Journalist as Entrepreneur

Recently, the MalaysiaKini citizen journalist program kicked into expansion mode with a three-day “train the trainers” workshop in Kuala Lumpur.  As part of the workshop, we held a two-hour introduction to “The Journalist as Entrepreneur”, a primer for building a personal revenue stream from the output of the citizen journalist.

Several examples of successful citizen journalist bloggers exist.  Focused commentators on some topic that have grown their blogs into complete media operations.  Talking Points Memo, Paid ContentTechCrunch all grew from the focus of their founders and a little blogging software.  If you want a reminder for where these sites started spend a little time on the WayBack Machine.

[More on my Knight Fellow Blog at]


Overview of the Marketing and Product Development Process

This morning I conducted my first training with 11 members of the business team here.  We spent three hours discussing the general outlines of marketing and product development.  There was genuine interest and some very helpful comments.  Especially around expanding the presentation to be closer to 4 hours on the details and then to break the training with more team exercises on both marketing and product development.  So,
moving on to develop some team exercises for the presentation.  Any ideas?

There was also need for more on product management and the pipeline management process, as well as the need for something on strategy and technology management.  So, in addition to marketing and the product development overview, we may also add training on these aspects of marketing, product development and product management.

We will building this training out into more modules with more exercises in the next few months as well as applying the process to specific case studies of products in development here in KL.

Feedback and comments are welcome and encouraged.

Comments can be found at the Knight Fellow Blog or on

Presentation on Slideshare

Southeast Asian Media Legal Defense Network Launches in Kuala Lumpur

Media controls are a complicated business.  We are all aware of the overt control exerted over the media in markets where the media is owned or “affiliated” with the government or where access to the Internet is filtered through a firewall.  But, in markets across Asia less overt but equally effective techniques are used to keep the media under control or out of the picture. These techniques often take the form of legal or administrative barriers to operations.

Just in the last month, one book has been banned from publication, a book of editorial cartoons, and several print publications have had their publishing license challenged. In a media environment where media business models are already fragile, independent media operators can be crushed by the high costs of defending themselves against these media challenges.

[more] redirect to Knight Fellow Blog

OpenWebAsia – Business Models in Southeast Asia

Looking for more background on developing sustainable business models for the independent online media in the region, I attended the OpenWebAsia conference that was held in Kuala Lumpur this past week.  This is a semi-regular event last held in Seoul in 2008.  This year’s event was sponsored by the Multimedia Development Corporation
MDeC a branch of the Malaysian government responsible for the promotion of a multimedia industry in Malaysia.  The conference was attended by a mix of entrepreneurs, venture capital and finance types as well as business executives from major international and regional online and mobile leaders like Yahoo!, Google, Amazon, Jobstreet, …

My first time at this conference, but attendees who attended in the past remarked that attendance and the overall mood was definitely up from past years. The regular drumbeat of positive online news definitely contributed to the mood.  In the past six months, major online media deals announced include:

In this list of deals and ventures you begin to see some of the key themes of the conference:

  • ecommerce/Online Payments
  • VentureFunding and Localization
  • Social Media

    In addition, there was one notable omission, advertising which was almost completely absent from the two-day’s discussion. See last week’s post about the value and size of the regional online advertising market.

    The conversation around ecommerce generally broke into two related tracks – the online sales of physical goods and payments for consuming online content (mostly games).
    Many Malaysian, Singaporean and Indonesian entrepreneurs are looking to ecommerce (online sales) to create profitable online businesses where advertising has been unable to drive sufficient revenue.  Currently, in the Malaysian market there are a handful of major
    players in the ecommerce, storefront space – most notably eBay Malaysia, and (a joint venture between Singapore Press Holdings – SPH – and Norwegian media giant Schibsted ASA).  But as a whole the space is still small and underdeveloped.  On the conference room floor one of the most frequently mentioned obstacles to growth was online payments.  Online payments has traditionally required a credit card, but at this stage of development most Malaysians felt uncomfortable revealing this information online.  A few of the Indonesian attendees voiced similar sentiments.  If North America and Europe are any indication, this obstacle will fall as soon as there is something online that people want badly enough to push them over this barrier.    A second obstacle and a more surprising one was fulfillment.  Many of the ecommerce entrepreneurs said that unreliable local courier services and very high-priced
    international services made the cost of local Shipping & Handling (S&H) prohibitive.

    The second area and one that should present some interesting opportunities for content producers is micropayments for online or mobile content.  The infrastructure for this has been developed in Malaysia to allow consumers to pay for online gaming.  It generally involves something like a “top up” process where consumers register for an account.  They may actually get a card to help them remember the account details and in some cases to create opportunities for offline micropayments as well.  They then use the card as a debit card when they want to purchase something online.  The account is then debited and access to the product is granted.  Since the product access is immediate and payments are small, the assumption is that the amount of bad debt from unfulfilled product is kept to a minimum.

