The Nut Graph.
We’ve achieved so much in the six years that we published. We were the only Malaysian news organisation that made public the ethical guidelines we would use when reporting and moderating comments. In fact, we were the only Malaysian news outlet that promised we would do a fact and quote check with the people we interviewed, in line with best journalistic practices.
We covered two historic general elections, and made sense of the numerous issues plaguing our nation, most of which are a result of how Islam has been politicised in Malaysia. We published Found in Malaysia, a collection of stories for Malaysia by Malaysians about their ancestry, origins and hopes. These stories were eventually published as books in two volumes by ZI Publications.
With the support of the Konrad-Adenauer Foundation, we ran the MP Watch project to highlight the kind of parliamentarians we had in the 12th Malaysian Parliament. Subsequently, with analysis and support from the Bar Council, that project was published as Understanding the Dewan Rakyat to serve as a guide for voters, political parties and think tanks. We had hoped other media outlets would model MP Watch in their reporting of elections and elected representatives. That was not the case.
We also sustained intelligent and critical voices in the public sphere, including those of Shanon Shah, Wong Chin Huat, KW Mak and Norhayati Kaprawi. And we developed and projected new critical voices including, among others, those of Ding Jo-Ann, Gan Pei Ling, Hwa Yue-Yi, and Lainie Yeoh through her graphic illustrations.
Most certainly, The Nut Graph would not have been possible without numerous individuals who each wanted intelligent, independent and fearless media in Malaysia. They are too many to name. And by way of thanks for their support of an ideal and an idea, let me end by saying this: It has been the utmost privilege to have been able to work independently, freely and responsibly as a journalist and editor for the past six years. May others continue to do as you have done for the other media who persist in upholding these ideals.
Jacqueline Ann Surin has had many proud moments as editor of The Nut Graph. One of her proudest was when journalist Koh Lay Chin delivered an exclusive and investigative story in 2010 about a two-page ad in the New York Times that featured the prime minister’s wife, Datin Seri Rosmah Mansor.
The Nut Graph will continue to be available online as a resource.