"Survive and Thrive" is back for a second season. Our first guest in 2024 is Sherry Lee, COO of The Reporter in Taiwan. Read the episode transcript here.
Welcome to "Survive and Thrive," DW Akademie’s dialogue with media managers on innovative and sustainable business models in a challenging global media landscape. We'll talk motivation, lessons learned, funding models, best practices, recipes for success and decisions – good and bad.
Janelle Dumalaon (host): Welcome. It's 2024 and "Survive and Thrive," your media viability podcast, is back for a second run. This year, we're continuing to bring you stories about media outlets overcoming existential challenges and the lessons they learned along the way.
Let's say you have a brand you still need to build, financing challenges and a pernicious disinformation problem from hostile actors – while every day having to put out news and investigative features that matter to your readers.
That's something that Sherry Lee, Chief Operating Officer of The Reporter in Taiwan, is very familiar with. I'm very eager to get right to it and hear all about the story surrounding The Reporter. But first, this quick questionnaire.
Sherry, what is your business model in a catch phrase?
Sherry Lee: I would say "from the people, and for the people." The Reporter is a nonprofit and a donation-based news outlet, and its content is open to all. There are three things we choose not to have: government funding, advertisements and a paywall. Instead, we rely on big numbers of small donations so we can report independently.
Dumalaon: Did you ever manage a moment when everything seemed lost?
Lee: I won't use the word lost, but I have been a little bit uncertain. People used to think that The Reporter wouldn’t survive for more than three years – but now the outlet is already eight years old.
Our staff has grown from 14 to 47 people. We know very clearly what our purpose is and what we want to achieve. So, while there were lots of uncertain moments, we were never lost.
What would you need to survive in the future?
Three things are essential for our future: Readers, impact and donations. They basically are all the same thing. If your stories have impact, you can reach more readers, then you can bring in more donations. It's a full circle.
Today we're talking about The Reporter, Taiwan's very first nonprofit media organization, focused on reportage and investigative journalism. Can you tell us a little bit more about it now? You've talked about how there's no government [involvement], there's no paywall – it’s there for the people and by the people. But tell us a bit more about what you do and for whom and why.
We were founded in 2015. At that time, most of the media were relying on advertisement and government funding, but it’s not good for healthy media to rely on those [types of] funding.
So, as an alternative, we started to establish a donation-based news outlet. It’s explicitly not a subscription model, because that would mean that you could only read our news if you were a subscriber. But we are open to all the public. Even if you don’t subscribe, or don’t have an e-mail account, you can still see all of our content.
Our specialty is on long form narratives. It's quite a brand-new thing for Taiwanese readers and our business model is also new in Taiwan. So how to roll in donations from the public is a major issue for us.
Can you give us an example of the kind of investigative journalism that The Reporter does?
I think what has happened in Taiwan over the past few years is that media are chasing for clicks and the headlines have become very sensational. But this is not our way.
We want to be a trustworthy news outlet, so quality journalism and news quality is the key. That's why we focus on investigation and in-depth stories. Our stories typically are long-form narratives. That doesn’t mean that every article is extremely long, but that we give a lot of context and share a lot of knowledge with our readers. That’s how we distinguish ourselves from other media. Also, it’s very important to us to dialogue with our readers.
In past years, we won a lot of awards and did a lot of cross-border investigation with outlets from Indonesia, South Korea and Japan.
We think that, in this intertwined world, a lot of things are very complicated. You could just chase after clicks and headlines, but the real deal is to be trustworthy and give your audience facts, insights, relevancy and impact.
So, in the past eight years, I think we won our readers' trust – and I think trust is more difficult than anything.
As you were talking about relationship-building, trust and the support that you get from your audiences, I was just wondering: Is your audience more able to appreciate the role of media in Taiwan there? I mean, Taiwan has some of the freest media in the world, if I'm not mistaken. How would you describe the landscape?
Taiwan is a free place. But the challenge is that if you have the freedom, you need to have the responsibility as well. These days, I think most reporters don't have the chance to dig into issues. And [in Taiwan] that isn’t because of a lack of freedom, but because media don’t pour their efforts into doing the right thing.
