3 East Asian media companies bring the business of news to their newsrooms

By Chandler Wieberg


Austin, Texas, United States


By Sarah Schmidt


Brooklyn, New York, United States


News media companies transitioning to moving their revenue base to digital subscriptions are doing so by bringing the newsroom along.

At the INMA Asia/Pacific News Media Summit last week,  INMA Newsroom Initiative Lead Peter Bale discussed how media companies are helping editorial team members become more involved in the business of news. Bale also shared his thoughts after leading the initiative for six months.

“Content is what really matters,”  he said during the summit, sponsored by Google News InitiativeNotixPiano, and Protecmedia.

Key learnings about how to do that are:

  • Put original content at the core of the business.
  • Help editors to do work less and more effectively.
  • Create high-value journalism that is trusted.
  • Help journalists be responsive to readers through metrics.
  • Get journalists a place at the table where business strategies are made.

Some of the challenges moving forward, Bale said, involve getting a good sense of how journalism can learn from other industries (like software) to be more agile, how metrics can be used in simple and effective ways, and inspiring editorial teams to truly understand the business of journalism.

Executives from South China Morning Post, Malaysiakini, and Dong-A Ilbo shared how they are doing things at their companies:

South China Morning Post: What is the business side of news?

Shea Driscoll, digital editor of the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong, spoke about the integration of the business and editorial side from his perspective as a long-time journalist.  

“I’ve been a journalist my whole career, but as digital editor, I am often the go-between between editorial and business teams,” Driscoll said. At SCMP, the business side is comprised of four sections that all collaborate with each other and with editorial.

Shae Driscoll, digital editor of the South China Morning Post, shares SCMP's definition of the business side of news.
Shae Driscoll, digital editor of the South China Morning Post, shares SCMP's definition of the business side of news.

  1. Audience growth: This team looks for ways to reach more readers. This involves using strategies like improved SEO and also coming up with new ideas for reaching the audience. They’re also the driving force behind subscriptions. 

  2. Data: The data team doesn’t just use analytics, they also want to increase the democratisation of data. “Everyone in the company should be able to access data they want,” Driscoll said. 

  3. Product and technology: With a focus on user experience, the product and technology team creates tools to help editorial processes, improves reader-facing products, and iincreases engagement and time-on-page.

  4. Strategy and special projects: This team has the freedom to step outside the usual editorial purview and do things like look at case studies and competitor analysis. 

It’s important that these teams not work in silos, Driscoll said. Instead, they collaborate to work in different squads: for example, one on increasing revenue, one on increasing reach, or increasing engagement. 

In his role linking the editorial and business side, Driscoll has learned some important lessons he shared with attendees:

• Keep an open mind: The South China Morning Post is 118 years old, so there is a lot of tradition in the organisation. This can be a good thing, but it can also make it difficult to introduce change. It’s important to stay open to innovation, though. 

In one example, SCMP’s Web site actually asks readers what’s important to them by using questionnaires and surveys (a “What Can We Do Differently?” survey). And at one point, the organisation heard they were not covering K-pop well enough, an idea that met with some resistance. But the content team decided to hire a K-pop reporter who really knew what she was talking about and set her loose. The move really paid off in developing the brand, Driscoll said. The reporter has built a real audience and helped SCMP serve its readers and develop a competitive edge.

• Cooperation is a two-way street: Interdepartment discussions can be ineffective if one party feels ignored, Driscoll said. One key thing to remember is to consider how much work an idea will involve for colleagues. 

Driscoll shared the example of a microsite SCMP developed for the 25th anniversary of the transfer of Hong Kong from British to Chinese rule. It was truly a collaboration between teams, but only because each team had a good understanding of how much work was involved for others. 

• Don’t lose sight of why you do this: Journalists can be instinctual and do things by feel, Driscoll said. This involves a series of very small decisions being made every day, which can sometimes cause people to lose sight of what they really want to do. 

“Don’t be led astray,” he said. The mission of SCMPis to lead the global conversation about China and cover the fast-changing country for the world using editorial values of accuracy and fairness. These can’t be compromised, he said: “That had to be our North Star.”

Malaysiakini: A data-informed and data-driven newsroom

Esharen Manoharen, head of the product management and development department, for Malaysiakini, a digital-only news site in Malaysia, talked about how his company created a process for putting data to use in the newsroom and developed a collaborative culture around it.

The 24-year-old news site publishes in four different languages: English, Chinese, Bahasa Melaya and Tamil. The English and Chinese versions are subscription-based while the Bahasa Melaya and Tamil versions are free. So the company has a blended revenue model with 50% coming from subscription and 50% coming from ads. 

Next Esharen Manoharen, head of the product management and development department at Malaysiakini, explains the audience language breakdown that informs advertising and content strategies.
Next Esharen Manoharen, head of the product management and development department at Malaysiakini, explains the audience language breakdown that informs advertising and content strategies.

“We were slightly behind in being data-driven in terms of culture,” Manoharen said. 