    New venture funding/venture creation also received a lot of attention in the panels as well as on the conference room floor.   Independent VC funding appeared to face several regional obstacles including the lack of sufficient scale to drive exit valuations either from IPO or acquisition.  The creation of joint ventures between established global players and local Internet companies to localize platforms clearly has some traction with Facebook, eBay’s Paypal and Rakuten announcing deals in the last year.   But as a whole the ability for any local start-up to gain enough scale to drive valuations made the investment or joint ventures a challenge.  There is clearly an opportunity to create some type of localization service for regional internet start-ups to help drive scale across the region. As one representative from Yahoo! commented that is nothing else any start-up site should have an English execution to make it at least accessible by some consumers around the region.

    Finally, in the area of social media, one of the most impressive series of presentations during the conference was from the emerging open data movement in Malaysia.  Referencing the efforts of Tim Berners Lee to develop a web of open and transparent data, the organizers of the effort highlighted trial efforts like
    and as the beginnings of databases that would be developed from community contributions in lieu of access to government databases that are currently restricted.

    Malaysia Crime - Citizen Sourced Data

    It would be hard not to come away impressed with the sophistication in the room as well as an appreciation of the challenges that exist to build sufficient scale to drive business models in the region.

    For a look at the twitter sidebar conversation during the two-day conference, you can find follow the back and forth at #owasea.

    More to come.

    Southeast Asia and Malaysia Media Basics

    When you work with a media company, especially when you are outside of your home market, you have to start with some very basic grounding in the market. What works today? What doesn’t? What are your hypotheses for why the market has reached this particular point in its evolution? Without doing this you run the risk of assuming everything works the way it does in Silicon Valley. Every market has its own unique fundamentals. Without at least developing a bit of a primer on these fundamentals, a consultant runs the risk of developing plans, strategies and training that is politely acknowledged and then equally politely ignored.

    So, here is a short primer using publicly available sources to describe the infrastructure and advertising support for media, especially online media, in Southeast Asia. My first step in understanding where there are business model opportunities for MalaysiaKini. [More]

    Bon Voyage – Selamat Jalan – 一路顺风

    Six media professionals – three print, two video, one business – have tried to absorb over a week’s worth of training, counsel and advice before embarking for five very different efforts to expand the quality and the sustainability of journalism.  We are each Knight International Journalism Fellows, a program developed and managed by the International Committee for Journalists, through grants from Knight Foundation and the Gates Foundation.

    Now we are each off to our respective destinations – Peru, Haiti, Egypt/Jordan/Palestine, Sierra Leone, Malawi.  As for me, I am off to Malaysia where I will work with the team at, the largest online news source in Malaysia and one of the largest online content providers in Southeast Asia.  [More]

    Catching Up

    It has been many many months since I have blogged regularly about anything. As always, life has a way of presenting you different riddles and puzzles.

    I have been working on a Gordian puzzle for many years now and think I may just be able to unravel enough of the problem to see the overall pattern.

    So, I have decided to start blogging again.  I won’t make any commitments to the frequency.  But I would like it to be a regular post about all of those things that I love – yoga, media, language, literature, … people, and of course food.

    As part of unraveling a personal puzzle, I applied for the International Center for Journalist‘s Knight International Journalism Fellowship and thanks to a group of stalwart and supportive friends, ICFJ has asked me to be one of the six fellows they will send into the world to support the development of independent journalism.

    I will work with the team at the largest online news organization in Malaysia to develop sustainable business models for citizen participation in the news gathering, editing, verification and writing process.  The Fellowship allows me to add the Islands (Nusantara, as they say in Malay) and at least some of the Muslim conversation to my focus.  More on the global conversation in a later post.

    After many years of experimenting with and using “social media”, I have added a couple of self-published items to my circle online.  You can expect to see the following:

    Exchanging Hats (general life, work, love, food, language)

    Roadside Attractions (life clippings and my general record of what I am writing)

    Knight International Journalism Fellows Blog (postings that are directly related to my work with ICFJ and Knight.  I will set these up to repost a summary with a link to the Exchanging Hats and Roadside Attractions.

    Look forward to hearing your thoughts comments and suggestions.

    You can find me at all the usual places elsewhere online (Facebook, Twitter – @rsettles) a full list is included on my about page.

    Newspapers and Content Models

    Over the last several weeks I have watched the reporting and discussion about the crisis facing the newspaper industry in the US.  There has been some good reasoned reporting and analysis.  In my opinion, Clay Shirky’s post on the newspaper industry represents one of the best.

    In much of the writing there is an undercurrent of surprise at the suddenness of the decline.  But, I think if you ask people close to some of these companies, you will find that what’s happened has been talked about for years.  Even the speed at which the product might unravel was acknowledged, if not acted upon by the people who made decisions.

