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Substack Podcast #015: International news with Erin Cook

Substack Podcast #015: International news with Erin Cook


We spoke with Erin Cook of Dari Mulut ke Mulut, a publication covering news across Southeast Asia.

Erin started her newsletter early in her career while working for a daily newspaper in Jakarta, Indonesia. After she found that broader regional news was lacking, she decided to expand her focus across the ASEAN region.

We spoke to Erin about how international journalism has changed over the years, how independent writing helps her be more nimble as a reporter, and why it pays to have friends that tell you to charge more.



  • (07:37) How international journalism is changing

  • (14:29) Balancing newsletter writing, podcasting, and a weekly column

  • (18:43) Finding and reporting on stories in low-coverage regions

  • (25:29) How she grew her list

  • (27:58) How she thinks about paid subscriptions

  • (34:44) Starting a spinoff newsletter, Ayolah, to focus on the elections

  • (37:21) Subscription pricing for an international audience

On covering regions that are overlooked by newspapers:

It's hard for the big mastheads to take a punt on a country like Laos or an issue like coronavirus in Laos. But for me, I already know that my audience is interested. They've signed up specifically for news on countries like Laos. So for me it's easy to sneak under the radar and I know people are interested, so it's a no-brainer for me.

On the importance of building an audience before charging:

...you can't just be like, "I'm doing this and here's the paywall." No, you do have to establish that very quickly. And if you're someone like Matt Taibbi, he's got his credibility built in. But if you're someone like me, you've got to just hustle it out for a little bit longer than maybe you'd like to.


Nadia: (00:35)

You write a publication called Dari Mulut ke Mulut. Did I say that correctly?

Erin: (00:40)

Pretty close, yeah.

Nadia: (00:41)

- which is a shortcut to Southeast Asia, you report on news and analysis and features from across the region.

Erin: (00:50)


Nadia: (00:50)

All right. I thought it was cool that you mentioned the meaning of your publication.

Erin: (00:58)

It's such a great term, it comes from Indonesia. And Indonesia has all these brilliant idioms. So Dari Mulut ke Mulut literally translates to, "From mouth to mouth," but it's used more as both word of mouth and gossip, so I thought it was perfect for what I was wanting to do.

Nadia: (01:16)

Yeah, I think it plays really well into this very conversational writing style which you have, which actually feels like someone is just learning from someone on the ground the gossip, but then with a deeper reporting lens.

Erin: (01:27)

Yeah, well, that's definitely the aim.

Nadia: (01:30)

It's coming across great. I’d love to hear just a little bit about your background and how you got here. I know you've had experience writing and covering the Southeast Asia region for a while.

Erin: (01:40)

Yeah, I started the newsletter very early on in the career, actually. I was initially, probably like a lot of Substack users, started off on a Tinyletter years ago. And I was working for, in Jakarta, one of the English daily newspapers there. And it was really interesting to be in what's probably one of the biggest cities in the world in such a fascinating region, and really struggling to find news from elsewhere within southeast Asia. So that inspired it, so I was just reporting on Indonesia, but there'd be all these links between Indonesia and Singapore or Malaysia or the Philippines. But you'd have to go to a Singapore news website to find out more about that aspect, or a Filipino news website to find out more about them. So I really just wanted to bring it all together in one place so it's easier for everybody else.

Nadia: (02:36)

Can you give us just a little bit of, I guess, context for people that don't live in Southeast Asia? What is the coverage like there right now?

Erin: (02:44)

No, that's a good question. I'm very shorthand about it now after a few years. So it's based around the ASEAN bloc, which is the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which is vaguely the European Union of southeast Asia. And that's, I can list them all if you like?

Nadia: (03:04)

Curious, yeah, why not?

Erin: (03:06)

Yeah, so we go Indonesia, Philippines, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Myanmar. And I also include Timor-Leste in there, which is not yet a member of ASEAN, but I really hope one day they will be. So yeah, like to include them in there as well.

Nadia: (03:28)

So you're in Indonesia but you're covering Southeast Asia. Are there other outlets that do this sort of regional focus? How did you decide where to narrow or expand your scope, since you could be reporting just on Jakarta, you could be reporting on the whole region?

Erin: (03:43)

I think Jakarta is really interesting because it's home to ASEAN. So it's got the Secretariat there, and the areas that I've lived in in Jakarta is very close to there. So ASEAN is probably more prominent in Jakarta than it is anywhere else in southeast Asia, so that really piqued my interest. I'm from Australia, and we don't really hear that much about ASEAN. So I just followed that for a while, and then was a bit half-interested and half just seeing that there was a gap there that a newsletter could fill.

