Questions for Tech in Asia

We overestimate the effects of technology in the short run and underestimate them in the long run. Writing on the Internet does feel like a thing from the past because we now understand so much about it. Yet it’s effects on journalism in general and newspapers, in particular, have just started to creep in. We have only started to grasp what a future media company will look like. Two such companies who managed to capture the value in a sustainable way are Vox Media and BuzzFeed. I initially thought of putting Tech in Asia into the bracket but then I had some questions.

The name Tech in Asia struck a chord with me back in 2011. It felt like the thing that’s needed. A lot had already started to happen in Asia and there was no reliable way to keep yourself updated. In 2017 though, the name and the brand seem a bit lost. I stopped visiting their website mainly because they wind up from Pakistan earlier this year. But a slightly less profound and subtle reason was also the perception that they are stretching themselves too thin. I spent last week testing my perception.

I can’t say I was disappointed. There were a couple of stories that were really well done. The team is still growing. They are covering the region more extensively, excusing Pakistan. Their Job boards seem filled with opportunities. And I would like to think that events are a good revenue stream. But perhaps most striking was this paragraph from Willis’s announcement of their latest funding round:

Some of you may not know, but behind our media, events, and jobs products is a data warehouse with a treasure trove of data for us to understand and serve users better. We have some ways to go before being near the world’s best (e.g Toutiao), but that is the standard we are aspiring to.

The infographic below the paragraph summaries what he is trying to get at very well (do check that first).

I get the ambition i.e. being Toutiao for Asia. But I have always been skeptical in the assumption that what has worked in China will work in any other country. Mostly because China is such a different market. Toutiao, like WeChat, is riding on censorship. And it’s great. They saw an opportunity and seized it. But such an opportunity simply does not exist outside of China. People have their social and Techmeme requirements being fulfilled by Facebook, Twitter and well, Techmeme. What you need is a reason for people to visit your website every day.

So has Tech in Asia lost that reason? No, not as of now. I think they have a perception of being the single biggest tech publication from Asia. And that’s valuable. The danger, however, is that as each country in Asia becomes a bigger tech hub, this perception will be a problem in itself. China, India, and Japan are already there. And the rest is growing. In 3-5 years (at most) if I am really interested in Pakistan’s tech ecosystem and reaching its audience, I am better off with a publication who has a more local audience.

While that’s not happening right now because there aren’t many local pubs in each country to challenge Tech in Asia. But there will be in the future. But isn’t starting a new media company the hardest thing on Internet today? Yes, it is. But people are finding interesting ways to do that. Media companies with niche audiences are on the rise—supported by subscriptions and native ads. The problem is sustaining wider and wider journalistic operations. They are slowly becoming the equivalent of a printing press. Massive costs with very little gains. Unfortunately, that’s exactly where Tech in Asia is right now.