What exactly do you mean when you say that many media organizations don't do the right thing?
They chase after the clicks. I recently talked to a [journalism] student who told me that if he wrote some article wrong, that was okay because he could just write another article to correct it. This way, he could generate even more clicks.
Journalists these days will have a lot of key performance indicators to meet. Each month, journalists have to generate like a million clicks. So, if you bring these KPI to journalists, how can you expect them to do the right thing? They will chase something very sensational and, maybe, even incorrect.
So, I think the environment is not very healthy. Even in Taiwan where we have the total freedom to express ourselves, we don't cherish it.
Sometimes, media will get polarized when they try to cater to polarized communities or audiences. They can get many clicks this way, but when media get polarized, it's very difficult for them to dialogue.
I was just thinking because you were talking about the sensationalism in media, you were talking about just how there seems to be a low level of commitment to the truth, and it made me think of another problem that media and Taiwan is also confronted by. And that, of course, is disinformation.
I read somewhere that Taiwan is the society that's most impacted by disinformation from beyond its borders. What sort of challenges has that represented for your work at The Reporter?
I think Taiwan’s society is constantly affected by the Chinese Communist Party, CCP.
Chinese hackers have attacked Taiwanese media’s servers in the past few years, especially during the recent election. And they also produce fake news and "information pollution." The simplified Chinese worldview is spreading very quickly in Taiwan.
So, we have to do a lot of fact checking. Because we know that truth spreads slower than lies and the speed of the clarification can never catch up with the speed of lies.
That’s why we keep producing in-depth and investigative reports, make sure the correct information flows and also give readers insights.
This sounds like a very resource intensive way to do journalism. Now, you've already pointed out that disinformation spreads faster than truth, that you can never catch up using fact-checking, as it always takes more time than simply producing the lie and spreading it out there.
Then how do you put resources from your newsroom sustainably into producing good, factual and in-depth news that counters this wave of disinformation?
As a very small, or medium sized news outlet, we have to decide what we focus on. As I said, in the first year we only had 14 people, now we have 47 people. We still put most resources into talent.
For example, we recruited two data journalists to help us. Since 2020, it’s not safe for us to send reporters to China and Hong Kong, as China has been tightening its control of the press, including foreign media. But China is a major factor to us, its neighbors. Their policies, their actions will affect us drastically.
And this is where the data journalists come in and are very important. They can investigate stories through data and it has worked very well. For example, last year we did two investigative stories through data.
The first one is called "The Failed Sanction" and it is about how Australian lobsters are smuggled into China. The background of the story is China's economic sanction on Australia. In 2020, due to China's "wolf warrior diplomacy," China banned the import of Australian lobsters – which is about 5000 to 8000 tons a year. However, part of those banned lobsters somehow still made their way to China.
But how? The answer is Taiwan's outlying islands of Kinmen and Matsu. They are Taiwan's small islands and close to China, just several kilometers away. So, our data journalists checked the lobster's origin – which was from Australia – collected the statistics from the customs of China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Australia, checked the flight records, interviewed exporters, importers – a lot of data.
Another investigation was about Chinese illegal dredging in the Taiwanese strait, in Taiwanese economic waters. Our data journalists also collected and analyzed the court documents of hundreds of convicted cases from China. And we analyzed names of the ships, the time, the longitude, the latitude of sand theft boats so we can see the big picture.
These were two stories that came from data and both of them we discovered through small changes. We found the loopholes and patterns and they led to great findings. As I mentioned, the world is so connected and intertwined. That's how we [direct] our resources and try to find a way to break through China's control of the press.
And besides this, we also do a lot of cross-border investigations, so we can see issues from different perspectives, double-check our findings, give our stories fairness and let our readers know different and diverse opinions.
So, if I understand correctly, what you do is that you report especially data-driven stories in order to give your readers a picture of what's truly happening.
You use the numbers in order to be able to investigate, even if you're not perhaps physically able to go to China, because – as you pointed out – it's dangerous and in so doing, still provide your readers with valuable information that they need to know.