Nadia: (04:23)

Do you feel... I guess I'm just imagining if you were a newspaper employing 50 people or whatever, you'd be able to cover an entire region. For you personally as an independent writer, how are you finding new sources and things to write about in areas that you aren't physically in?

Erin: (04:39)

It's really, really difficult. So I've been doing this now for about four years, I think with the last 2 1/2 on Substack. So the first year was really, I'll never go back and reread old newsletters. It would be a cringe.

Nadia: (04:55)

Never read your own writing.

Erin: (04:55)

Exactly. But I've been lucky to be in the region when there have been momentous occasions. So I've been here for huge elections and important movements with the ASEAN bloc. So there's always something happening, and when that's reported on by some of the brilliant journalists from across the region it paints a broader picture of how the region got here. And I'm very lucky that I get to travel so much because of how close-knit ... Well, until recently, of course, because of how close-knit the region is. It's really easy to get from Jakarta to Singapore, to Singapore to Bangkok, or over to Manila just for a couple of days. It feels exciting, everybody wants to talk about what they're covering, what they're reporting on, what they're reading. And just buy a couple of beers and soak that up. Yeah.

Nadia: (05:57)

I'm picturing almost like really a literal manifestation of the name of your publication.

Erin: (06:03)

Pretty much, yeah.

Nadia: (06:04)

Sort of like passing on through word-of-mouth from friends and things in different countries.

Erin: (06:07)

Exactly. And it's really cool because it just starts up being journalists whose work I've noticed over the years and will go now on my way to ... If I see their byline I'll definitely be clicking on it and reading that. And everybody's so nice and friendly. So just send an email, "Hey, I'm coming to KL," and they'll be like, "Great. See you on Wednesday."

Nadia: (06:29)

Do you find that process of getting new information and talking to people and having sources, is it different from ... Do you approach it differently as it's your newsletter, you can write about what you want, versus working as a journalist at a newspaper?

Erin: (06:44)

No, definitely. I think that more traditional ... I've been thinking about this recently as the industry changes dramatically over the last few weeks. I don't think, yeah, it doesn't compare to regular on-the-ground reporting, in that the people that I call up and have quick conversations with are always academics who have covered a particular niche for decades, or other journalists who are just pointing me in the right direction of which books to be catching up on. It's not so much getting out there and talking to regular people, which is one thing that I genuinely miss. And it's not so much ... I don't know, it's not as grinding, which is good. It's not the same, deadlines are self-imposed so it can be a bit more flexible.

Nadia: (07:37)

You mentioned everything that's been happening in the past couple weeks as you were explaining that. Which obviously can refer to a lot of different things right now, given that we're in the middle of it all. I don't know if you've seen, just because I live in my own bubble of, at least here in the US there's been a lot of talk just about media outlets shutting down and laying off workers and stuff. Is that something that is also being experienced abroad? Is the world of foreign news and journalism different in any way from ...

Erin: (08:04)

Yeah, from what we've seen, foreign journalism I think probably caught a bigger hit from the more broad collapse of print media in the last decade or two decades, or however long it is now, than it will during this particular crisis. There used to be dozens of foreign journalists in all of the major cities in Southeast Asia, and that's not really a thing any more. Which is a bummer, but on the other side of that, I think we're also seeing Western outlets, and I say that with US, Australian, and European ones particularly, that are a lot more ... And I think it's pushed by editors, a lot more interested and more trusting of having local reporters report on their own countries, which is a brilliant thing for someone like me who wants to really get to know the news.

Erin: (09:05)

It makes a lot more sense to have someone who's from Jakarta, speaks fluent English and fluent Indonesian, and knows the back story of every politician to be covering Indonesian politics than someone that's just been dropped in for three years and then moved on to wherever else is next. Which isn't to say that there isn't brilliant foreign reporting coming out of us foreigners, I think some of the most interesting stuff comes out of, when you arrive in a new place and you can truly see how different something is. Which I think is a problem that I face when I try to report on Australia. I think it's a problem a lot of people face when they report on their own thing. But I think we are heading into a really, really exciting time for Southeast Asia journalism, where yeah, there's just going to be more and more brilliant local journalists rising. And I think that should be applauded.

Nadia: (10:06)

This might be a really dumb question, but it's only because I don't know anything about this topic. Why didn't they employ more local correspondents before, or why is that a shift?

