James Craven believes that instructive blogging should be paid. That was part of his inspiration behind leaving a job as CEO of a successful B2B media company and launching Asian Correspondent, a news site intended to report and aggregate news and information from the continent.
“I think that the blogosphere is one of the most important things to happen in media in the last thirty years. And I think it’s a real game changer. That said, the biggest problem with it is that it is quite difficult to navigate and find content. There’s enormous opportunity in working hard to find like-minded writers that have synergy, and to create channels that allow readers to find the sort of information they’re looking for globally,” he says.
To achieve this, Craven and his team hand picked thirty-five bloggers spanning thirteen different Asian countries after a careful survey of the region’s blogosphere, based on quality of reporting, relevance and popularity.
Craven admits that while he has the utmost respect for sites like the Huffington Post, which have been able to generate so much influence and traffic in less time than it took the New York Times, he does not agree with the idea of paying little or no monetary rewards to writers who contribute time and effort, not to mention page views and unique visitors to such sites. “It’s highway robbery!” he says.
So, it may come as a surprise that Asian Correspondent, the first such undertaking for Craven’s Hybrid News Limited, is being hailed as a HuffPo for Asia. However, the motivations are somewhat similar. Craven hopes to capitalize on the inarguable talent that lies in the blogosphere, and also tap into the mobilizing power of the Internet that is so exclusive to blogs and citizen media.
“It struck me that recent events such as the Obama election, the UK PM scandal and the Afghan elections were huge media moments, driven by citizen reports,” says Craven. “It also struck me that some of the audiences individual bloggers were building completely blew away anything that could be done cost effectively in print.”
That doesn’t mean the site will merely harbor a collection of views and opinions from people around Asia. Bloggers, who are paid a set monthly fee, will provide commentary, opinion and fact-based reporting.
Sometimes, bloggers are in a better position to cover a story than traditional journalists, says Craven. This is especially true with declining revenues that are unable to sustain foreign bureaus and international correspondents in western countries such as the US and UK.
Craven cites the example of the Philippines-based blogger who covered the recent devastating floods in the region for Asian Correspondent. “In the case of Paul Farol in Manila, a couple weeks ago, when the floods lapped his door, he was in the perfect position in terms of content, photography and video to cover that story.” In addition, there are advantages to being a native in narrating such an experience. The mainstream media is often unable to empathize with locals, or see a story in the same way as residents.
But do readers in other countries want to read that story about floods happening thousands of miles away? Craven believes that there is an appetite for these subjects; the key is targeting the right people. Seeding such articles with groups that would be interested, such as, say, the Filipino American Chamber of Commerce, would increase impact and interest.
“We’re interested in digital PR and traditional marketing, which would introduce [such] stories as they break to the large Filipino community in America and obviously target the Philippines as well.”
The same is true of advertising, according to Craven. Context-based ads are the answer for revenue generation. Advertisers such as Exxon Mobil and BMW don’t believe that aligning their message with gossip news will help them sell their products. “If you can create that context and advertisers can see that their buyers are reading your paper, then it’s not just about millions of hits. It’s about the right hits and that’s what we’re doing with Asian Correspondent.” The site is already approaching advertising agencies to purchase media campaigns that go directly to readers, and has a couple of partnerships.
Craven is confident that there is money to be made online with stories that don’t necessarily involve Britney Spears. No conversation about journalism is complete, of course, without invoking Spears, or the kind of reporting she represents: universally rejected by the mainstream media, and yet, attractive in its ability to generate traffic, page views, and hence, revenue.
Craven worries that many news sites that start out with high ambitions of delivering quality news content often degenerate into celebrity gossip portals. Asian Correspondent does not plan to go that route, he insists. “It doesn’t have to be the most popular or most commercial story or angle to still be a real business. I think we have to make sure that our business looks for opportunities to report on stories that aren’t being covered by anybody else.”
With a home page that showcases stories as wide-ranging as a standoff between Tasmanian timber workers and environmentalists, the banning of fake Twitter accounts in India, and the Afghan elections, that is exactly what the site is trying to do. News reports from bloggers are supplemented with AP news wire from the region. Citizen journalists are also encouraged to post their stories, and there is plenty of room for multimedia reporting and citizen videos.
Editors are based in Chang Mai, Hyderabad and Brisbane, and the site attracted over 140,000 unique visitors within the first six days of launching its beta version. If the model is successful, there is a plan to expand to other countries and continents.
“I call the company hybrid because I feel that my business model is a combination of all the fantastic elements of investigative journalism and foreign correspondence, but also through model delivery platforms.”
The past few years have seen a slew of news sites aimed at deploying citizen journalists and bloggers to fill a newshole in international reporting. How successful any such site will be depends on quality content and a viable business model.
Asian Correspondent seems to have the right ideas. If it can attract the right audience and advertisers, it could be well on its way to being a comprehensive source for Asian news.