The ways millennials use journalism to break free from established patterns is getting more and more exciting. In different parts of the world, writers face their own challenges. In Southeast Asia, home to Kirsten Han, local outlets struggle with a lack of press freedom, and international coverage is barely scratching the surface. To Kirsten and her co-founders at New Naratif, this was an invitation to go change things.
How did you come to terms with being a journalist? Was it a conscious decision or rather an organic process?
I’d say pretty organic. My first job out of university was working in film, creating documentaries with this small company. And because it was documentary, I was one foot in film, which is what I had studied, but also one foot in journalism, which was something I was interested in but hadn’t really given it a try. So I’ve finally got the opportunity to explore this field and after I left the company, I decided I would give journalism a go.
How has your relationship with journalism evolved over the years?
In my case, a lot of stuff was happening simultaneously, so it wasn’t a linear career path. While I was working on these documentaries as my first job, I was also volunteering with The Online Citizen (an independent news website in Singapore), where we did citizen journalism. We were bloggers, writers, but mostly just Singaporeans interested in issues of social justice. And we occasionally did our own original reporting – we would go out, speak to homeless people, write their stories. That was the beginning of learning how to write like a journalist, because I didn’t study that formally. I also worked briefly for Doctors Without Borders later on, helping with their communications, relationship-building with the media in Singapore etc. It was through a combination of these experiences that I realized I wanted to do this professionally.
Have you always been drawn towards more serious topics such as social justice?
Not really. I would say, as a Chinese Singaporean, I am one of the privileged in my country – being from a majority ethnic group, with a very middle class family where we speak English, growing up was easy for me. I basically fulfilled a lot of the requirements [of the “ideal” Singaporean]. I didn’t really think it might be different for other people out there.
“At school we weren’t necessarily encouraged to think about diversity. The teaching suggested that things in Singapore were going well so I wasn’t questioning as much as I should have at that age.”
It wasn’t until The Online Citizen, where I was able to see that my experience of Singapore is not representative of the real picture and that other Singaporeans’ lives are very different. Talking to those who were homeless, I began to see the ways we were treating people and that we were not living up to what we were saying [about Singapore’s success]. I became very interested in writing about it, partly for myself and also partly for other people to discuss as well.
How did your career proceed from there?
When I first started, I was looking at what other freelancers were doing. And there were a lot of professional journalists (still are) who basically bounced around the region, reporting on Singapore, Cambodia, Indonesia. I thought that was the way to be a reporter in Southeast Asia and if I wanted to be one, I would eventually be reporting on all those countries. And then I kind of went into realizing that maybe that wasn’t the way I wanted to do it.
“I saw that there was a value in being in one place and getting to know it really well. And I am still getting to know Singapore, there’s always so much under the surface.”
What else were you able to pioneer for yourself within Southeast Asian journalism?
I straddle activism and journalism and that’s not at all common in Singapore. It is something I kind of went into organically, as I was already in activism when I started working as a journalist and couldn’t turn around and pretend I’ve never done that. That’s partly the reason I chose to stay freelance – if I got a job in one of the big companies such as the BBC, I would have never been allowed to work this way. They want their journalists to appear neutral and impartial, and that’s fair, but I would have been required to quit [my activism].
In what way is it helpful or beneficial for journalists to show their activist side?
I’ve met people who say I have a bit more of a reputation for saying things other people wouldn’t want to say out loud, although we all know it is a fair comment to make. I hadn’t really thought about it in terms of career; it’s more about what I think is needed in public discourse. Somebody needs to say some of these things.
“Loads of people can be neutral but if everyone is a self-censoring journalist, that doesn’t really serve the public, does it?”
Does it come easy to you, saying things other people keep silent about?
It’s easier since it’s become very clear in my mind that this is something I want to do. Now I don’t have to think about it too much or struggle every single time I speak up. But it is also something you have to think twice about in Singapore because there are still risks involved. You might be out of a job, you could get charged, sued or be on a watchlist. You have to be very clear with yourself about how far you are willing to go. I need to know where my boundaries are; that gives me confidence.
On building New Naratif, a different kind of media, from scratch
What was the purpose of co-founding New Naratif?
Years ago I Skyped with PJ Thum, our managing director, about his idea to make research about Southeast Asia more accessible for people in the region. We were both doing other things back then so it wasn’t until 2016 when we were both back in Singapore that we started talking more seriously. Then Sonny, our mutual friend, a comics artist, also became interested in developing a platform where Southeast Asian creatives and artists could be published.
So it was beyond journalism. A platform for arts, academia and journalism to meet.
Yes, it stemmed from the idea of filling a gap in storytelling, research and discourse in Southeast Asia. There are a lot of countries in the area with issues of press freedom. There are topics their local media cannot or will not report on. And foreign media is not always interested in Southeast Asia so they might run a very short story when actually it needs to be investigated a lot more. We wanted to be a space where you could do that.
How did building a newsroom – a company, essentially – out of nothing go?
It was a lot of trial and error. When we first started, it was Sonny, PJ and me. We had a few other people helping and supporting us, but at the time of the launch I was the only editor, and that’s how we started. Very soon, we realized we needed more people to tell us about what we were missing, so we developed a role of ‚consulting editor.‘ We would hire people from around the region whose job was not necessarily to edit the articles as such, but to read and basically flag things that I might not know. They might say things like: This isn’t exactly how things work, you want to include this angle, too. They would bring more complexity into the story so we weren’t doing the same surface level reporting that we felt other networks were doing. We wanted to go deeper. We’ve since revisited this model and ensure complexity via different best practices and tools.
How did you find the know-how to do this? Back in 2017, the solutions journalism movement was just in its seed stage. How did you navigate the know-how development?
I guess we don’t exactly do solutions journalism to the level I think it is defined today. What we do is in-depth long-form reporting. It would be nice to do more solutions stories, but because we depend on pitches, we haven’t gotten quite a lot of those stories yet. There’s no shortage of people who want to do more in-depth reporting in Southeast Asia, though. They are quite frustrated by being restricted by what editors are interested in. So we reached out to some of those and also made it clear that we were happy to publish first-time writers. It was very important for us to give people a chance. Editors often default back to the people they always commission and a lot of the times it tends to be expat writers. We wanted to be the ones who take a chance on people who have not been published yet.
How many subscribers do you have? And are you financed from subscriptions only?
The numbers would be around 700 subscribers. On top of subscriptions we also apply for grant funding and have people who donate to us.
How does the newsroom look like in terms of staff?
We have about 10 part-timers, working in editorial, operations, engagement, etc. across various cities in Southeast Asia. We don’t yet have full-time journalists, partly because of our business model and partly because it gives us flexibility, independence, and transparency.
Transparency is another thing that separates you from other media worldwide. As an avid reader of your newsletters, I couldn’t ignore how connected, honest and open you are to your readers. Is that something you’ve wanted from the start?
Building trust was important to us from the start, because we wanted to show a different way of doing things and one of the reasons we do this is because we want freedom of information for Southeast Asia. And what we can do to achieve that is to model that behavior ourselves and show our members that we are accountable and it’s not scary to put out information.
“We decided to model the behaviour we want to see from governments and other powerful people in the region. If a small, under-resourced outlet like us can do this, institutions with much more at their disposal should be able to be accountable and transparent, too.”
What kind of feedback have you been getting in return?
The feedback was instant, we’ve had an aha moment on our very launch day, actually. We were talking about the kinds of stories we wanted to do and then we mentioned the transparency bit – and people were actually much more interested in our values, rather than our content. They were like: Sounds great, but tell me again about publishing your finances and talking openly. It was new for Singapore. Readers like the idea of being part of something big.
Did this shape the way you conducted New Naratif from then on?
Yes, it did make us shift the way we talk about ourselves. We realized that if people are this excited, we need to talk about this method of running ourselves a lot more. We adjusted it based on what people responded to and we continue to adjust it based on what they tell us. Because we are such a small outlet, we can pivot very quickly and that keeps the engagement high.
It has now been almost two years from the launch. How has the second year been?
We spent a lot of the first year trying to get the editorial correct. To get a steady stream of stories and to build up the coverage. So when the second year rolled around, we wanted to do a lot more workshops, taking the content that we produced and pushing it further through events. But then we found it’s summer and we actually haven’t done much of it. And so we’ve recently been talking a lot more about what we haven’t done. And what we want to change and start doing.
What are some of the things you want to change with regards to running New Naratif?
One issue we faced was that we were getting a lot of good pitches. I mean, going from no pitches to too many pitches is always a good problem to have, but we were perhaps getting greedy and we couldn’t keep up. As the only English editor, I was constantly stuck with the volume of work that we’ve created for ourselves and we kept postponing the actual development of New Naratif. So we decided to freeze the pitches temporarily, so we didn’t take pitches for awhile until the pipeline was more manageable. (Pitches are now open again, though!)
What are some of the innovations and new ideas you want to implement?
We want to do themed coverage. For example, we’d like to talk about colonialism in Southeast Asia. Most countries in Southeast Asia have at one point or another been colonized.
“We, as a society, do not talk about what this colonialism means, how has it made its mark on Southeast Asia, how are people dealing with that.”
We can talk about how, in many countries such as Brunei, Myanmar, Singapore, Malaysia, all previous British colonies, the government has kept British laws that were used to control population (such as freedom of speech), instead of getting rid of them. We want to explore that.
Then we want to do other things that have general implications. We are planning to dig into certain issues across the region, to encourage people to look outside their countries, to realize that there are other places in the region that face similar problems and perhaps they’ve got better ways of dealing with them. We can learn from each other. All that requires a lot more planning, rather than waiting for people to pitch to us. That’s what we hope to build up.
Something else among the next steps you want to share?
We are brainstorming how to talk to members more about themes they’d like us to cover, what questions and issues they have about Southeast Asia, so we can go and do more investigation and report on these things. We don’t have all the answers. We’ve been learning from other publications that run membership models and seeing what we can adapt from them. But Southeast Asia is a specific region, a lot more diverse. There is, for example, a lot to figure out around languages and access. Other membership models may cover The Netherlands or Germany, so they only deal with one language, whereas for us there are many. At the moment we work in four languages and that’s only scraping the surface.
What are you hopeful for in journalism?
There are so many stories to be told! Particularly in Southeast Asia, because we have this press freedom problem which makes it harder to do journalism but it also means that there are more opportunities to make an impact – to actually serve the public.
“In countries where there is press freedom, people kind of take that space for granted. But here we have an opportunity to create that space for other people so I think that’s exciting.”
It really is a lot of fun and it is fascinating to be in a position to find ways of bringing people together and trying to get them to think and talk about important issues.
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Hi, I am Pavla..
Prague-based writer, company content creator, aspiring global journalist and future-of- everything enthusiast.
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