Interviewer: Esther Kezia Thorpe

Esther Kezia Thorpe: How did you get started in journalism?

Reta Lee: Like many other reporters or journalists, I started out writing for magazines. I started writing for Hello Magazine and Hot, which is a local entertainment magazine. I wrote for both magazines for about three years, and then in 2009, I decided to ride the digital waves with Microsoft.

That’s when I was writing for MSN website. I was in charge of the lifestyle channel and the entertainment channel. From there, with experience and by working with respective leads from other departments, I got to learn a lot through my journey in the digital realm. I was promoted to the editor in chief for MSN Malaysia.

Back then, I think we were in a really great place. There was MSN, it was Yahoo, it was Google . Things were doing great at that time. You hear other stories where some other companies have reduced budget headcount or even the newsroom size.

From there I moved on from Malaysia, I moved to Singapore and I joined Singapore Press Holdings. My role was to provide advice and digital knowledge across the magazine titles that SPH had licenced with and for their internal titles. After I left SPH, I joined Yahoo, so here I am.

Magazines, certainly where we are, have been in almost terminal decline for probably the last couple of decades. Has that also been the case over where you are? Can you see that they’re really on their way out?

We’ve been seeing a couple of magazine titles tampering off. Last year, we covered a story of how one of the biggest publishing houses in Malaysia had to close down. The editorial teams there, the editors who spoke to Yahoo anonymously, were shocked. It was just such a sudden thing.

The circulation for magazine titles is not going that great here. We’re seeing the drop in numbers and people’s behaviour in consuming news has moved online.

So what does your day to day work involve in your role as editor in chief of Yahoo lifestyle entertainment at the moment?

I look after the lifestyle channel. We look after the markets in Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, so the English markets. We don’t have offices there, so the headquarters is based out of Singapore. My role is to create English content across the markets, whether it’s across beauty, fashion, travel, or entertainment. Right now, we’ve introduced shopping, as well as luxury news and parenting.

Is it the shopping and parenting that are the new channels you’ve spun up?

Yes. Those are the two new pillars that we generated last year.

What was the sort of thought process behind identifying and launching those?

At Yahoo, our 360 degrees approach includes human-curated content based on trusted news partners. We have our own original reporting, as well as immersive content to provide a holistic approach for our readers. Based on that, with live data and statistics, we were able to pinpoint topics that interest our readers. This covers luxury news, as well as parenting and shopping.

We work with our internal product team to create these new pillars so that our readers can access stories and information. We started the shopping channel in 2019, because we wanted to observe the market’s affinity and understanding of affiliate marketing.

But it’s only in 2020 that we decided to push it further. With the rise of the pandemic, it forced all of us to just stay at home for safety, so we understood and noticed the behaviour shift in online shopping.

Do you think that’s a behaviour shift that’s going to continue for a little for a long time? Or do you think that’s gonna shift back once people get back to normal?

I feel that shoppers in Asia are very savvy. We are seeing a lot of companies rolling out e-wallets with rewards programmes to entice shoppers. In 2020, according to Statista, the eCommerce market in Southeast Asia amounted to approximately $62 billion. It’s amazing.

From that, I feel that the shoppers are bargain hunters and looking for rewards. This behaviour shift to online is what prompted them to look for deals or look for bargains. They’re doing research, so I would say this trend will probably continue outwards.

From the point of view of how people actually go in and access that kind of content, do the articles you publish online come with affiliate links?

What happens is that we have a small team of shopping editors, and we have an editorial calendar where we find out what kind of events are happening. We work with some of our partners to create content around their campaigns. We try to give a little bit of our own curation of, say, a mix of evergreen content, as well as our providers or even our partner’s campaign on top of that.

I’m quite curious over the last year, certainly teams have been hugely disrupted. A lot of companies and publishers have had to go working completely remote. How’s that been for you over in Singapore? Did you have to go into some sort of lockdown, or how did you carry on working last year?

I was discussing this with my friends and everyone keeps saying that 2020 is almost like a blur. But for me, it was full on. I remember, in the early days of the pandemic, we noticed a search for information and news updates relating to the virus’ global reach and impact, how countries are responding, the health and scientific knowledge about the virus.