I was wondering what it might be like [in the near future]. Of course, Taiwan just has had an election. The winning candidate is not someone that China sees entirely favorably. Do you think that this could also impact your work? Are the disinformation attacks going to get worse, for example?
Let me first reply to the first part of your question: Our coverage of China and the Asia region is around 15% of what we do. But 85% of our stories are focused on Taiwan.
Our specialty is actually that we go into the field. If we investigate a sea fishery, or human trafficking, we’ll get on a boat. And we will find a lot of stories and numbers to make sure that our discovery is correct. At the start of the Ukraine war in 2022, we sent two teams to Ukraine – even as a very small news outlet, we try our best to go into the field.
So, it’s not only China issues for us. It’s just that China is different because we can’t go into the country. Or Hong Kong, because it’s too dangerous.
And talking about the election, I think a war with smoke [and mirrors] has already begun. In recent years, Chinese hackers have continuously targeted Taiwanese media, and as the presidential election approached, even the Taiwan's National News Agency was hit at a high level.
Controlling the media is definitely the most efficient way to create social disturbances. I think we should condemn this behavior, although condemning alone is not enough.
We have to be very careful and aware of not self-censoring and to speak the truth. And we need to prepare for possible hostile situations. So, I think a realistic consideration is to improve our information security protection and protect our interviewees’ personal information throughout our investigations.
I wanted to ask about that. You've talked about the importance of potentially having to prepare for hostile situations. How do you protect your reporters? How do you protect your sources when reporting on this and speaking about sensitive issues, issues that could inflame tensions with China? And when those things could come at a personal cost to those people, how do you protect them?
Yeah, that is a very important question and I don't know if we do it well or not. Of course, we will use [secure] email or messenger services and regularly delete information to make sure that we are not followed.
But also, I would like to share one thing about the situation in Hong Kong. There, journalists cannot write about any controversial topics these days. So, if we know there’s something that should be written about, we collaborate. Hong Kong exiles, they live in Great Britain, Canada, Taiwan, but the Hong Kong journalists can’t write their stories. We can do that because at least we won’t be hurt or harassed by the Hong Kong government.
So, this kind of collaboration is happening but we have to make sure we anonymize names so they are not recognized. Whenever reporters want to use different names, we respect that.
Your outlet has clearly been through a lot since 2015. You’ve had to grow your brand. You’ve had to also make difficult choices and put a lot of effort into protecting your reporters while producing in-depth journalism. Clearly, what you’ve decided to do is not the easy thing.
What can you tell us about how you want the future of The Reporter to look like? What is your vision for the outlet?
There are a lot of things we can do. I think we are in an era where democracy is extremely fragile. The number of readers who are willing to spend time to serious news is decreasing. So, we have no choice but to hope that this decline can slow down.
We believe good journalism matters more than ever, so we bring people together to talk, to meet each other. We not only do good journalism – we hope that our readers can understand each other.
You know, in Taiwan a lot of hatred and polarization comes from not understanding each other. That’s why at The Reporter, we hold face-to-face activities with readers every month to discuss a topic with them. And the people who come to these events are very diverse: Mothers and daughters, couples holding newborns, older people, senior high school students, professionals.
We hope to build a bridge of diverse opinions so that people can hear ideas that are different from their own and try to get out of their echo chambers.
Also, last year, we created a new product, a website called The Reporter for Kids. Young people in Taiwan, especially Gen Z, they love to use TikTok and Little Red Book. They’re very popular with Taiwan’s younger generations, but it's also a brainwashing style of communication that makes it difficult for users to resist.
At The Reporter for Kids, we target 10-to-15-year-old young readers. Since we have lots of good in-depth news, we integrate and transform the long form narrative into a concise version with less text, more illustrations and in an interactive way to encourage teenagers to read serious news.
I think this will help younger people to learn about serious issues earlier. That’s our future and our goal.
I mean those are certainly very worthy goals, especially in terms of trying to cultivate an understanding and an interest in news among the very young. There are clearly generational differences – as you put it – as to how news is consumed, especially by younger audiences.
Now we've talked about a lot of things, a lot of challenges that you're currently facing in regard not only to the fraying of democracy and how difficult that is for media, but how important it is to defend. We've talked about how these modern platforms are competing for the attention of young people.
