Keyhole

ThaiPublica looks to uncover stories relating to the government, business and finance

Credit: Image by katerha on Flickr. Some rights reserved
There are no prizes for guessing which investigative news site inspired the creation of ThaiPublica.

But Thailand's site was launched not by a journalist, but by an investment banker who was also a blogger.

Sarinee Achavanuntakul had the idea for an investigative news site for Thailand and persuaded the executive editor of a business newspaper to quit her job and take a leap of faith into an online-only world of investigative journalism.

The site has been running for nearly two years, having launched in September 2011, and has a team of six journalists.

Journalism.co.uk became aware of ThaiPublica when we met the co-founder of Opendream, which has created three data interactives for the news site. Patipat Susumpow described the interactives as having an "Asian twist", with a soon-to-be published infographic including "cute" cartoon-like people to help readers understand the new tax code.

In this feature we take at how ThaiPublica is funded, the investigations, and the "cute" data interactives aimed at engaging a young audience.

Inspiration and foundations

Investment banker Sarinee Achavanuntakul had been writing a monthly column for Prachachat Turakij, a Thai business paper published twice a week, during which time she got to know executive editor of the newspaper Boonlarp Poosuwan.

"When we met we would often commiserate and complain about the state of Thai media, which is facing the same issues as media anywhere else, with declining advertising revenues," Achavanuntakul explained.

It was also the time when Achavanuntakul started reading ProPublica, an online-only investigative news site in the US that is non-profit and philanthropically funded.

She proposed the idea of setting up something similar for Thailand to Poosuwan. "I told her 'you should just quit your job'. And she agreed."

Funding investigative journalism

Investigative journalism can be expensive to produce, hard to attract advertisers to due to the often controversial nature of investigations, and so can lead to potential conflicts between advertisers and editorial.

In my mind there is a need for a new model of investigative journalismSarinee Achavanuntakul, ThaiPublica
"In my mind there is a need for a new model of investigative journalism," Achavanuntakul said, aware that investigative reporting cannot be done on a shoestring budget. "You need to invest in the journalists and give them space and time to produce a good report."

ThaiPublica secured "seed funding from angel investors or patrons, people who feel sympathetic to our cause", she explained, and now brings in revenue through conferences and banner advertising.

"Beyond initial seed funding the website survives on a combination of banner advertising, but more importantly for us it has been bundling the web advertising with what we call the ThaiPublica Forum, public conferences that we host every two or three months on important topics that are in the public interest. We hosted one on the government rice-pledging scheme," she explained.

Achavanuntakul said that the success in securing sponsors is down to the contacts of executive director of ThaiPublica Poosuwan and two other senior journalists who also joined them from the business newspaper.

"I think the value that Poosuwan and her team have brought to this project, other than the expertise in professional journalism, is their contacts and networks."

The conferences are also attended by other journalists. "Sometimes I feel like these are events for fellow members of the media to get news," Achavanuntakul said, explaining how debate generated by a forum often appears in the evening news and national papers the following day. "This has been a key reason why a corporate sponsor might want to sponsor the forum," she explained.

"The website is still relatively small in terms of traffic, we average about 7,000 to 10,000 readers per day, so in terms of web advertising it's not going to make a lot of profit on its own."

Investigations

ThaiPublica has published many investigations, which tend to be in-depth stories related to economics, based on the senior journalists' expertise.

One of the journalists at ThaiPublica has been covering the ministry of finance for the past 15 years, another has been covering the Bank of Thailand for the same length of time. "So anything to do with those organisations, we are usually the ones who can break the story faster and better and with more well-informed data than the average media," Achavanuntakul said, explaining that ThaiPublica was "one of the first news outfits that did some really detailed work on the rice-pledging scheme".

Visualisations

ThaiPublica

ThaiPublica has published a couple of interactives created with the help of grant funding. One is called 'What the government does with our tax' (screenshot above), an earlier visualisation is a look at a 30-year-old industrial estate.

The tax interactive looks at government expenditure presented "as a nice cartoon on the web that people can play around with" to decide how they would allocate money.

This is similar to interactives covered by ProPublica and other US and UK news sites, particularly those relating to budget cuts. But the ThaiPublica interpretation has the "Asian twist" in its use of graphics, as described by Opendream's Patipat Susumpow.

A third interactive due to be published in the next few weeks features - as described by Susumpow - "cute" cartoon people, and explores how the tax code, which the government plans to change, will impact on people. "We want to let the audience see how that affects them," Achavanuntakul said.

She explained that this type of story presentation is aimed at engaging a young, social media-savvy audience, who may not be regular consumers of news.

These types of presentations "could play a big role in changing some of our content to be less text-heavy and to produce information in new ways", she said. And it is this type of innovation that she hopes will transform ThaiPublica.

"If you look at where we are at it is pretty much print media on the web. I think that's because most of our journalists have experience in newspapers," Achavanuntakul said. "One of our challenges from the beginning has been how to transform these print journalists to become digital journalists."

The three interactives were all created by Opendream, and commissioned with grant money from the Thai Health Foundation.

Achavanuntakul explained that income from ThaiPublica Forum conferences and advertising pay the fixed costs, such as salaries, "but we don't have money left over to invest in transforming journalists".

The future


So what does Achavanuntakul hope ThaiPublica will achieve in the future?

There are two possible paths, she said. To continue "producing investigative series and staying as print media for the web, in the knowledge that there will always be people who want in-depth information", or to transform and "start being a new media investigative news outfit".

"One aim is to help the print journalists to become data or new media journalists, and the other is to engage the audience, the Thai public, in reporting and making sense of information."

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