People were consuming news online. They sought trusted sources for consumption. On Yahoo, we saw a massive uptick in content viewers and an increase in COVID-19 related searches. Our global editorial network, notably in the US, the UK, and Singapore, we came together to provide 24-hour, up-to-date coverage on the Coronavirus.

For a little context, Verizon Media is actually home to brands like Yahoo, TechCrunch, and AOL, so there are about 900 million people across the globe who love and trust our our brands. From there, we responded quite early on. We released a series of ‘Stay Well Together’ content on Yahoo Singapore and Yahoo TV, which focused on content dedicated to wellbeing, ranging from mental health to fitness and parenting.

Globally, Verizon Media launched Yahoo Life, which is dedicated to providing wellbeing education, news, and resources for mental physical and emotional wellbeing. We also donated $10 million in advertising inventory to support mental and public health response efforts to COVID-19, so that’s pretty amazing.

Lifestyle and entertainment content must have been a little bit trickier to source at times. If nobody’s going out, you’ve not got as many kind of entertainment stories.

Correct. That’s why this new series that we started called ‘Stay Well Together’ was about how to exercise at home or even where to shop for groceries or health supplements, things like that. We try to deliver content that’s useful to our readers.

Even with our video content, we shared a lot of food hacks or kitchen hacks that the team had published last year. It was pretty interesting to see this kind of content. We were just at home trying things out. We shot them on our own iPhones and just quickly put it out.

Is that international collaboration with the other teams something you’ve done before or something you do again?

We think so, yes. Moving forward, it’s always been in our DNA to collaborate with the other markets and this applies to the shopping team globally, as well. Because we all have similar interests, whether it’s in fashion, where to buy the latest sneakers or what the celebrities are wearing. We do try to reuse or repackage the other market’s content.

Are there certain things that your audience would find perhaps more or less interesting than audiences over here? Have you got particular celebrities or entertainment stories from the West that your market in South Asia is interested in, or do you try and find a bit more of a local or regional spin on it?

That’s a good question. We do package international celebrities, speaking for Yahoo lifestyle. In terms of being cooped up at home because of the pandemic, people are just watching Netflix series. We realised that from search terms and data that people are consuming, watching, and binge-watching all these series, so we decided to create content across these Netflix series.

Surprisingly, your reality shows, Love Island or even currently right now, the Bling Empire, are trending for South Asia. We created interviews or even reviews on the episodes, and we realised that people are actually searching for it and landing on our articles. There is an appetite, I would say, for international celebrity content. We try to create content around what people are searching for. It’s to give the masses what they want.

I’m very sorry to have inflicted Love Island on you from over here.

It was pretty entertaining, I must say.

In terms of where audiences go to actually consume the content you produce, that must have changed in the last 10 years. They probably didn’t come straight to the website anymore, is social a big part of it? Where do people go to read what you do?

The audience consumes Yahoo’s content via our Yahoo home pages and they discover content on social media. A big part of the Yahoo lifestyle strategy this year is to grow evergreen content. Some of them can be tagged to shopping articles.

For example, there was this whole rainy season that happened here in Singapore. Every day for the past two weeks, it’s been raining cats and dogs. The team jumped on creating a shopping article that recommends waterproof boots, bags, and makeup. We saw sales of umbrellas jumping in our back-end data, so that’s pretty interesting.

We find that celebrity content is huge for us. When we interview the celebrities, and then the personalities themselves share that content on their social media account, it just goes to show that there’s trust in your reporting for them to share with their fans.

What are some of the biggest media trends you’ve got your eye on over the next couple of years?

For Verizon as a whole, 5G is going to dramatically transform digital journalism, and we are already seeing this happening. There are some examples, like the Verizon Media editors, they’ve created, together with the product team, this daily Coronavirus mobile map that provided an AR view of the outbreak.

We could see like active cases by the country and even down to the states in the US. With user interests evolving, we are committed to producing more content in immersive formats. We will probably have several exciting projects coming up next year, I would say.

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