Starting a publishing business in this day and age is no easy feat. Start a publishing business, focused on sustainability? Some would say that is crazy… But, over the last 10 years, that is just what Jessica Cheam has done.
Through this interview, I dive into the hill that she had to climb to build Asia’s first (and only) sustainability focused newsroom. How she has learned to tell the story of sustainability across traditional and social mediums, and how she is having to adjust her business model to adapt to a very challenging business environment.
I think it is important to hang onto “why” we are doing this. If we are going to live to 120, then you can either do something with your life or waste it away.
About the Entrepreneurs For Good Series
Through this series, we speak with Asia based entrepreneurs whose mission it is to bring solutions to the environmental, social, and economic challenges that are faced within the region to learn more about their vision, the opportunities they see, and challenges that they have had to overcome.
It is a series that we hope will not only engage and inspire you, but catalyze you and your organizations into action. To identify a challenge that is tangible, and build a business model (profit or non) that brings a solution to the market.
Jessica Cheam is the managing editor of Eco-Business. She is an award-winning journalist, TV presenter and social entrepreneur, with a particular expertise in sustainable development. She was formerly the political and environment correspondent for The Straits Times and is an adjunct research associate at the Centre for Liveable Cities. She is the author of Forging a Greener Tomorrow: Singapore’s Journey from Slum to Eco-City, and is also the presenter of a Channel NewsAsia documentary on climate change.
Driven by the belief that change begins with a single step, Richard Brubaker has spent the last 15 years in Asia working to engage, inspire, and equip those around him to take their first step. Acting as a catalyst to driving sustainability, Brubaker works with government, corporate, academic and non-profit stakeholders to bring together knowledge, teams, and tools that develop and execute their business case for sustainability.
Full Interview Transcript
RICH: Welcome back everybody. I’m here with Jessica Cheam from Eco-Business. Here to talk about her 8 year journey of starting off from a home business to now a platform of 15 people telling the stories of sustainability in Asia. It’s a really informative, tactical interview about how she’s done this. Thank you very much Jessica for your time.
JESSICA: Thank very much you Richard.
RICH: Introduce yourself briefly and Eco-Business.
JESSICA: Ok. My name is Jessica Cheam. I’m Editor of Eco-Business. Eco-Business is the only media publication in Asia Pacific dedicated to reporting on sustainable development. We started in 2009. It’s now almost 10 years and we are still going. So yeah, it’s good. I’m glad!
RICH: A little bit about your background. How did you get into this? Why did you decide to start this platform?
JESSICA: I have been a journalist all my life and still am. I started at the straight Times, which is Singapore’s national newspaper. I was being frustrated with the fact that mainstream media wasn’t really reporting on climate change or sustainability development. So I kind of started it like as an experiment. Journalist were writing for free, but after a while everybody got busy and I wasn’t quite sure that it would work, but then my business partner and I then decided that we’re going to try and turn it into a viable business model. One that has both social and environmental impact and when I finished up with ST in 2013, I came on full time and we’ve just been doing this every since.
RICH: Now, I have found that getting people to read about sustainability is very tough proposition. What was it like early days? Like how did you get started? What were the earliest stories you were trying to tell?
JESSICA: Actually we started we tried to focus on trying to tell the stories of the people who were trying to respond to the crisis. I mean climate change has become so much more acute since we started. Somebody needs to tell that story. Somebody needs to tell the signs. So there were those kinds of story that we told. Then there were the positive stories. Like what were corporate doing. What were individuals doing in their communities. We focused on telling those stories. Because really everyone wants to go in that direction. They are not quite sure how, not sure how fast. It was important to have the conversation.
RICH: It’s you and your business partner. You got to do a lot of content development, your editing your technology, everything. What were the early days like?
JESSICA: It was just a very small team and demonstrated an editor. Trying to do as much as possible.
ADJUSTING TO SOCIAL MEDIA
RICH: You started before social media was really full force, so you still have the opportunity to write long form blogs. Did you start with long form and how have you over time had to adjust that to the social media reality of 200 words a quick picture, a meme? Like what did you start with and how did you learn through that process?
JESSICA: You know that is a really interesting question. I have to say that it’s actually both. So when we started very much in the vain of traditional journalism we had the long form story. But we found out that people’s attention were not really that…you don’t really pay attention on social media. They scan and use article whatever, so we then to try write for that generation which was like 600-800 words Shorter pieces, good visuals. I will tell you something. There is no substitute for good journalism. We’ve now gone back to writing the big long special reports.
RICH: Do you actively sit there in front of a white board and say we have this category, this category, and this category and they like this and this. Do you try and plan all of it or are there a few things ad we do this and leave the other people behind?
JESSICA: Actually we have a few different types of content and we know what type of content works on which platforms. So I’ll give you an example. On a daily basis our newsroom decides ok, which events we’re going to over, which feature stories we will write and we dedicate ourselves to one special report. We know the special report are the long form format. We spend months producing that. The daily stuff we know that is going to be something that is read quite quickly, we try to keep it to 600-800 words.
Then when we post to social media, twitter, Facebook, Instagram and then we coach it to those platforms as a question or debate. So we have to write to the platform. We have to write to the target audience and I find that really helps.
LEARNING THE TOOLS
RICH: What are the best ways in how to write to the platform?
JESSICA: It really is trial and error as to how we determine what tone or voice to take with each platform. At the end of the day, you want to think up stories that are for the truth we are for accuracy, we are for transparency. We want to shed light on important issues. So that seriousness comes through, but we try to do it an engaging manner. So clever headline, questions, or something a little bit more interesting and we are still trying. Sometimes I read a post that my team has written and it’s like oh my God, that’s so boring who is going to ready that!? Then it’s like try and try again and how do we get people engaged in the content.
RICH: How do you measure engagement? How do you measure success of your trial and error or the long term how you have been doing?
JESSICA: It’s down to numbers. Our website has been growing and readership. We just had a 10% increase of readers. More than one million page views. More than 150,0000 unique visitors a month. Our Facebook group keeps growing. Our Twitter followers keep growing. Now our stories get shared more and people are commenting more so we can see the engagement there. Then we use LinkedIn as well. So there are different ways that we engage people both offline and online and I think both are important that you have the community talk.
PAYING THE BILLS
RICH: Funding model. Journalism right now is going through a “come to Jesus” on how they make money. How do you guys make money as a new upstart?
JESSICA: We aren’t that new anymore.
RICH: I mean in the media industry you are. You are only 8 years old. You have what, 15 full time? How do you make sure that they can eat when nobody else can seem to make a newspaper sustainable anymore.
JESSICA: I keep having to go to our partners and go look. You know what you are doing is you’re funding journalism. Your funding media publication that is writing about stuff that nobody else is writing about. It’s really important to have this conversation. Fortunately for us in the recent years, people understand that. Our revenue comes from marketing, advertising, events, video production.
RICH: Marketing/advertising means consulting to companies on marketing?
JESSICA: No, no. People advertise on our platform. The ads. The ads bring in the revenue. People advertise on our email newsletters. People advertise with us because they want their event to be well attended. They want their story to be told. Anything about the economy, the Street Times, and the NY Times. A lot of the advertising is from advertisers. But we are now branching to do a different one. We want to be citizen lead. That is why we launch EB Circle.
We hope that if it reaches a critical mass w e will get more funding from people who want to read us instead of relying on commercial funding. I think in the — now generate millions of pounds from that model and it’s more than half the operating revenue now comes from that. The main stream media scale is much larger, but you know we hope to get there.
RICH: So what is your sales pitch? Like we have a million page views a month, they are all good people. Like who is buying that? Which brand is like oh that’s the most important eco system for me to access and I’m going to pay you like I would pay the economist,
JESSICA: We provide a lot of value to partners who know that we produce quality content, one. We reach decision makers, two. and we are also the centers of the conversations. We are the people who are leading the conversation. We provide a lot of services, but it is from editorial to communication needs to actually kind of being their partner, their friend in like just saying ok this is your story this is where you want to go. How do you do that? We generate our revue through that.
We actually do a lot of partnerships, not just revue generating. We partner with people like WWF on plastic pollution. We co-organize roundtables to advance the policy dialogue so we can see change. Change and impact is actually much, much more important for us than anything else.
RICH: What are the ways that you use data and analytics to look at your platform? To figure out what’s working, what’s not. Then when you realize when something is not working, what are some for the basic adjustments that you will make to see if that will fix it to make the improvement?
JESSICA: We use Google Analytics for our platform and we have a really clear picture about whose reading us and their engagement. For our website, we have pretty engaged readers. Our average time is about 2 mins plus to 3 mins of engagement before they bounce off.
RICH: What’s your bounce rate?
JESSICA: I can’t remember right now. Ok, I’m going to give you my media kit! But, we use the analytics to see and actually we do this annual exercise, which should be monthly, where we have the top stories. We see which ones go viral, which ones don’t. The list always goes over well. For example, the slightly heavier stuff like about finance tends to not do as well because they are a bit harder to digest.