    I think we knew that classified advertising was eventually going to be gone and that we had  increased our investment in news and circulation on the back of profits from a classified business that quickly had little use for the circulation investment.  I still remember when it became clear that CareerBuilder could do almost as well in a non-affiliate newspaper market with its own telesales teams as in a local newspaper affiliated market.

    I think we knew that we were trying to sell consumers newspapers that were mostly packaging and wire service to keep margins and circulation up and ultimately speeding the decline of the circulation we were trying to maintain.

    I think we knew we needed focused surgery, but couldn’t take a knife to the areas that needed to be amputated in order to save the core.

    If you are a newspaper today and trying to focus, one area you need to examine is the impact the internet has had on how we gather and create value for different types of content.

    • Reviews:  The internet has made word of mouth its own form of reporting that increasingly drives user purchase behavior and advertiser dollars.  Yelp and Zvents and the handful of social review sites have made reviews a marketing game of most friends and most reviews.
    • Opinion: Low-cost frequent punditry has made everyone the head of their own editorial page.
    • Reporting: Getting all the facts and just the facts of a particular occurrence.  Breaking a story and getting it mostly right.  The internet has changed the news cycle and the degree of precision that is required to break a story.  Newspapermen may not approve, but the audience does.
    • Investigative reporting:  I haven’t seen this model yet online.  It is a complex process.  In many ways it is like creating a movie or a video game.  The more value in the story – the deeper the investigation, the more roles and people who are required to make it happen.  There are people trying to make this work – ProPublica and a few others.   This will eventually get figured out, probably by someone who doesn’t have an immediate profit motive.  NPR, the BBC, perhaps a university project like Global Voices.

    I am not even going to comment on the comics and all of the other things that we wasted so much time in the past discussing  TV Grid in the paper or not, comics in the paper, horoscopes, … They all exist online in better formats.  Be dispassionate about it.  If it doesn’t contribute to what you want to focus on, don’t waste time discussing it.  Just let it go.

    So, what does that mean if you are trying to focus.  Some of it will be driven by scale.

    If you are in a small market, you may want to have investigative pieces and a weekend features section, … But given the size of the market, you will probably need to focus on creating a community that gets the story in and creates a reliable volume of reviews for things happening in town.  You may employ a couple of stringers to make sure this happens regularly, but that may be all the market will support in terms of revenue or engagement.  Remember that not every citizen cares about every issue enough to run out to report on it or even read them when they are reported on.

    If you are a large brand or national paper, you may have the revenue depth to compete to in all categories of content, though having a clear idea of which category represents the core of your brand and drives your most loyal consumers will be critical.  So, if you are the Washington Post are you investigation, news and reporting from the American capital?  And everything else is secondary color.  If  you are the New York Times, what are you?  Reporting from the style capital of America are you features driven?   Are you international news and reporting a la the BBC?  The challenge for them all is how to focus, you can’t continue to chip away at the news operation without a guidebook for what you want it to look like when you are done.

    If you are major regional paper like the Chicago Tribune or the Boston Globe, which way do you go?  If the national papers are staking out positions in large-scale content activities and if the barrier to compete in the local reporting and reviews space is pretty low.  What do you do?  Look for economies in the technology platform, move quicker and faster than the new entrants to develop new online features?  Invest in quality of reporting and reviews? Maybe the answer is you have to break yourself up.  Be small and aggregate up to your region?  Is there enough revenue in the market to maintain a group of reporters to report on the city?

    The other exercise that newspapers need to do is a clear understanding of revenue at risk?  Category by category of newspaper advertising needs to be examined to identify is there a dominant online advertising model for those advertisers – e.g. online job listing; what percent of the advertising is held by the newspaper, is the newspaper advertising share relatively stable?  Why?  Is there some braking inertia in the category?  Look at department stores. These stores still don’t have a good online ad unit to drive online audience to take an offline behavior.  Newspapers are often built-in to merchant coop arrangements guaranteeing some newspaper advertising presence.  So, if a good ROI driven online ad unit emerges and the marketers change the coop rules, then poof.  2 years, 3 years max.

    Sorry, just some rambling on a Sunday afternoon.  I should spend a little more time trying to organize some of this.  There may actually be a unique thought mixed in here or there.

    We knew then what would happen.  We probably know now what we need to do.  It is just very painful, but it is doable.  If the newspapers that are left are honest about what they see in the future and the implications for decisions in the present, then they need to get on with it. Articulate the future, give the employees that are going to be effected a heads-up and get on with it.

    The Second World – Parag Khanna

    I bought The Second World thinking that it would be heavily academic.  But that is thankfully not what I got.  The Second World is the companion volume to a couple of other “pop” – meaning broadly accessible, but not trivial – non-fiction books: Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat , Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth.  All three try to describe the planet we will inhabit in the next 50 years.  Like in Friedman and Gore, Khanna traces a couple of simple and clearly visible lines that describe the future.  Khanna has just articulated the obvious in a way that Americans can’t ignore.

