[Editor’s Note: Alan Soon is the CEO and co-founder of innovative media group Splice Newsroom. Based in Singapore, Splice describes itself as the “Nieman Lab of Asia (without the funding!)” It recently partnered with Civic on a project to provides $1 million in grants and seed money to 100 media startups in Asia over the next three years. Soon sat down with VOA’s Khan Sokummono in October on the sidelines of the Uncovering Asia investigative journalism conference in Seoul, South Korea, to discuss the media startup scene in Asia.]
VOA: Please introduce us to Splice100? What should Cambodians who are interestedin media startups know about this grant?
Soon: Splice 100 is our crazy plan to try to catalyze the change that we want to see in media, within this region [Southeast Asia], it needs a bit of a shake up in the way media is run. The way that content is created, the way media startups should work. We feel that this is an opportunity for us to help catalyze and push, hopefully, 100 media startup across Asia in the next three years. We are always surprised at the fact that in this region, we have such a great region in terms of diversity, in terms of wealth, in terms of resources,but we don’t see many media startups in Asia, and this is always something that bothers me. So we are starting a $1 million fund with several media outlets to basically do this, to try to push and help create a new media startup in this place, by basically providing a prototype fund so that entrepreneurs from newsrooms can take the opportunity to go and build something new.
VOA: How do you view the media startup ecosystem in Southeast Asia and in Cambodia?
Soon: I think in the case of Cambodia I don’t know enough about the media startup space. But across the region, a lot of examples that we have seen from media startups are very American. We hear about the American example of what are the interesting things that have been done there. On the digital side, we have seen from Western Europe what is the interesting work that has been done. But in Asia you know, it is very hard to name more than say five interesting media startups. And we feel that there is an opportunity, because this region has a lot of young people, where more and more people are getting online for the first time in their lives.
VOA: From your entrepreneurial perspective, given that now the Cambodia media space isn’t fully free and the space for freedom of expression is still limited, how do you see the potential of media startup projects in Cambodia?
Soon: We are taking a broader view of this space because we think that, as a journalist, when we use the word news, we only mean one very specific thing. But we also realize that the digital community and the digital users, their use of the Internet and their use of mobile phones goes beyond just news. In fact, if you would ask regular people or anyone on the street, how many news articles that they read in a day, they will probably tell you that they read not many, maybe one or maybe two, and yet we seem to believe that it is the only way to reach them. There are other ways of telling stories that are not hard news and it is not always about politics; for example, if you ask students about what they really care about, they would say they care about school fees, costs of living, transportation, how they get to school, how they get to school safely, and future jobs, for example. All of these are actually political issues, but we never want to talk to them about those in political terms. So, I think it is important that you should have a niche community that cares about specific things, and then delivering that message to them.
VOA: The Uncovering Asia conference has emphasized the loss of “public trust” in the media, as a result of the “fake news” narrative. Do you consider these things when looking at funding new media?
Soon: I think that a lot of this stuff has come out because of what has been going on in the U.S. We only started hearing about it in 2016, you know, with the election of Trump. And that’s when media suddenly woke up and said that: “oh, people voted for Trump because they do not trust what the media was saying, right?” That’s how the whole conversation got started, and I don’t think that is a useful way of looking at Asia or media in general. I think the question is not about trust, I think the question is about relevance. If you look at how people use their phone every day and the places that people spend their time, it is not in a news app. They spend their time on Facebook, they spend their time on messenger, and they spend their time on WhatsApp, they spend their time on YouTube, right? So it’s not about trust, but it is whether we are interesting enough, or useful enough, or relevant enough, as an industry, so that people take their time to look at us.
VOA: In Cambodia, about two thirds of the population are young people. Do you have any words of advice for young people interested in launching a media startup?
Soon: Sure! I think it is important to start with the community. Understand the community that you care about. Maybe it is about students, maybe it is about education, or maybe it is about healthcare. Take something that you care a lot about, and you understand what the community needs. Like the example we were talking about earlier, about students, what do students need? Students need to know about their job opportunities after they graduate. They need to know that they can afford to go to school, or find better ways to get to school. All of these things are important issues, and yet we don’t think of them as news, and we should. The most important thing for an entrepreneur is to understand what the community needs, understand what problem currently exists and find ways to solve them.
VOA: Do you think the old media or traditional media is dying in Cambodia?
Soon: Yeah, I think the problem is that old media is taking a very long time to turn around. Old media is stuck in its ways because of its cost. You have a studio that you need to run, you have satellite facilities that you need to adopt, you need a printing press that you need pay for, you have delivery trucks, you know you have all these costs that prevent you from finding new ways of reaching audiences. If people are spending more time on Youtube, then shouldn’t we all be creating content just for that audiences? If people are spending more time on Facebook, then what can we do on Facebook to make sure we are engaging with the audiences? I think that’s the stuff that is missing very often because if you’ve done all the stuff for years and years and decades, and you have always been putting out a newspaper everyday or TV shows everyday, it’s very hard for you to imagine what are the other alternatives are.
VOA: Do you mean new journalism startups need tech-savvy people?
Soon: Absolutely! When you look at younger people these days, those who were born directly into the digital space, they have no kind of hang up about: “Oh! I need to buy a newspaper to understand the news, I need to watch the news telecast at 7 P.M. to understand what i s going on in the world”. You know those thing may not exist. That is for older people like me, that was the world I was in, and I came from TV and radio, and newswires, so that’s my old world. The people who are born into this new digital space, they have different view of what news and information is. You look at young kids, if they are just two years old, they know how to unlock an iPad, they know how to open Youtube, and watch the cartoon that they want to watch. This is a different world and we need to understand what it is like.