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Feb 20, 2012

New Kid on the Block: Meld, the assignment that became reality

A publication for students by a former student: Meld Magazine is this week’s New Kid on the Block, profiling new and independent media start-ups.

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In 2006, Singaporean student Karen Poh was sitting in a graduate diploma of journalism course at RMIT University. The topic of the seminar was that everything was changing. Students needed to broaden their ideas about career options. Anyone could publish to the world, and perhaps what they should be doing was finding an audience, and thinking about how to serve it. (Declaration: I was the lecturer.)

Poh and her fellow students were set a class assignment to imagine an online media outlet, including its target audience, and come up with a business plan.

For Poh, the assignment became reality. After graduation she worked for four years for Leader Community Newspapers, while in her spare time she became one of the new generation of journalism-trained media entrepreneurs, starting  the media outlet she first imagined in that assignment — Meld Magazine, an online publication aimed at Melbourne’s international student community. The target audience included students already here, but also prospective students and parents.

Meld is not new. It was incorporated in 2008, but in 2010 Poh took the plunge and started to work full time on her project. As a result, it has taken a leap towards professionalism — publishing more hard news and in October last year hitting a peak of 16,000 unique visitors a month — up from just 3000 in 2008.

Meld Magazine is this week’s New Kid on the Block — the latest indie publication to feature in this Monday series.

Meld does not yet pay journalists. Some of the idealistic students behind Meld can be seen on a YouTube video.

Based in the community space at the Arrow student accommodation in Swanston Street, Carlton,  it is supported by a mix of grants, largely from the City of Melbourne, and relies on volunteer labour, including international students enrolled in media and communications degrees and a constant stream of interns from journalism courses.

Poh has made some discoveries. At first, she was under the impression that what students most wanted was lifestyle information — where to get good cheap food and good cheap fun. Then, last year, she began to publish news and harder-edged features: the problems of international students in the big city, and, one of the most popular, a feature on s-xual health — a topic about which she says many international students need of good, clear information.

Most of the audience for Meld hails from south-east Asia. Poh is keen to spread the magazine’s appeal to other audiences, including India and China and in the long term to expand to other cities.

Today, the site carries a chirpily-written piece by Singaporean Shawn Low on what every international student needs to know before coming to Melbourne (key piece of advice — leave the rice cooker at home). There is a news page full of material relevant to international students, most recently a piece by Sumisha Naidu about Malaysian students boycotting Curtin University of Technology for awarding the Malaysian prime minister’s wife with an honorary doctorate (which Crikey reported on Friday).

Under lifestyle, Meld carries a report on the website Asian Dad, which “is a nifty reminder service that will periodically email you to check if you’re meeting your family’s high expectations”. The site allows you to set your own goals, then emails you with parental-style nagging. Then there is Fiona Ren’s guide to Australian slang for dummies. Including the following:

“Both girls and boys are enthusiasts of … ‘barbie’. While most outside Australia may automatically form a mental image of the blonde haired, blue-eyed doll when hearing the word, ‘barbie’ here is in fact a contraction of barbecue. Barbies form a big part of Australian culture, so it might be beneficial for you to remember this term. You’d want to be aware when you actually get an invitation to one.”

And the site shows pictures of students conducting tests for the best instant noodles in town (44 brands of three-minute noodles tested).

This year, Poh decided to experiment some more, by opening up her newsroom to the audience, inviting readers to get involved not only by reading, but by helping stories to build, in a technique reminiscent of some experiments in the USMeld has also published a book — a community cookbook drawing on Carlton’s multicultural community. The site declares:

“Like many grassroots-driven projects, it was a painstaking and messy affair. We broke plates. Had photo shoots redone when we didn’t think they were up to scratch. Returned to the drawing board again and again as we revised the cookbook for the umpteenth time.”

Poh does not yet draw a salary. Her full-time work at Meld is possible thanks to a supportive husband. But the site, she believes, is valuable to advertisers. Recently it started to carry Google ads  from universities, Tiger Airlines, Mycareer.com.au and more. But the Google click-through based revenue stream is hardly handsome. So far, it has earned Meld about $14, Poh estimates.

Poh believes it will take her until 2015 or thereabouts to build Meld to be a self-sustaining website that can pay her a salary and offer media and communications students nationwide work experience, as well as serving its target market nationwide. She admits that to achieve these aims, she needs to acquire more business knowledge, and more experience. But she has no doubt that the site, and its growing audience, is valuable as a service that should be supported, and as a site for advertising.

In the meantime, it offers a lively insight into an often under-exposed and under-reported part of Australian society.

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