    First, the world will be increasingly multipolar.  There will be three quasi-imperial powers – the US, Europe, and China.  It seems an obvious statement when you visit Southeast Asia or Eastern Europe, but most Americans don’t  travel, nor do they have much interest in international news.  The implication for America is clearly we will need to understand how to operate in a world where we do not set the agenda.  Frankly, agendas will no longer be dictated from on high.

    Second, there is a message that is shared with the other two books, though may be not as explicitly called out as the first one.  Free trade, globalization, and privatization of nationalized economies have unleashed a huge reservoir of human potential, resulting in the development of the two largest cultures on the planet – China and India.  The implications are greater demands on the world’s resources, greater competition and the need for greater long-term investment in developing human capital and the physical infrastructure required to for human success.

    Third, that the goal of development is first livelihood – food to eat, a home to live in, the ability to travel in safety; and then the more abstract concepts of personal freedom.  Electoral democracy (often called “freedom”) the concept that American foreign policy has flogged for the last decades, is really an American conception that is relevant to the Western context; but it has limited roots in Asia or the Middle East or Africa.  When we laud the countries in those regions for their democratic institutions, it is generally a simple-minded complement, referring to presence of elections that resemble the American system, though usually grafted on to a much more complex civic tradition.  As Khanna points out, America has unfortunately equated our foreign policy with the presence of electoral democracy but not its goals.

    Democracy can create a dynamic link between ruled and rulers to ensure that the top reflects the bottom. Are there other methods for making sure that a government reflects the will of its people?  There well may be.  Will they allow as much personal freedom as we have come to expect in the US?  That remains to be seen.

    In addition to providing a vivid, sometimes almost melodramatic, description of the coming geopolitical competition, The Second World tries to highlight for Americans the challenges that lay in front of us as the world becomes increasingly multipolar and increasingly developed.  In foreign policy, there will be more players with different opinions and different approaches.  In economics, there will be more competition and resources will be scarcer.

    Probably my biggest disappointment in the current presidential race is none of the candidates talk honestly about the implications of the increasingly developed, global, multipolar world.  Can Americans continue to live further and further beyond our means?  What does that mean for traditional interpretation of the American Dream?  Can we continue to inflict a set of institutions on other countries because they have worked in different ways and for different reasons in the past in our own country?  I think the answer to both is no.  But who among our leaders and potential leaders is prepared to talk about the implications of NO.

    “Americans have shown a fear of the future, one that may only accelerate its arrival,” Khanna writes in his concluding chapter.  America has changed dramatically to adapt to changing environments, but do we have the will and the leadership to do so again. Or will we go through a wrenching re-assessment that will leave the whole planet poorer for it.

    We must be less bitter – yes Obama used the right term – Americans look at the golden days and they regret, they are bitter for the coming changes. Bitterness leads to fear.  Fear to reaction.  Think globally.  We can’t begrudge the Chinese or Indians their development.  Or would we rather feel sorry for and superior to them because of their quaint, backward ways.  We should embrace their development for the potential it helps to realize.

    有朋自远方来, 不亦乐乎?

    A little Confucius to signal my return to blogging.

    As the Sage says,”When a friend comes from far away,  would a “gentleman” not be  happy? ”  In this day of internet and email, friends get swept away in both time and distance.  But I am happy to say that in the last 24 hours, I have found two long-lost friends from China in my email inbox.

    One my Fudan University roommate, Wang G., who I corresponded with through business school.  But then in one move or another I lost touch with.  So, out of the blue, I get an email from now Professor Wang who is teaching Chinese language and literature at a university in the southeast of the US.  Running around all day today, and a little apprehensive.  What do you say after 15 years?

    The second a friend from my days in Chicago.  Craig W. was a grad student at the U of C in something suitably U of C esoteric (for those from California, U of C here is in Hyde Park, not Berkeley).  But one of the most genuinely “gentlemanly” individuals I have ever known.  Hence the leap to the Analects.  Craig shows up in my inbox through another old friend who I have neglected but knew how to find me.  So, on my email I get this mobile photo of my friends in a restaurant in Beijing where they were playing the game – “Do you know…??

    What does it mean?  I have always been a secret believer in signs and augurs.  If truth be told I buy Vanity Fair every month, not for the stories, not for the photos, but for the horoscope.

    Not sure of the significance, but it is always gratifying that you have left good feelings among people you loved and respected along the way.  So much so that they remember you fondly enough to not dismiss you 10 or 15 years later.  As  for bigger signs, well I definitely feel the draw of  Asia swelling again.  And maybe finding these threads from China converging is not just happenstance.  We’ll see!