Erin: (10:17)

No, I think that's a fair question, because I think it's probably a diverse answer. So I think Southeast Asia, I definitely can't speak for anywhere else, but because of how ... This is a pretty deep one. Because of how colonialism worked across the region, there are some countries that are much more coveted in speaking other languages, like Singapore's language is English and Philippines, great English because of the Americans. And Malaysia because of the English. But then for countries like Indonesia, where there was, not everybody spoke Dutch anyway and English was great, but it's not at the same level that it is now, it would have been seen as a much better move for desks back in the olden days to send journalists from London or Sydney over to do it and work with local reporters who probably could have just done it themselves, to be honest.

Nadia: (11:22)

Got it. As I asked the question I realized I was probably walking into a history lesson.

Erin: (11:26)

There's so much interesting conversations that come out of that, because all around the region, so many of my good friends that I catch up with across the whole place are Thai or Indonesian or Filipino, and they have the most brilliant takes on this sort of stuff. So yeah, if any listeners are interested in that, search out more, because there's a lot of brilliant conversation around foreign journalists, foreign correspondents, and who can do it and who should be doing it.

Nadia: (12:00)

How are the newer correspondents making themselves known?

Erin: (12:06)

It's tough because especially in the very, very big cities, especially in Manila and Bangkok and Jakarta, where it's tough to rise to the top just because the pool is so big, but I think the answer is the same everywhere, and it's Twitter, which is for better or worse.

Nadia: (12:24)

The magical piece, yes. You see so many Substack writers that come in from these other public platforms where they've built an audience on Twitter, or we've seen Instagram, LinkedIn, surprisingly.

Erin: (12:40)

Oh, whoa, yeah.

Nadia: (12:42)

Just wherever. So you're building this audience elsewhere and then people are excited and engage with you there, and then Substack becomes this place to say, "Okay, I have a following, I have fans, and come talk to me over here in this more semi-private place." I see it as, one step leads to the other, which is nice.

Erin: (13:02)

Yeah, no, that's always amazing. Any time I see someone announce their new Substack they'll get hundreds and hundreds of retweets. I'm like, "Damn, all right, go for it."

Nadia: (13:14)

Yeah, really. More of that's happening lately too, which is great.

Erin: (13:19)


Nadia: (13:20)

So you write a newsletter, but then you also have a weekly column, and then you also have a podcast, is that right?

Erin: (13:25)

Yes, podcast is on hiatus at the moment, just because I've had to come back to Australia and it is pretty crazy over there in poor Jakarta, so we're just on break for a moment. But we'll be back.

Nadia: (13:41)

Got it.

Erin: (13:43)

And yet the weekly column with The Diplomat is very similar to the Substack publication, actually, but just with less jokes and a bit more serious.

Nadia: (13:55)

It's your professional face.

Erin: (13:56)

Yeah, exactly.

Nadia: (13:57)

Do you like having this balance of lots of different projects? That's something I really like about a lot of writers. You can express yourself in lots of different ways.

Erin: (14:05)

It's fun, isn't it? I feel like, what's that thing, you can't half-ass two things, you have to whole-ass one thing? I think I got too excited when I first realized that you could do all these cool things out there. Once I spent a year just working solely on the Substack, that's when it was much easier to turn these other projects into actual things. And it was so much better, actually worked out that time, yeah.

Nadia: (14:29)

How do you feel about expressing yourself through writing in a newsletter and speaking on a podcast? How do those two things compare for you?

Erin: (14:38)

Oh, I think it's very different. I think I'm always just going to be a natural writer. It's just easier to self-edit and work out what you're saying. And even with the podcast that I do with my friends at General Media, which is Indonesia dan Lain-Lain, they'll kill me if I don't shout it out. Even then it's very ... I don't know, just very nervous. But when you write you don't have that. You sit in your bedroom, and if it didn't work out you can just restart and send it an hour late.

Nadia: (15:14)

It's true. I do feel like, I don't know if other people feel this way, but I feel like I can ... So many people are either one or the other of, they really love expressing themselves through words and typing and really love expressing themselves in speaking in person. I tend to get a lot more tongue-tied speaking, which makes writing a lot more appealing.

Erin: (15:32)

Oh, for sure, for sure. I think it's a total skill to be able to just do that natural-sounding podcast thing. I'm not there yet. I'd like to be there, but I don't know.

Nadia: (15:42)

We're getting there.

