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They’re on track to turn a news startup into a new media empire

The News Lens - Mario Yang and Joey Chung

The News Lens’ Mario Yang (left) and Joey Chung (right). Photo credit: Tech in Asia.

While the media industry flails and self-flagellates over fake news and the inscrutable powers of the Facebook newsfeed, Joey Chung sounds like he has no doubts as he explains that his media startup is now maturing and ready for primetime.

Joey, the CEO and co-founder, started The News Lens mid-2013. It has now grown to six million readers across four editions of the site in Chinese and English, staffed by 70 people.

In a coup, he this week announced the hiring of Taiwanese TV news anchor Jennifer Shen – whom he likens to influential American reporter Katie Couric.

“The number one, the most well-known, the most respected, the most awarded news anchor in Taiwan history,” says Joey of Shen. The veteran journalist, 57, recently left her cable TV role. She and the startup boss then had a “three-month conversation,” explains Joey, about being a global news anchor for The News Lens’ live streams and recorded interview segments, backed up by its eight-person video team.

“It signals the coming of age of digital startups” in Taiwan, he tells Tech in Asia. It’s not easy for them up against seven cable news channels, plus a myriad of fighty newspapers and feisty magazines in what’s rated Asia’s freest and possibly most ferocious media landscape.

“We’re considered the biggest independent media in Taiwan, and we have the highest ratio of that so-called Facebook generation – the millennial crowd, the 15 to 40 crowd,” says Joey. “However, we’re still lacking, as you can imagine, in the 40, 50, 60 crowd. So by having a highly respected and famous anchor join us, it really symbolizes that we’re growing up. It symbolizes that we’re able to go after the masses, our parents’ generation.”

TheNewsLens team

The team. Photo credit: The News Lens.

Likening Shen to Couric is apt in another way. The journalist and author, formerly of NBC and CBS, left ABC in 2014 for Yahoo News.

Joey’s startup today announced it has secured an undisclosed round of series B funding from a mix of local and international investors, nearly two years after its series A, to fuel expansion.

The team is bucking the trend of a serious decline in investor cash going into media startups.

In the gutter

While Taiwan has a problem with gutter journalism – remember those salacious news animations a few years ago? – Joey insists that fake news, in the mold of “BREAKING: ‘Tens of thousands’ of fraudulent Clinton votes found in Ohio warehouse” and all that malarkey from the recent US election, is not an issue.

Joey sees the startup moving closer to what Vox Media is doing with its eight outlets.

The boss keeps his site out of the gutter by avoiding sensationalism and focusing on the main issues of the day. A third of the articles are original news pieces by staff writers, a third is aggregated from good sources, and the remaining portion is a mix of contributors and content partners, which include Foreign Policy and the Wall Street Journal.

It’s not dissimilar to the make-up of the Huffington Post.

In another fillip to the media startup, it has just secured the rights to translate and distribute content from Time and Fortune.

The News Lens expanded to Hong Kong with a sister site and office in late 2014. It now has an international English edition plus a Chinese one aimed at Southeast Asia that are run remotely from its Taiwan HQ.

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Vox populi

With the aid of the newest investment, the team is now venturing beyond news with Every Little D – the “D” stands for detail.

“It’s our first sub-brand. It’s our lifestyle edition,” explains Joey. “If that works well, by this time next year we hope to have two to four different sub-brands. If you want serious news, go to TNL” – that’s The News Lens – “and if you want lifestyle, you go to [Every Little D]. If you want sports or business, or food or travel or female issues, you go to different other sub-brands.”

Also new is a whisky column and podcast called Drink With Mario.

reading newspaper

A Hong Kong butcher. Photo credit: Kevin Utting.

While he likes the HuffPo comparison, Joey sees the startup moving closer to what Vox Media is doing. “They have sports, they have food, they have news,” he says of the US-based publisher of The Verge, Vox, and SB Nation, plus its five other outlets. Vox Media is valued north of US$1 billion after raising US$200 million in 2015.

These clear divisions appeal better to readers, he feels. And to brands.

Being reliant on income from advertisers, the new spin-offs like ELD will help the startup in shopping its demographics to companies. Put ads on this edition to reach young, urban women; slap ads over on the business section to reach C-suite readers – that kind of thing.

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“It’s more efficient and more precise,” he says. And there’s another reason. “Advertisers used to say to us all the time: we love your target audience […] However you guys are too serious. We don’t want to put an advertisement next to an international bombing incident.”

So the lifestyle edition and other spin-offs will solve the issue of The News Lens being seen as “too nitty-gritty; too pessimistic,” to use the CEO’s dramatization of the quandary they were in.

Joey is a writer at heart, rather than an entrepreneur or an aspiring media mogul. Born in Taiwan, he did most of his growing up in the US, returning to the island at the age of 12. He’s a former reporter at the Taipei Times, an English-language daily, and a published author in Chinese.

After graduating Harvard Business School, he began thinking in 2012 about a media outlet for Taiwan that wouldn’t chase celebrities down the street. He and longtime friend Mario Yang, who was tired of writing for a print weekly, drew up plans for what became The News Lens. Then they quit their day jobs in April 2013.

A number of other media startups in the Hong Kong and Taiwan area are also building up and gaining strength. “It’s getting really competitive,” Joey says. “It’s more of a Wild West now.”

The billion-pound gorilla in the room is mainland China – a market that’s the polar opposite of what Joey and team are used to in terms of both size and freedoms. While there’s no chance of entering China with news content, the new lifestyle edition and other future additions open up the possibility of a Chinese joint-venture somewhere down the road.

“That would make sense,” he adds.

(Correction: The Southeast Asia edition is not in English. It’s Chinese. That’s now amended.)

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