All images by RICE team, illustrations by Ansh Sirohi for RICE Media
It happens like clockwork. Since getting appointed as Editor-in-Chief, the question I keep having to answer to people (aside from “How did you land the job?”) is this: “How does RICE make money?”
The implication that comes with that question is understandable. We are, after all, a fiercely independent publication that made its name through spicy op-eds, brazen commentary, long-form features, investigative pieces and the journalistic equivalent of shitposting.
No doubt we’ve stepped on more than a few important (read: politically-involved) toes since 2017. So how are we not shut down already?
The answer is always the same—and familiar to anyone else working in the local media industry. We run sponsored content partnerships with brands and companies who want us to help sell The Product through our style of thoughtful, impactful stories that spark conversations.
We get the ad money, and the funds keep the lights of our offices on. Everyone gets paid to continue crafting content, be it a three-month investigation into a noisy neighbour in Hougang or spending a week on a diet of McSpicy burgers.
The model has been working, even if your eyes might glaze over as soon as you see that ‘Sponsored’ tag up top. As RICE’s former branded content editor though, I can confidently say we managed to nail the tricky line between telling excellent stories and delivering brand messages. Like exploring the harsh realities of being an insurance agent; like going clubbing as an awkward introvert; like crafting snarky out-of-office email replies.
But to grow the publication — like, really grow — we’ve got to start finding other avenues.
The Business of Quality
Let me tell you something I’ve learned over the past decade working in the digital media industry here. There are only so many things in Singapore to craft content about before you’re just rehashing the same old angles and issues. There are diminishing returns when writing repeated think pieces about cai fan. We have to start thinking on a bigger scale for a bigger market.
Readers care little about the back-end workings of a publication; they only care about good content. Fair! What is good content, though?
Among my mea culpas back then as a career correspondent was believing that the masses care about our efforts to get a quality story. Not really.
I can spend a week embedding myself in an offshore fish farm, do a deep dive on Xiaxue or deploy someone to investigate Falun Gong practitioners in Singapore for content. But what’s the use if a 400-word repackaged story about otters that takes half an hour to write gets way bigger page views and engagement?
Thankfully, RICE hasn’t fallen (yet) into the pit of churning out mindless content with little value. We’re not simply pushing out pieces for the sake of filling up your news feed—we want every single story to make an impact. Sure, there may have been a couple of missteps along the way, but we’ve always established that our stories rarely commit the fatal crime of being boring.
The process of ensuring we have solid content each time we hit ‘Publish’ is not easy, but I’d say that we’ve scored far more knockouts than flops. Oh, the stories I can tell you about our servers struggling under heavy traffic load from exposés on BooksActually, Lou Engle and Vendshare.
Nothing wrong at all, of course, if you prefer the flavour of other local publications that can rely on aggregating controversial/wholesome/viral news daily. Heck, we might even try doing that soon.
But allow me to plant the true value that RICE provides in our saturated digital media market.
We craft original content that are consistently excellent in storytelling. We entertain, we inform, we resonate, we provoke thought, we make an impact.
Quality information—built on great reporting, creative approaches and illuminating insight—is valuable.
No, we’re not installing a paywall; we do want to continue providing quality content that remains accessible to everyone. But after about five years in existence, I’d like to think that RICE has built a close connection with a loyal community that believes in the type of stories we tell.
Instead, we’re launching a system for you to support us and our work directly. If you visit our homepage, you’ll see a link to our brand new Pledge page where you can be a patron of RICE Media. Drop a one-off payment, subscribe to a monthly plan, or go annual. Pay any amount you’re willing to fork out because we’re going Radiohead’s In Rainbows with this.
No pressure. All our content will remain accessible until the eventual heat death of the universe or we shut down, whichever comes first. From as little as the cost of a fancy kopi, every contribution matters to keep our lights on and our fires burning.
By pledging directly to RICE, you can help preserve our purpose to deliver fresh insights and quality stories about the society we live in. We’re in the midst of figuring out the logistics, but we will be rewarding our patrons in the near future. An exclusive invitation to the inaugural RICE Festival? Free tickets to a concert or a holiday abroad? Perchance!
Plus, you’d be helping us in our current efforts to expand across Southeast Asia, with offices in each regional country. But that’s a story for another day.
We’ve got more in store in the coming months — new series, new topics and new ways to tell ambitious stories across the realms of editorial, video and social media. Personally, I’m excited for the next stage of RICE. I hope you are too.