Erin: (15:43)


Nadia: (15:46)

And on Dari Mulut ke Mulut you also have different kinds of posts, right? So you have the Monday email that goes out that's keeping people informed about the news, and then you have these dedicated feature posts that you send out. How did you decide on this editorial strategy of different types of posts for different types of readers? How does that work for you as a writer and for your audience?

Erin: (16:08)

This is going to sound like I'm probably sucking up a bit too much to Substack.

Nadia: (16:13)

Oh, please.

Erin: (16:15)

So the Monday one, that's usually really, really long and quite intensive. That takes me a full day to write, and it's still a bit fun, but it is very serious ... Because a lot of the stories, even with the last few months with the pandemic, prior to that a lot of the stories in the region are horrible atrocities. And that makes it really difficult to write about. So things like that, very serious in tone, and that's pulled out for ... That's a premium one for the paid subscribers. And when I was trying to work out how I wanted this to look exactly, it was right at that time that I think Hamish sent out a big email recommending the best way to do it for everybody, the scheduling, where it was something like one premium and then two free ones a week. And that's what I've been aiming for since, and that's been perfect, I think that's worked really well. With the pandemic, though, I'm trying to publish at least three times a week, and that's mostly just free, because it's so important.

Nadia: (17:28)

Yeah, I'd love to hear more about that, just because the pandemic's affecting a lot of people in different ways. I've noticed you've done more COVID related reporting now. Does it feel like it's just another hot issue that maybe has an extended period of coverage, or does it feel like you're actually having to think about things in a different sort of way?

Erin: (17:46)

That's interesting, because when it first started, southeast Asia was the first region outside of China to have known cases. So that began for us, I think, in January Thailand confirmed its first case, late January. And then the Philippines was the first death outside of China. So it's a beat that this region's been on for probably a few weeks sooner than New York, but it feels like a lot longer. And initially it seemed like it was just another big, big story and it would be something that I'd be covering for the next few months, but alongside the regular news that we get out of here. And then it very, very quickly just dominated everything. And I don't see it coming back from that for a few more months yet.

Erin: (18:43)

Which is interesting, because then you've also got some really important stories that are just being totally buried by this that is hard to ... I know it's out there, but you can't find it because the reporting isn't there, which is a bummer, but I understand. So that's part of the reason why I've started commissioning original pieces from other reporters in the region, particularly for areas that are under-reported completely. Because we do see a lot of areas that, they just aren't, there's either horrible media restrictions or they're just seen as too small, too insignificant, I guess, to be covering. Yeah, so I've started commissioning pieces around coronavirus in those sorts of areas to fill that gap.

Nadia: (19:39)

That's really interesting. I saw that you did one in, I think, Laos, is that right?

Erin: (19:43)

Yes, yeah, I've got another one from that same writer running today, which is amazing, because Laos is, alongside North Korea, one of the only two media black spots in Asia. Which is weird, because it's still got bigger press freedom ... Larger? I don't know. Stronger press freedoms than Vietnam, but still, that's what that reporter says. And it's just really, really hard to get a real idea of what this pandemic actually looks like out there.

Nadia: (20:21)

You call them media black spots in the sense that there just isn't enough coverage for the region?

Erin: (20:24)

Yeah, just nothing coming out of there. They've got, Laos is probably the hardest one to cover. Because there's Radio Free Asia, which has been there for a while, but there's also a bit of ... Some people don't really enjoy having Radio Free Asia speak for countries like Laos, given its history. But at the same time, it's one of the only ones there that can report on some of these huge stories. Laos is integral to China's dominance in the region, and if Radio Free Asia is the only one that's going to do it, or Voice of America, then that's just the way it has to be. Because there's no local media, or at least not large local media, I should say, rather.

Nadia: (21:14)

Do you think there are ways in which being an independent writer and an independent reporter can be an advantage in this sense? Because I know you said this correspondent is anonymous, which I don't know if that's for specific reasons or not, so without revealing the identity of this person or anything like that, is there an advantage to, "Okay, well, I know someone who lives in this region that's being under-reported, but I have a following, I have an audience, and we can directly pipe this in," instead of trying to go through these outlets that...

Erin: (21:45)

Yeah, very easy to sneak under the radar. Plus, it's hard for the big mastheads to take a punt on a country like Laos or an issue like coronavirus in Laos. But for me, I already know that my audience is interested. They've signed up specifically for news on countries like Laos. So for me it's easy to sneak under the radar and I know people are interested, so it's a no-brainer for me, I think.

Nadia: (22:19)

Yeah, that's really cool. Do you, because you are serving readers in a bunch of different countries, even if it is all the same region, do you find that readers are interested in stuff from different countries, or do they just want to hear from their own country?

