Digital Innovation Digital Publishing
5 mins read

How Asian freelancers are becoming nimble, digital publishers, and making the most of the pandemic

A crisis is too important to waste. This is how some freelancers are reinventing their work in these days of covid.


  • Kirsten Han, who runs We, The Citizens, a newsletter on human rights and social justice issues in Singapore, saw her newsletter growth nearly double; she’s used the increased interest to release special, longform issues
  • Jeanette Goon, a freelancer in Malaysia, lost nearly 60% of her monthly income, but is using the time to start a podcast, write fiction, learn new skills, and find clients that are looking beyond the pandemic
  • Norman Chella, who runs PodLovers Asia, a podcast on Asia’s podcasting industry, cites a 20% global decline in podcast listenership over the past month, with usual podcast listening times like commutes nonexistent. Meanwhile, the number of podcasts have risen sharply — he’s seeing new opportunities in bite-sized podcasts and converting virtual evens into podcasts
  • Erin Cook, who runs Dari Mulut ke Mulut, a digest on Southeast Asian news, has increased the cadence of her newsletter and commissioned her first content from writers. She’s making herself pandemic-proof by showing how important it is to pay attention to regions in Southeast Asia that don’t get traditional media attention

Kirsten Han

Kirsten Han, a Singapore-based freelancer, started We, the Citizens, a weekly newsletter that curates and analyzes news on human rights, politics, and social justice issues in Singapore, in April 2018. “My mother just tells people I read the news so they don’t have to,” she summarized

It started out as free, but Han launched a paid subscription in June 2019 for $50 a year/$5 a month. “I wanted to frame it more as a tip,” she said. Because she’s not measuring herself with clicks or the whims of an editor, she’s able to think about what’s truly useful.

Here’s her pandemic journey:

  • Her newsletter growth has nearly doubled in a month, from 67 paid subscribers mid-March 2020 to 120 subscribers. Some even chose to pay more than the allotted tip
  • She’s tapped into the current desire to spread goodwill. Her newsletter has links to local organizations and businesses that have needed support during the pandemic. She has sponsored gifts to readers — and some readers have done the same 
  • She’s released special, longform issues analyzing news —  one investigated the buzz around the prime minister’s wife posting about Taiwan donating masks to Singapore on Facebook
  • She’s partnered with publications and other freelancers to write stories. On the 100th issue, she translated a piece that appeared in Chinese in Initium for her newsletter, addressing how Taiwan, Singapore, Hong Kong were seen as success stories, but all three might be facing new waves
  • Because it felt like a one-way channel, she started a Telegram group where participants talk about news and personal experiences during the pandemic. Over 150 people joined within the first day, and there are currently 255 people in the group
  • Covering the pandemic has brought her back to why she became a journalist in the first place — wanting to make a difference, wanting to be a part of the community, wanting to have space to talk about issues even if we don’t always agree

Jeanette Goon

Jeanette Goon, a freelancer in Malaysia, has had wide ranging jobs, from an e-commerce entrepreneur to most recently as a bartender. She’s been trying to break into food and beverage journalism, but then Covid-19 happened. Many of her clients experienced weeks of no sales and her monthly income has dropped by about 60%. She’s taken this as an opportunity to do more of what she’s always wanted.

  • She’s producing video and content for an NGO called Project Dialogue that promotes religious freedom in the media
  • She started a podcast for solo entrepreneurs and freelancers — she explains that though there are many resources around marketing and content, there’s little that addresses the business side of things in Malaysia
  • She’s working closer with the clients who have been able to find a way to grow during the pandemic
  • She’s pivoted her food writing to explore the history and science behind it
  • She’s been publishing short stories and working on songwriting

Norman Chella

Norman Chella runs five podcasts: two interview-style, two narrative style, and one daily. The flagship is Podlovers Asia, covering the Asian podcasting industry. On the side, as a consultant, he helps new podcasters launch in Asia.

Chella has three goals: to connect the fragmented Asian podcasting industry, to set an example to have podcasting as a career within Asia, and to make some noise through podcasting. “If you want to cross the sea together, build the boat,” he said. “Everyone who is involved, no matter how big or how small your show… we can all help each other out and cross the sea together.”

What he’s seen during the pandemic:

  • The usual podcast listening time — on commutes — has been erased, and there has been a 20% global decline in listenership over the past month
  • Listenership is once again slowly rising in certain regions and two types of listeners have emerged: those who want to keep up-to-date on the latest news and those who want to escape it. Many are thinking about bite-sized episodes over hour-long ones
  • Another emerging opportunity is converting virtual events like fireside chats into podcasts — “now is the chance to pitch potential shows and proposals to those who may be considering a new marketing channel at very little cost,” Chella explained
  • Chella’s consulting opportunities have increased as podcast creation is exploding. Last week, Asia passed the one million mark — Chella estimates a growth of 100,000 shows in one month. Roughly 46% are “active,” meaning there has been a new show within the last 60 to 90 days

Erin Cook

Erin Cook started Dari Mulut ke Mulut, a digest for Southeast Asian news, four years ago. Premium subscribers get access to long-form analysis, while a free newsletter aggregates news. Covid-19 has been the biggest story she’s ever covered. “It’s so all-encompassing, it’s hard to identify what should be covered at any given point,” she said

She’s attempting to make her newsletter pandemic-proof by showing paying subscribers why Southeast Asia is important to pay attention to, especially because it’s been undervalued by Western media.

How her plans have changed during the pandemic:

  • The newsletter is sent out almost on a daily basis now
  • Grants have helped — Cook was a recipient of Substack’s emergency fund 
  • Cook has ramped up commissioning writers — she’s published two stories so far on Laos, where there has been little coverage on the pandemic
  • Two tips to new newsletter writers: focus on consistency, and while you may have an initial huge growth in subscribers, it will taper out quickly. It’s important to find something repeatable

Meghna Rao

Republished with kind permission of Splice: reporting on the transformation of media in Asia