Yea, we use the analytics to kind of adjust what we are going to cover. We try as much as possible to produce something that is readable. There is no substitute for producing readable stories.
LEARNING FROM OTHERS
RICH: There are a lot of interesting people doing a lot interesting things in new media. Do you look at how they tell stories, how they engage readers and do you bring that to yours? How are you learning through this process?
JESSICA: How we guide our coverage is that we look at things that have magnitude. So things that have big impact. Things that are global, but then also things that are very local. What are you doing in my community that is making a huge difference. We try to do cover stories. We always take the very journalistic approach so I wouldn’t say that we have any one publication that we try to emulate. We try to have our own voice. But as much as possible we are also looking into how to make things more conversational and by posting on social media different things, we kind of figure it out.
BECOMING AN ENTREPRENEUR
RICH: I’m really curious how you went from a journalist to an entrepreneur now who has 15 staff. What has it been like going from a paid position where you are…
JESSICA: I think the hardest part is actually having to sell something. I use to just news gather and write. Now it’s like I’m selling a value proposition. It’s like do business with us and we can help you achieve x, y, z. That has been a really steep learning curve. But actually I would say it’s not really even a sell so call, but kind of like a belief that the journalism that we are doing is important. Then going out to the market and be like hey, let’s do something together and make something meaningful. That learning curve has been really steep for me. But what I would say that I really still love the journalist part a lot more.
Just came back from Antarctica it was just two weeks of glorious me time interviewing people filming documentaries, doing photography. It’s so important to keep that creative side. I mean people come and read our content because we have good quality content. That is from the foundation of journalism that we come here. That enables us to then have a sustainable business in all senses of the word. I think journalism is very, very important.
RICH: But then the organization level. What are some of the growing pains that you went through to go from you and your partner in a small nook of the house, to 15 people in a kosher space here?
JESSICA: I think a leap of faith was when we took our first office and actually believing that we’re both going to make something out of this. Leaving a fulltime job was also quite scary. You just have to have that faith. Trust me there have been many times we said we should just shut the business and we’d make more money if we go and join a big corporation. But then there was no one doing this and if we shut it down, it’d be like who else is going to do that?
You know, fortunately we’ve now got to critical mass where we have enough readers and enough reoccurring revenue that we can fund a newsroom. So that is really, really good. But our aim is really in 5 years time is to become even bigger. Maybe even global and not just cover Asia. But to have an office in every Asian country just to cover the issues that matches that specific market. That is where we want to be.
FOUNDATIONS FOR SUCCESS
RICH: That’s an expensive proposition. If you think about that, let’s say if told you in 10 years from now you would have 8 offices across major Asian markets or at least Shanghai, Bangkok, Dakar, Delhi, Dacca. What do you doing today to put your brand there for 10 years from now? What do you have to do?
JESSICA: Actually this is a really interesting questions. Actually its the talk of the market. So I have stringers in most of the Asian cities and they are the ones covering the stories that matter. What is actually a little bit of a challenge is then finding business to cover the cost. Obviously journalism cost money, writers cost money. So how do we find partners for funding to actually go in a market and say hey I want to cover those stories. Actually you find that actually once you get your stories there, you ‘re covering a market then people have interest. So it’s an chicken to the egg issue. We have to grow organically. We have to grow in that way, but really there is no substitute for it.
RICH: 25yo Jessica is watching this. She’s wondering how I can change the world and use my voice. What are 3 pieces of advice you would give her?
JESSICA: Like don’t start a business? No, I’m kidding! I mean sometimes I say that. No, well actually really it’s to really persevere really. I think that’s the one thing there will be times where you be very, very discourages, but try and keep the faith and see where you want to go. Think about things in 10- 20 year horizon instead of a 3 year horizon.
The other advice is like find good people. You’re only as good as your team. You really need to surround yourself with people who inspire you, people who are better than you. People who can see your vision and can help you get there. I think that’s really important.
RICH: How do you wake up every day to feel inspired?
JESSICA: I think it’s really important to kind of hang on to why you are doing this. Is that yes, we are going to live like you said to like 120. Do you want to do something with your life or do you want to kind of waste it away? We are a blip on this planet and in this universe. Really, what do you want to do with that time with this very short span of time?
For more interviews from the “Entrepreneurs for Good” series, check out the playlist here.
Stay tuned for more clips and full interviews in the coming weeks.