Erin: (22:32)

That's an interesting question. I did a bit of a shout-out, well, not a shout-out, I don't know if that's the right way to put it. I sent an email around to premium subscribers last week or the week before, because I noticed that I hadn't sent a premium one, like members only one, for a few weeks, because it's all been coronavirus. And I said, "I want to keep reporting for the premium audience, so what is it that you're interested in? What do you want to be hearing about at the moment?" And it was really interesting that the array of people who responded, I think, is probably pretty representative of my audience. So it was a couple of Australians that have lived and worked in the region for a long time, a few young ASEAN nationals who have studied abroad and have since returned to the region or are still studying, and just a couple of friends, just be like, "Oh, hey, yeah, sounds cool."

Erin: (23:34)

And that was really interesting, because it was mostly just like, "I want to hear what's happening with human rights, I want to hear about, is there ..." I think we were seeing this around the world, but some not-so-great politicians using the pandemic as a cover to force through some more ... I don't know, some problem ... How do I put this? Some draconian laws, or exploiting this to stamp out and demonize dissidents, which we see in a couple of countries in the region a lot anyway. So this is an easy way to exploit that crisis. Or more about the bloc itself as a body. Which was interesting to me, there was nothing about, "What is it like for expats in Hanoi?" Or, "How do I get home from Singapore?" Or whatever. I really appreciate that my audience is very interested in the region, not in how the region affects them in their own country.

Erin: (24:56)

And that goes as well for readers that I know are ASEAN nationals. It's not, "How does Indonesia perform compared to Thailand?" Or whatever. It's very, "What is my country's place in this region and what does that look like overall?" I think that's very cool, I'm very grateful for that.

Nadia: (25:18)

Sort of an advantage of having this regional focus too, that allows you to zoom out and be a little bit more holistic in the stories that you talk about.

Erin: (25:25)

That's a good way to put it, yeah, definitely.

Nadia: (25:29)

You mentioned the responses you got as this microcosm of what you see on your list, which reminded me I haven't even asked you, how did you grow your list early on?

Erin: (25:39)

I know, it cracks me up because it's literally by word of mouth, and that's the name of the newsletter.

Nadia: (25:44)

Right, everything comes back to the title again.

Erin: (25:47)

When I first started, and I think I was still ... I don't know, I still think of myself as a bit of a baby journalist, but I was very much a baby journalist then. Less than two years in Jakarta, no idea what I was doing, sort of thing. So I didn't have all that much credibility then. So initially the list was just friends and friends of friends, I think, especially friends like Australian friends, who have studied or traveled or lived in the region. They were particularly interested, most other people weren't. But I think the biggest thing for me was the consistency, to be pumping it out continuously and just getting a bit better at it. Because it's not just getting better at getting it out in time. You just have to know your shit a little bit better each time as well. And that was a tough thing. There is a lot of learning curves when you'll hit 11 different countries, all with incredible histories and incredible presence.

Erin: (26:52)

And once that started building credibility a little bit, it got pushed by a few people that were really, really helpful. So especially Alan and Richard from Splice Newsroom, which is a Singapore media. They do original reporting about media in the region, or help newsrooms in the region brand membership programs and that sort of thing. And I think having their stamp of approval really helped a lot in establishing that credibility. As well as a few of the think tankers and foreign corrs who have shared it on Twitter. Every time that happened there'd be 100 new people on it, which is good.

Nadia: (27:38)

Yes, always a great strategy.

Erin: (27:42)


Nadia: (27:44)

So you started in 2016, is that right?

Erin: (27:47)

Yes. Yeah.

Nadia: (27:48)

And then you went paid, or you added paid subscriptions about two years into that, which I think was around the time you also joined Substack.

Erin: (27:56)


Nadia: (27:58)

What made you decide to go ...

Erin: (28:00)

Well, this is weird, because I started, I hadn't heard of Substack until a very good friend of mine, who used to work for Coconuts Jakarta but has since moved back home to the US, and he started Indonesia Intelligencer with them, which is a paid subscription looking at Indonesia very, very in depth. And I hadn't heard of Substack, and he told me about, and I was like, "Oh, shit, I'm doing that." And I just jumped straight over. And I've since taken over his job, so thank you, Aanant, twice. And I think it got to the point where I was doing so many and I was getting consistent and I was learning so much and I was working very, very hard that it became a bit of a ... I was like, do I really want to be working on this 20 hours a week for nothing? Apart from a bit of credibility when I pitch somewhere? So I think I came to Substack at the perfect time for leveling myself up.