And at the same time, the unique sort of geopolitical position that Taiwan is in. Do you see any other future challenges that are coming your way that you feel you have to be prepared for?
As a news media outlet, I think the biggest challenge is still in how to keep and maintain a trustworthy news outlet brand. We have to provide readers with good journalism, good quality, and that’s not easy. It’s like handcraft techniques. We have to confirm that our reporting brings impacts and facts and changes to society.
And I think the second challenge is from social media. Generation Zers seldomly read serious news, so how can we attract them? How can we persuade people to absorb in-depth stories in their busy daily lives?
We try hard to tell stories in different ways. We have experimented with shorter videos, news, games, podcasts, multimedia content and also comics. All these successfully attracted more readers to visit our website and I think that that's the challenge: How to invite more people to join our alternative business model?
It's like a social movement. I think we are creating a movement to turn good journalism into a bedrock of robust civil society. If we don't want to be interfered by the government and corporate interests, we need more people, we need more readers to support us to do the job.
It is indeed like a social movement: When people share or donate to us, journalism will have a healthier environment to thrive.
That's very well said. I was also just curious, you mentioned that you would hold face-to-face events for people to talk about the issues that are concerning them. What has stood out to you as something that perhaps seemed a very important to your audiences that you became aware of through these events?
People live in echo chambers and that’s serious because it results in a parallel world. Every day, they wake up and, while some people still read newspapers, most people don't. They scroll on Facebook or Threads. Yet you know how narrowed the world will be if you only see it through social media, because those short videos lack context for serious issues.
So, when we bring them to the real world, when they meet people in the real world and listen to them, I think they realize that they actually have more in common than disagreements, and I think that’s important.
When we see people face to face, we are more kind, patient and we can see facial expressions, so we won't have so much hatred.
I think this is a very interesting point to make. You know, in the vast majority of cases we don't in fact see our readers, we don't see our viewers. And I think it is quite a special thing to be able to bring people together and have them see each other, as you say, and that leads to less suspicion and less hatred.
I remember several years ago one of my reporters went to Germany for a story. There is a newspaper or magazine that used a sort of “Tinder” to match people – these were polarized people from the left wing and the right wing – and put them into the real world to have a discussion for three hours.
And after three hours, you know, they found that actually they do have something in common.
So, I think it's so important to bring people together in the real world, not just behind the laptop or your gadget, because we are humans. We need others. When we meet people, we will be more sympathetic, we will show our empathy. I think it's important for a news outlet to create a dialogue platform, but not just concentrate on its own ideology because it's not healthy for society.
That's almost it for our time together today. And I just really want to say how much I appreciate your points about having to build a social movement in order to defend democracy, as well as media being one of the ways that you can do that.
Before we let you go, however, we would like you to name three best practice tips that you would like to impart to the other media managers of the world who might be running their own media outlets and having similar, if not exactly the same challenges as you.
I think first is to be trustworthy. News quality is the key. Make sure that your investigative stories bring facts, insights and impact. But if you make a mistake, I think you have to admit it and say sorry because we don't have a god's perspective.
True trustworthiness comes from sincerity in every step of the newsroom.
Second: Be innovative! Innovative in telling stories, innovative in communicating with readers. Make dialogue happen. And when you go in-depth, don't forget to make complicated things intelligible.
And the last one: Turn readers and donors into changemakers for good journalism. You dream, they dream. A person can go fast, a group of people can go further. To make sustainability possible, you need not only readers but donors.
Let’s see if I got this altogether. The first one is to be trustworthy and create an impact, but also to be accountable in times where you might have made mistakes. The second one is to innovate and foster dialogue between people. The third one is to ensure that your readers and your donors become the change makers that we want to see in the world, because a group of people can accomplish so much more than individuals can.
Sherry, you and The Reporter have accomplished so much. Thank you so much for speaking to us today. And thank you dear listeners, we appreciate you joining us today too.
This transcript of "Survive and Thrive: The Media Viability Podcast" has been lightly edited for clarity.
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This podcast is produced by DW Akademie and is supported by the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ).