WHEN Cindy Tham and I launched The Nut Graph in August 2008, I was clear that I wanted to achieve two things. One was to create a place for independent, accountable and kick-ass journalism that was premised on the highest ethical standards in journalism. These standards included ideas, such as doing a fact and quote check with the people we interviewed, that was not always encouraged in the previous newsrooms I worked in. The other was to be a kind and fair employer that was also committed to creating a learning organisation.
It’s been nearly two years now since we launched. And boy, what an incredible two years it’s been. This has been no less because of the political upheavals the nation experienced post-March 2008 in the form of by-elections, defections, resignations, and the coup d’etat in Perak. The learning curve was made more vertical because, as most of you know, our seed funders decided that they would not be able to fund us beyond the second year of our operations. Hence, our call for public support.
Our seed funding ended in March 2010. Because of readers’ generosity, funding we were able to secure from the Konrad Adenauer Foundation for our MP Watch: Eye on Parliament project, and some funding from The Asia Foundation, The Nut Graph was able to keep our team employed and keep publishing beyond March 2010. Unfortunately, Plan A, as I would like to call it, has to come to an end.
Plan B, here we come
The above interview, conducted by The Fairly Current Show host Fahmi Fadzil with me, highlights some of the learning and decisions that The Nut Graph have made over the past two years.
For certain, The Nut Graph isn’t the only news site that grapples with how to be financially sustainable. Still, the fact remains that Cindy and I were unable to make The Nut Graph viable. At present, as the remaining co-founder in the company, I am no longer able to justify spending up to RM80,000 a month when our income stream doesn’t come close to matching our monthly overheads. And so, what does one do with such feedback? At The Nut Graph, we’ve decided on Plan B.
Plan B is premised on the belief that The Nut Graph can continue publishing and sustaining its presence without having a salaried team. And so, by the end of August 2010, the entire team, including I, will be retrenched. That way, I can focus fully on my role as editor and journalist without having to constantly worry about raising funds to keep the entire team fairly paid.
Plan B will be launched in September. It will see our office closed. But that won’t stop us from working from home. It will also see most, if not all of us, eventually being salaried elsewhere. But that won’t stop us from continuing to write for The Nut Graph.
Plan B will also see us slowing down the frequency of our publication from five days a week, to just once every Monday. And yes, we will be publishing fewer stories and will likely not be able to write news articles and features anymore. But that won’t stop us from still writing our columns and commentaries critically and fearlessly, and I hope, with impact. And it won’t stop us from continuing to offer our staple of Six Words, Found in Quotation and Found in Malaysia, and whenever we conduct a Found in Conversation, reports from there. We will also continue to welcome contributions from regular and guest columnists.
The company will continue to keep paying our writers, editors and other contributors a nominal sum of money for their work for so long as we have money in the kitty. If or when that runs out, then The Nut Graph will continue to be sustained voluntarily by this collective of writers and editors, and any others who may want to contribute.
We don’t know if Plan B will work. We just know that Plan A isn’t working. And that’s fine. There is no failure, there’s only feedback, and what we do with that feedback. So Plan B is our response to the feedback we’re getting. And Plan B is also premised on knowing that with enough commitment to the ideals of good journalism and creating spaces where democracy can be upheld, most of what we are currently doing can continue to be done.
As an addendum, because our overheads will be reduced significantly once all of us are retrenched, we will be discontinuing the public donation appeal come end of August. We may continue to seek funding for special projects along the way, including to report on the next general election. But the imperative to keep us financially afloat will cease once we no longer have monthly salaries and other overheads to pay for.
For certain, there will be other uncertainties and challenges ahead, no less when the team is employed elsewhere and keeping one’s commitment to writing becomes an uphill task. What will happen next? Will be we able to sustain The Nut Graph?, we ask ourselves.
I don’t know. None of us do. But what I do know is this: we have a head start. We have a website that is functional. We have a brand name that has grown to be known and respected. And I have a dream team of thinking journalists and editors who remain curious and committed about the possibilities of Plan B.
I’d call that a great way to start Plan B. And if Plan B doesn’t work? We’ll just see if we can devise a Plan C.
Within the newsroom, because resources have often been stretched, one of the office mottos is, “We do the best we can with the resources we have.” That motto will continue to be our mantra as we move forward. And I can’t speak for the others on the team, but I, for one, am relieved Plan A is ending. And excited at the chance of Plan B.
As a journalist and editor at The Nut Graph, Jacqueline Ann Surin has been privileged to have worked with Cindy Tham, Shanon Shah, Deborah Loh, Ding Jo-Ann, Koh Lay Chin, Gan Pei Ling, Nick Choo and Lainie Yeoh.
The Fairly Current Show video interview first appeared on PopTeeVee. The site hosts other video interviews with notable personalities on notable issues.
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