Nadia: (29:07)

Did you find that there was maybe a trajectory of, you mentioned you started when you were super early in your writing, in your journalism career, and I guess there was some sort of mutual transference of credibility as you were writing more and having this newsletter, and then there is this point, it sounds like, where it was like you've gotten some measure of credibility early on, but then it's this next phase of, "Well, now if I'm putting 20 hours a week into this, then maybe there's something ..."

Erin: (29:38)

That's it.

Nadia: (29:38)


Erin: (29:40)

Yeah, turning it into a part-time job as opposed to just something you do. Instead of a hobby, I guess.

Nadia: (29:50)

Right, yeah, it's just interesting to think about, there's this reputational or credibility benefit that comes, and then at some point it's like, "Okay, I get that, but I'm still putting a lot of time and work into this."

Erin: (30:03)

Yeah, this is like anti-advice, because I think this is where a few newsletters might go a bit wrong, where it's like there's ... And I love the advice that Substack gives about this, because you can't just be like, "I'm doing this and here's the paywall." No, you do have to establish that very quickly. And if you're someone like, I'm going to say his last name wrong, Matt Taibbi?

Nadia: (30:26)

Taibbi, yeah.

Erin: (30:27)

Taibbi. He's got his credibility built in. But if you're someone like me you've got to just hustle it out for a little bit longer than maybe you'd like to.

Nadia: (30:39)

Yeah, absolutely. I'm really glad to hear you say that, because that's not anti-advice, that's good advice.

Erin: (30:44)


Nadia: (30:47)

Because we see all sorts of people come to Substack, and some people have huge audiences elsewhere like I mentioned, of big Twitter followings or whatever, and then they come here. And this is just the natural next step, and they've already built that audience somewhere, and that audience, some portion of that audience is going to follow them to Substack.

Erin: (31:01)


Nadia: (31:02)

But then some people join Substack and are really just starting from scratch and building a list from literally zero. And the way that they need to think about growing their publication is just going to be different from Matt Taibbi or whatever.

Erin: (31:20)

Absolutely, yeah. And what I really like about Substack is that it's not just like, "Okay, here's your platform, go have fun now." I feel like Hamish is in my inbox more than anyone. And you now.

Nadia: (31:31)

Mine too.

Erin: (31:35)

It's not just about ... I don't know, I really, really appreciate that there's so much helpful advice and ideas about how you can build it and work out what it is exactly that you want from it. Because it'd be so easy to just be like, "Okay, this is the platform to use." But I really appreciate that, it's definitely helped me a lot.

Nadia: (31:57)

Cool, I'm glad to hear that. You're now also being a part of it.

Erin: (32:01)

Yes, I've made it. But I think that's actually ... More unsolicited advice, actually read the emails from Substack. That helps a lot.

Nadia: (32:12)

Yes, I will support that as an occasional writer of those emails. Please read our emails, they're important.

Erin: (32:17)

And the threads, threads are amazing. For one, it's incredible to read what all these different people are doing with their newsletters. Some of them are so obscure and amazing, so much helpful advice from a lot of people that have been in the same position.

Nadia: (32:33)

Yeah, it's funny, after having conversations with writers we start to hear ... When you said “be consistent” I smiled to myself, because it's something that I've heard a lot of people say, and I feel like it's really an intangible thing, where someone's trying to grow their list and they're like, "What, just keep writing? That's not the answer." But it's like, no, that actually is a huge part of the answer. And it's funny that so many different people arrive on that in their own separate ways, regardless of what they're writing about. It is a really big thing.

Erin: (32:59)


Nadia: (33:00)

Yeah, it's funny, I actually just did a thread this morning, today or something like that, and I saw two folks I know, that they each write newsletters about watches, like timekeeping watches. And they found each other on the thread and I was like, "Oh, yay."

Erin: (33:14)

That's awesome, bringing people together, yeah.

Nadia: (33:17)

Yeah. So people read about all sorts of things, which is great.

Erin: (33:19)

Yeah. It's so cool.

Nadia: (33:21)

How did you decide, you were talking about paywall stuff, so how do you decide which of your posts you're going to make free and which ones are going to be paid? Where the value lies? Or did you experiment with different things before?

Erin: (33:32)

Yeah, and I'm lucky, I've got a very smart, angry friend who's a businesswoman. So she was really like, "This is what you've got to do." So thank God for her.

Nadia: (33:43)

Fantastic. We all need a friend like that.

Erin: (33:47)

Exactly. And it was very clear to me that the ... I think I had to work out what my base was, what my audience is. And the people that pay, overwhelmingly, are people that work somehow in the southeast Asia area. So that's either people that work at think tanks or academics or risk analysts or whatever. They're the ones that pay, so it made sense once I had talked it out with my pal that the really in-depth, long-ass one on Monday, which goes into every big story of every country, would be the one that's actually ... I shouldn't say actually valuable, but the one that people will pay for. And then the side ones are more just stuff that I'm really interested in for one day. So that's just how I broke it down.

Nadia: (34:44)

I'd love to hear you talk a little bit more about the side projects. You did this spinoff newsletter, Ayolah, that ...

Erin: (34:52)

Yeah, Ayolah.

Nadia: (34:54)

My pronunciation here, but just to cover the Indonesian elections, and then it sounded like the elections happened and then you were like, "I'm going to keep this spinoff project to continue to cover other elections," which I thought was cool. We don't have a ton of examples, but I love finding examples of writers that are doing spinoff newsletters. So yes, please inspire other people to do it.

Erin: (35:16)

Yeah. Well, I liked it, and then the Indonesian election happened, and then that was it. I was like, "Okay, that's the last election for a while in the region." So that's very much on hiatus at the moment. Because last year was a big year. Indonesian election happened around the same time as the Philippine midterms, which is huge, and the Thai election, which was very complicated and messy in a different way. So between the three of them, those elections were taking up way too much space in the regular newsletter. So it just made a lot more sense to just pull it out and do it somewhere else. Because there'd be days, weeks where it'd be like 3,000 words, which is double what I aim for, just because so much happened in Indonesia in the last four days on the election. I'm like, "Oh, God." So pulling it out made a lot more sense.

Erin: (36:11)

And it's something I want to continue doing, but I don't know. It's going to be weird, we don't really have ... We've got two elections this year, one's definitely happening, one I'm not sure about in Myanmar, and that'll definitely be coming back.

Nadia: (36:27)

I see, interesting.

Erin: (36:28)

But that one's totally free as well. I don't think that's worth ... I see that more as feeding people towards the main one rather than a stand-alone side project, if that makes sense.

Nadia: (36:42)


Erin: (36:42)


Nadia: (36:43)

Yeah, totally. We have another writer, Walt Hickey, who does, he has his main newsletter, which is a data lens on the news, and then he does a whole bunch of different side projects and is very vocal about this being a really great thing.

Erin: (36:56)


Nadia: (36:56)

Which I think is a great thing. And he talks about it in a similar way, of these side projects feed in mutual directions back to my main list. And the nice thing about having a main list and then spinning off with a side project is, you automatically have an audience of this side project.

Erin: (37:12)

Yeah. Absolutely. Oh, all right, I'm going to search him out.

Nadia: (37:17)

Oh yeah, we actually have a post about it, I'll send it to you.

Erin: (37:18)

Oh great, cheers.

Nadia: (37:21)

Where he talks about this. Oh, no worries. And how did you decide on pricing for Dari Mulut ke Mulut? We have a minimum price, but then I'm sure for pricing for different markets that aren't necessarily, they might just have a different scale. Yeah, how did you work that out?

Erin: (37:42)

No, that's a good point. I started off with the ... I'm not sure if it's still the default, but I started with the $5, $50 thing. And then that same angry, this woman friend, told me to put it to $7 and $70. But that seemed crazy to me so I just split the difference and went $6, $60.

Nadia: (38:00)

You really split the difference.

Erin: (38:05)

But I agree, I think pricing people out of the market's a bummer anyway. It's especially so in southeast Asia, where I don't want southeast Asian people to not be able to read about their own region. So I've left it at $6, but any national from an ASEAN country or Timor-Leste under 30 gets a free subscription. So that just worked out easily for me.

Nadia: (38:35)

And I saw student subscriptions as well.

Erin: (38:39)

Yeah, and that's also, I think somebody at ... It's always funny, I can always tell when somebody at a university's mentioned it because I'll just get 40 requests all within an hour. I'm like, "Oh, great, Hong Kong University's given me a shout-out, cheers."

Nadia: (38:56)

Do you know how they're giving you ... Is it they're sharing it somewhere in a publication?