On the business side, they were looking for ways to democratise data and get it into the newsroom. One challenge was that the standard Google Analytics package was too complex and focussed on more general Web analytics for it to seem useful to journalists. So using feedback from the editorial team, the company developed a new software called Newsmetrics to display relevant data in a simpler way for the newsroom. 

It’s been really well received.  

“One of the things we noticed was that journalists would start to speak about the performance of their stories,” Manoharan said. 

They also discovered interesting trends, for example, that their audiences for the different language editions had different preferences: The English audience seemed to prefer columnists and world news, while Bahasa Melayu preferred sports and entertainment. The editorial team is now more regularly involved in using data to understand how their work is landing with readers and engaging different audiences.

In 2018, as Malaysiakini was preparing to cover the country’s 14th general election, an event of great national importance, the company decided to improve its subscription models and built another piece of software called Newslight that allowed more capabilities around subscriptions. 

“We started with low-hanging fruits,” Manoharen said. They improved the onboarding e-mail and daily newsletter, and created faster checkout and a better paywall. Then they took the data and channeled it to the newsroom. 

“We found out a few things,” Manoharen said. Stories with the most pageviews weren’t necessarily the best at converting readers to subscribers; well-researched, long-form explainers were better at that. Plus, those same kinds of stories were more popular with existing subscribers. The data team took that information to the newsroom and told them that these kinds of stories would help convert readers to subscribers. Since then, they’ve incorporated more of this data into the dashboard for the newsroom so editors and writers can easily see how subscribers engage with their stories. 

It’s important to note the business side cannot interfere with editorial decisions, but just give them the information they need to see how audiences react, Manoharen said. They are now able to use this information to take news stories with good traffic and revise them to be longer, explainer stories which can attract more subscribers. There are now more special reports, and the company started Kini Newslab, a data and visual storytelling platform, which subscribers love. 

Moving forward, Malaysiakini will be creating more products around what delivers great value to subscribers, Manoharen said. 

Dong-A Ilbo: Journalist task force tries to bring readers to Web site 

There is a unique media landscape in South Korea, with a majority of readers finding news through search engines rather than directly through media Web sites or platforms. Dong-A Ilbo created a task force of journalists to create long-term sustainability in this competitive market.

“A big part of digital revenue comes from search engines. It is undeniable that we are partially relying on our revenue from search engines,” said Saemmool Lee, head of digital innovation.

Saemmool Lee, head of digital innovation at Dong-A Ilbo, explains how the media company tries to compete with search engines for traffic.
Saemmool Lee, head of digital innovation at Dong-A Ilbo, explains how the media company tries to compete with search engines for traffic.

When Dong-A Ilbo started thinking about long-term sustainability, the team thought about some questions about readers:

Where do audiences consume the news?

The team found almost all of its readers in South Korea and worldwide consume the news inside of search engines and news aggregation apps, and only a very small amount consume the news through Dong-A Ilbo’s Web site and app.

What kind of news are they interested in?

Lee mentioned information found from an article about stories with high pageviews in Naver, a top search engine in South Korea. Most of the articles with high pageviews were topics on celebrity issues, worldwide gossip, or breaking news updates. 

“We thought the readers in our own platform would be different, but it’s pretty similar,” she said.

Her team thought of other metrics that could be used to find more in-depth answers to this question, such as scroll depth, engagement times, and the number of visitors, but they found the results to be similar:“Everybody talks about quality journalism. They say they want quality journalism, but a lot of times it is not what readers actually consume. Our readers click and actively consume and have high interest in the opposite of what they say sometimes.”

An internal report at Dong-A Ilbo said the company would need to invest 20%-30% of its newsroom workforce to produce ‘hero content’, which became a project within the newsroom a couple of years ago. 

“We started small to test what we can do in this environment. We formed the team called the ‘hero content team’ and gave them unlimited time, unlimited formats, and priority support to strengthen quality journalism,” Lee said. 

The reporters were selected from the newsroom with different work experiences.

The hero content team works on one or two big projects and when they are finished, the editor-in-chief launches a new team with new reporters. “This gives every reporter a chance to practise quality journalism really deeply and with enough time,” she said. “When the project is over, those journalists go back to their previous position and spread innovation within their team mates.”

This task force is aimed to pursue the highest standard of journalism. But can this only be pursued in this unique environment of unlimited time with priority support? Is this sustainable in the long term?

The answer is yes, Lee said. After two years of launching the task force, on average more than 100,000 audiences visited Dong-A Ilbo stories, which is equivalent to or even sometimes more visitors compared to the search engines. 

“We proved that if we provide unique distinctive value, then they might come to us directly,” Lee said. 

With this task force, the average consumption of a story is now four to five minutes, which is very high — four to five times higher than search engines: “We see that our readers actively shared our stories when we have stories that they saw differently than in the search engines.”

This also positively aeffected the newsroom: 15% to 20% of the newsroom has experienced the task force so far. For each task force, it took four to five months to complete a reporting project. 

“They spent enough time to think, discuss, report and produce the stories,” Lee said.

“We have realised that when we provide value, the readers, the media outlets, and colleagues realise the value we provided and what was different.”

Complete coverage of the two-day summit can be found here.

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