Devi Asmarani (Magdalene), Jakarta – Ten years ago this month, an English-language website named after a revered, albeit arguably misdepicted, biblical female figure, went live with content rarely seen in the Indonesian digital scene at the time.
Scrolling through Magdalene.co in those days, you would find a range of personal essays, like one written by a woman questioning why her child-free status left people assuming she had too much free time on her hands and made them feel entitled to dump more work on her than on people with children.
You would see interesting interviews, such as one with a feminist ulema talking about vaginas through the lens of religious teaching. You would read stories with rare perspectives: a gay couple raising their adopted child in a heteronormative society; a self-deprecating account of a woman's vain attempt to resist all the "lesbian cliches." Before the term "cat call" even entered the lexicon of most Indonesian media, readers found piece upon piece on gender-based violence on Magdalene, reflecting a world in which women are still largely not safe anywhere.
Depending on where they stand on the social values spectrum, readers might find themselves shaking their heads in disbelief, chuckling in pleasant surprise, or having a satisfying sense of validation. This was the effect sought when Magdalene was conceived by its three founders, including myself.
The goal was to create an online publication that reflected the diverse experiences and outlooks on womanhood. For perspective, in the same month that we launched, the covers of the United Kingdom and United States editions of a leading women's glossy were strewn with headlines such as "Inside His Mind: 700 Men Talk Sex"; "'I Love My Body', One Woman's Journey from Size 32 to size 12"; and "263 Hot Looks and Sexy Hair". And then there was the ridiculous framing of the femicide committed by South African athlete Oscar Pistorious as a "Love Story that Ended in Tragedy".
Through Magdalene, we wanted to create a safe space and amplify the voices of women, queer communities and other groups that had long remained unseen, unheard from, or poorly represented in the masculine mainstream media. We also questioned and deconstructed norms and values fed to us that had kept the patriarchy deeply entrenched.
If you had asked me then, though, where I would see myself with Magdalene 10 years on, I would not have imagined that I would still be here, leading a team of 18 people, growing this female-focused brand, and navigating a small newsroom on an overcrowded, ever-shifting media landscape.
Throughout this decade, I have seen too many media companies, whether independently owned or backed by investors, emerge and die, often quicker than the amount of time needed to keep up with the latest social media algorithm change. It is telling of the challenges that news media face at a time when people's behavior in consuming information and entertainment has changed so much, thanks to the rapid evolution of digital communication technology and social media.
It has been an amazing journey. And we were able to arrive at this point thanks to the support of partners, media development organizations, donor agencies, companies and brands, civil society organizations and government institutions and, of course, our loyal readers.
I am happy and proud that we have reached this 10-year milestone, despite limited resources. Still, I cannot help but ask: At this rate, what will the next 10 years be for the news media industry, when it continues to be at the mercy of ever-powerful digital platforms and their algorithms, when the rise of artificial intelligence technology may render many media workers irrelevant, and when all these contribute to societies becoming even more politically and ideologically polarized?
I recently attended an interesting discussion during the celebration of the sixth anniversary of The Conversation Indonesia, a local edition of the non-profit science journalism publication.
The panelists talked about the declining quality of democracies across the globe, including Indonesia, where freedom of expression in the media, academia and civil society are under constant threat. They argued that next year's election is a mere political ritual for the elites to claim a slice of power, devoid of healthy and substantive dialogue on important issues.
With the overwhelming majority of Indonesian media owned by political and business players, the role of independent media is even more important to offer critical perspectives and to keep discussions on important issues alive. There is also a need for media that are naturally partial toward the marginalized, the vulnerable and the under-voiced segments of society.
Journalists are not activists. But emerging thoughts and movements such as Constructive Journalism and Solutions Journalism reflect the thinking that to be a good journalist, impartiality itself is not enough. Calling out the problem is no longer enough. "Bad news is good news" no longer holds true when the audience is more likely to find out about current events from TikTok stitch videos than from news reports.
News avoidance and distrust of journalism are real, as Reuters Institute's annual reports over the last few years have shown. This is why comprehensive, excellently produced coverage on crucial issues like climate change or the invasion of Ukraine draws a fraction of the audience enjoyed by mid-tier YouTube influencers.
The media face a tough job capturing people's attention in the noisy information marketplace that is the attention economy. It is no longer enough to be critical; often what is needed is for people to know that not all is doomed.
Magdalene has adopted Constructive Journalism as an approach to our work, attempting to point our audience toward solutions, exploring nuances in place of simplistic explanations to a complex issue, and driving conversation on what matters. We do this through explainers, data-driven reportage, gamified journalistic projects, personal essays, fiction and poetry, social media content, memes, public discussion, books, podcasts, stand-up comedy shows and so on.
From questioning beauty standards to normalizing queer sexuality. From showing an inclusive face of spirituality, to introducing ecofeminism to a wider public. From making people care about the care economy to showing the politics of representation. We are chipping away at the patriarchy, with the long-term goal of smashing it altogether.
But we cannot do this alone. So this is the part where I ask for your support, whether as a reader, an influencer in your social sphere, a policy maker, an advertiser, an investor or a person with capital and good intentions. It is time to support independent media. Read us, share us, keep us informed as we do you. Invest in us and create policies that will help us thrive.
[The writer is Cofounder and Editor-in-Chief of Magdalene. This article was originally published in Indonesian at Magdalene (https://magdalene.co/story/satu-dekade-magdalene/), an online magazine that educates, empowers and pushes for a more equal society through solution-driven journalism.]