Erin: (39:01)

I don't know. Sometimes I ask, because some people are ... I don't know, sometimes students seem a bit scared, like, "Hello, I am so-and-so and I study this." I'm like, "Oh, thanks." And sometimes they're a bit more chatty and I'm like, "Hey, where did you find out about this?" And they'll just tell me. And usually it's just been shouted out in a lecture or something like that, Facebook groups.

Nadia: (39:24)

That's great, again, speaks to the power of word of mouth.

Erin: (39:26)

Yeah, totally.

Nadia: (39:29)

So you've been writing the newsletter for a long time, well before they were cool, which I think is awesome. Since newsletters have become this more of a trend and more of a thing that people understand in the past year or two, how have you seen things change? Did you find that people thought or talked about your newsletter differently early on? And has it changed your writing style at all as expectations have changed?

Erin: (39:54)

Yeah, I think people have stopped calling it an email blog now, which is cool. Yeah, and I think there's a lot more ... I talk about this all the time. Isn't it so weird that email is cool now? Do you remember five years ago getting an email and you're like, "What is this?"

Nadia: (40:11)

People thought email was dead, they're always saying it's dead, but right now it's definitely not dead.

Erin: (40:15)

No, it lives again. Yeah, it's interesting to see that people are so willing to pay for an email newsletter. I didn't really think that was a thing, but yeah. I don't know.

Nadia: (40:34)

Because you did this in 2018, which was, I think, basically when Substack started.

Erin: (40:40)


Nadia: (40:41)

And it really wasn't a thing. Even now it's often difficult to explain to people that this is a thing that you pay for it. So you really saw it at the early days, I think, when people weren't ...

Erin: (40:51)

Yeah, there's an Australian that lives in London, I can't remember her name, but she sent out a newsletter for years and years, and I think she's old school, am I allowed to say MailChimp on the podcast? Old school MailChimp one.

Nadia: (41:04)

Yes, you can say anything you want to.

Erin: (41:07)

So I was a bit like ... And I think initially mine was modeled on hers, where it was very like, "These are some interesting links I read this week." And that's how it started. But I don't know. There's just so much room for creativity on it that I think didn't exist a few years ago, or some of the ideas just never existed. And this thing now with popping in audio as well, that's crazy to me. You're developing so quickly.

Nadia: (41:39)

Yeah, hope so. Yeah, it is funny, I feel like links were the gateway drug for a lot of newsletter writers, where ... I have a newsletter that I don't write nearly as frequently as yours, but I think early on I also thought of it as, this is just where I share, I dump a couple links when I've written something or whatever, and then I think at some point there's this mental transition that happens where you're like, "Oh, I have this platform and people are opening my email." And then start talking a little bit more because you're on stage, you might as well be saying things. And then it develops into this narrative style.

Erin: (42:16)

Yeah, that's exactly it, yeah.

Nadia: (42:19)

Yeah. It's really cool. Well, cool. Thank you for joining and chatting with me. Is there anything else that you want to mention here for people that are just starting to write on Substack?

Erin: (42:30)

Oh, I don't know, that's a good question. Because I think the best thing that I did was sign up to just about every free list on Substack I could find. A lot of the political reporting on there is American, which is, unless you're American, probably too much American news. But signing up and reading as many other newsletters as I could was probably one of the most helpful things I did in addition to reading the Bangkok Post every day and all that. Learning to do it by watching other people do it has been really, really valuable. And I think not only is it interesting and you learn so much interesting stuff reading other people's, but it gives you a bit of inspiration and a bit of, some ideas about how you can use your own, develop your own, which I find really valuable. I still do it. I've been doing this for four years and I still read everybody's to see what's ...

Nadia: (43:37)

That's impressive. Lot more to keep up with now.

Erin: (43:41)

Oh my gosh, yes. It's interesting, I feel like they're getting longer as well. The length of an email, I swear, used to be like 700 words max. And now I sit there reading Hell World for an hour or two. I'm like ... Huge.

Nadia: (43:55)

It's true, I think it's that stage mentality again, we're like, "Oh, I'm still holding the mic, so better keep going longer and longer." People keep reading it.

Erin: (44:04)

Exactly, exactly. Yeah.

Nadia: (44:08)

Cool. Thank you. And where should people find you if they want to check out your work?

Erin: (44:11)

Darimulut.substack.com, which ... I almost regret giving it that name because it's D-A-R-I-M-U-L-U-T.substack. And there I think you can find links to everything else I do as well.

Nadia: (44:27)

Yes, we'll link to it in the show notes.

Erin: (44:30)


Nadia: (44:31)

Awesome. Thanks, Erin.

Erin: (44:32)

Thank you so much.