Telum Talks To…Jon Russell, Southeast Asia Editor, The Ken Southeast Asia (Thailand)

Telum Talks To…Jon Russell, Southeast Asia Editor, The Ken Southeast Asia (Thailand)

Could you introduce yourself and tell us a little about your current role?
I’m Southeast Asia Editor at The Ken Southeast Asia. We’re a four-year-old subscription media company that publishes business stories. We’re headquartered in India, but we launched our Southeast Asia subscription in March 2020.

Today, our Southeast Asia team consists of seven reporters across Singapore, Malaysia, the Philippines, Indonesia and Thailand. I'm our Thailand representative. I live in Bangkok and having first moved to the country in 2008.

In my role, I work with our India-based desk team to edit our work and I write stories of my own, too. Before The Ken, I spent a decade working for global tech media outlets including TechCrunch, which is headquartered in the US and owned by telecom firm Verizon.

Can you tell us more about The Ken and how it works?
We take a different approach to media. Rather than chronicling every piece of news as it happens, we publish one story each day. We make our story authoritative and insightful so that it’s the definitive read on the subject.

That unique publishing schedule gives reporters significant time to develop stories, allowing them to talk to dozens of people per story and really get into analysis and detail.

We cover companies, industries, trends, interviews and more. Our business journalism varies from the impact of Gojek’s rumoured merger with Grab; to the digital banking race in Singapore; why Thai retail giant conglomerate Central is being whipped by Shopee; or the growth of a young business that helps fish farmers in Indonesia.

Overall, we have more than 25,000 paying readers across both our India and Southeast Asia subscriptions. In total, we have around 40 employees. I like to say that journalism flows through our veins since our three co-founders, including the CEO, publish stories each month.

How big is your team right now and how do you manage workflow? We’ve heard that everyone at The Ken is working remotely right now…

We have a team of seven in Southeast Asia, having just added two new reporters in the past month. We also work with freelancers on a contributor basis. We don’t have a central office in Southeast Asia so the team keeps in touch through tools like Slack messaging and Zoom calls. Most of us previously worked remotely, even before it became the norm during the pandemic, which I think helps. Ultimately, reporters don’t need to be stuck in an office to write.

Can you tell us more about the plan for this year? What can readers expect to see from The Ken?
We focus on telling business stories from across Southeast Asia and that will continue in 2021. You can expect us to continue to closely scrutinise the region’s big companies — both digital and incumbent — as well as notable young companies and trends.

We’ve experimented with different types of storytelling — using data, interviews and more — and will continue to do that alongside narrative stories. We also want to explore more human interest and social stories among other topics.

I think we did a good job in 2020, but we can do even more in 2021. We’re just getting started!

What are some of the stories you will be keeping an eye on in tech industry this year?

The tech industry is reaching a fascinating moment with many of the highest valued companies now looking for an exit through IPO, mergers or even both. Gojek, for example, has been linked with merger deals with Grab and now Tokopedia. We know that Grab and other big companies like Traveloka are looking seriously at going public. Everyone wants to emulate Sea—the parent of e-commerce service Shopee and hit game Free Fire — which was one of the best performing stocks in 2020.

The world has woken up to the potential of tech companies in Southeast Asia. That seemed unlikely when I started writing a decade ago.

As a veteran tech journalist working in Asia for so many years, what changes / development have you seen in the industry that you’ve never seen before?
Media is in a really difficult position right now. It’s tough to see local reporting suffer at a time that we need it the most.

Advertising took a massive hit during the pandemic. It’s long been a struggle for media companies in Southeast Asia that rely on ad money, and last we saw a seemingly continuous string of layoffs at major media businesses across the region. Most of these media outlets are trying to diversify their income by offering subscriptions but unfortunately few have much experience in this area. It’s generally hard to ask readers to pay money for something that you once offered them for free.

Is this new trend / development considered to be a threat or an opportunity for you as a media?
The Ken has been offering subscription media since our launch in India in 2016. Yes, we’re still young at just four years old, but we’ve built an audience of over 20,000 readers and helped pioneer the model of paid-for media.

We believe the trend has massive potential in Southeast Asia, that’s why we launched our SEA subscription last year and continue to hire for our team. It’s still early days in Southeast Asia but already it’s clear that the market is changing. Other regional business publications have doubled down on subscriptions and I expect that we’ll see many more media outlets, including large outlets, follow suit. But subscription media is tougher than it may appear.

With the pandemic spreading across the world and doesn’t seem to slow down anytime soon, what should media professionals do to keep going?
The pandemic is scary for everyone but there is still opportunity.

As I mentioned, we launched our Southeast Asia subscription right before COVID-19 hit Southeast Asia. The timing was awful — we’d spent a year or longer planning the launch — but we found opportunity. We launched new products at The Ken — including a daily email newsletter — and we still told captivating and insightful stories, we just had to be creative about finding them.

In many ways, COVID is a great equaliser. Every media company and journalist is in the same position. If you aren’t able to meet with contacts or build relationships due to lockdowns or restrictions, then the same applies to reporters from the FT, WSJ or Reuters. That’s leveled the playing field. Reporters who are hungry to find stories can still publish great journalism regardless of their publication. I see that as an opportunity for newer media organisations like The Ken.

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