Letters from our readers
TIS the season for celebrating so here’s the good news. The Nut Graph is going to be able to keep going until June 2010 for sure, potentially even to September 2010. And if some other funding we’ve applied for, and will be applying for, is approved in the months to come, we may even last till the end of 2010.
But, and unfortunately there is a “but”, we are clearly, to quote The Nut Graph‘s business development manager Cindy Tham, “not out of the woods”. Despite not having to shut down by the end of 2009, The Nut Graph will have to continue treading water until we find ourselves a sustainable business model for online journalism.
And the truth is, everybody who is in the online media industry is still searching for that holy grail of a business model that will keep public interest journalism alive and kicking. For example, despite Malaysiakini‘s phenomenal success as a 10-year-old news portal — currently the only paid news site in Malaysia — editor-in-chief Steven Gan still has cause for concern. “Getting people to pay for the news is like squeezing water from a rock,” he told a small group of media and industry players at a pre-anniversary dinner in Kuala Lumpur on 27 Nov 2009.
So, The Nut Graph is not really alone within the global and local contexts of trying to make an online news media financially viable, if not profitable. What does this mean for us, then?
Support, in all sizes
Honestly, I had expected to shut down The Nut Graph at the end of 2009. We’ve been treading water since May 2009 in terms of trying to rethink and figure out our business model. And that’s why it’s good news worth celebrating that we are able to hang on for at least another six to nine months.
We enjoyed the gesture!
What has enabled us to keep going longer than we expected despite our financial situation has been the generous donation of readers, and grants from funding organisations. Since our public appeal for donations began in August 2009, we’ve collected more than RM40,000. Donations have come in all shapes and sizes. From a lottery ticket that was anonymously dropped in our mailbox (we didn’t win but we so enjoyed the gesture) to a RM10 monthly donation to a RM15,000 cheque, we have been encouraged and humbled by readers’ support.
At the same time, we received funding from The Asia Foundation in Malaysia worth RM35,000. We also managed to secure funding for two projects in 2010, to be announced next year. There was also sponsorship from HSBC Bank Malaysia for a series of articles we wrote on the climate change conference in Copenhagen, known as COP15.
Excerpt of a donor’s letter to The Nut Graph
Others, whether individuals or companies, have offered services, advice and support in kind. Many of our columnists, for example, have continued to write for us for free even though they clearly could have gone elsewhere and gotten paid for their writing. Two columnists deserve special mention for repeatedly sending us their writing to be published for free — Petaling Jaya councillor KW Mak and historian Dr Farish Noor.
These and some cost adjustments in our spending have enabled us to stretch ourselves beyond 2009.
Despite all of these measures, it’s still not enough. That’s just the reality of the business of running an online news site. Especially one that will not scrimp on paying our employees fair and decent wages while not sacrificing our ethics, independence and integrity as journalists.
Some donations came with Post-it notes
As part of the measure to keep afloat a bit longer so that we can figure out what our new business model should be, I will be taking a pay cut beginning January 2010. But nobody else in the team will be expected to do so. Cindy, meanwhile, will leave employment at The Nut Graph at the end of 2009.
These, and other measures, will help us cobble together funds to hire a few more critical people, for example, a couple more journalists and at least two marketing executives to help me grow the business.
But what we really need are new streams of sustainable income. The one thing I’ve learnt from trying to keep The Nut Graph afloat is that somebody has to pay for the news. Over these past few months, after our original funders informed us they could no longer fund our operations beyond the seed funding they had committed, we’ve had to grapple with the question of who will pay for good journalism.
If advertising is not doing for online media what it does for the traditional media in terms of subsidising the cost of news reporting, then somebody else has to pay for it. I am convinced that if the public wants the kind of public interest journalism that asks hard questions, holds those in power accountable, and exposes corruption and abuse of power, then the public needs to pay for it. Because who else will?
Readers expect to pay for newspapers, but not
online journalismBut nearly all readers expect to be able to read news and analyses online for free, even though they have no problem forking out money for a newspaper on a daily basis. Indeed even a reputable news organisation like The New York Times has not been able to charge online readers successfully.
In all the reports we’ve read, I’ve only come across one by the Boston Consulting Group that said consumers would be willing to pay. But even then, the survey found that “the average monthly amount that consumers would be prepared to pay ranges from $3 in the United States and Australia to $7 in Italy.” That would mean having many thousands of subscribers to keep an online news site going and the evidence is, those thousands would be a miracle of sorts.
The Nut Graph is seriously contemplating a subscription model as well. We really have no choice despite the evidence out there. The trick, we figure, is how to make the subscription model work. That question is what will be occupying us in 2010. If we don’t figure out what will get people to pay for the journalism we do, there may not be a 2011 for The Nut Graph no matter the generous donations and grants.
And so here’s how you can help us figure out the way forward. Take this survey about subscription to The Nut Graph. Let us know what you think might work for you as a reader. Your feedback, like your support and criticisms, is valuable because it gives us a sense of whether we should keep doing what we’re doing or stop treading water and lie by the beach instead.
Truth is, some days, the beach beckons. But for now, there is 2010 to look forward to, no less because of the new learning opportunities ahead of us all at The Nut Graph.
Jacqueline Ann Surin believes that good journalism can only be humanly sustainable if it is also financially sustainable. With the challenges of 2009, she has yet to fulfil the 21-day no complaints resolution she made early in the year. She hopes to succeed in 2010.
Read previous Shape of a Pocket columns
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