As Covid-19 combines with populist nationalism to close borders and minds, South Asia’s “best known and least read magazine,” Himal Southasian, is pushing back with a practical vision of regionalism using journalism that reflects pluralism, social justice, human rights and a new membership model that leverages its transnational community of readers and writers.

Aunohita Mojumdar, Himal’s editor until earlier this year, said a membership base that is founded in the journalism provides a path for the magazine to move away from the decades of unsustainable dependence on grants and sporadic advertisement revenue.

The magazine was launched in 1988 in New York, where founder editor Kanak Mani Dixit was then working, as the first and, now, longest running political and cultural magazine in South Asia. (Dixit provides the wry “best known, least read” take on his journalistic child.)

Himal focussed on the Himalayan region stretching across Nepal, India, Pakistan, Bhutan and Tibet. In 1996, it grew into a “Southasian” magazine (the editors use Southasia as one word for the region to emphasise its historical unity), to develop a practical vision of regionalism based not only on economic ties but also pluralism, social justice and human rights.

Experimenting with form, from a monthly magazine to a quarterly bookazine, Himal weathered political storms and bureaucratic barricades to stay afloat in Nepal. Having had to shut its doors in 2016, it took two years to find a new home in Colombo, at the top of Himal’s quirky “right side up” map.

Himal magazine's “right side up” map. Photo credit: Himal

Reconceptualising regionalism

The map, designed in 1998, is an attempt by the editors of Himal to “reconceptualise regionalism in a way that the focus is on the people rather than the nation-states. This requires nothing less than turning our minds downside-up.”

How then have Himal’s editors worked at making the legendary magazine as widely read as it is known?

Mojumdar, who completed her eighth year as editor earlier this year, and was credited with shepherding Himal’s resurrection in Sri Lanka, said that donor funding is erratic at the best of times and donors are always balancing competing demands.

“With growing inequities, injustices and greater threats to democratic rights throughout our region, some of these demands are urgent,” she said. “When funding for Himal dried up temporarily in 2011, and forced the magazine to close its monthly print edition, we felt it would be good to reduce donor dependency and achieve some financial stability for core costs through our own means.”

Shubhanga Pandey, Himal’s acting editor, said, “We felt that we needed to involve the readers and their contributions in the overall financial calculation.”

“Given Himal Southasian’s readership and reach, and its current digital form, we felt membership was the way to go,” he said.

A members’ community

A problem that dogs small independent regional media – the difficulty of distributing print across borders, the scattered audience and the modest numbers – made it difficult for Himal to earn revenue through subscription and advertising but make it ideal for membership.

“Those reading Himal are largely committed readers who come for its exceptional journalism,” said Mojumdar. “Most would not find it difficult to pay a modest sum, and many would want to. The challenge lies in that last mile – how a media organisation can make readers take that step from intent to actual payment.”

Pandey, who concurred with Mojumdar, said that their challenge is to expand the general audience and find that critical number of the audience willing to make the move from reading and appreciating their work to actually making the payment.

“People are motivated to be paid members if they feel that the entirety of journalistic and non-journalistic work an organisation does add up to more than the sum of articles it puts out in the public domain,” he said.

The membership programme, long in the pipeline, got a boost with a seed grant from Facebook via the Splice Beta Fund.

Already a community of sorts, writers and readers of Himal share a way of thinking that crosses borders and recognises geographical contiguity, cultural continuities, contradictions and commonalities of contemporary history.

With such a base, it is possible to visualise cross-border connections between citizens and communities in a region fraught with political hardliners helming nation states.

“We are constantly fighting against the tide of nationalist sentiment which will surely receive a fillip with the closing of borders due to Covid and its aftermath,” Mojumdar said. “Himal will have to find new ways to underline the urgency of cross-border thinking and cooperation at a time when many in positions of political leadership are not just setting us against each other across borders but also within our own national boundaries.”

Buying into ideas, not selling products

The distinction between membership and subscription, said Pandey, is what the publication means to the readers/audience.

“Subscribers generally pay a certain sum to get hold of a product they value,” Pandey said. “Members pay because they value what the publication produces, but also because they identify with the organisation and want to in some way contribute to its sustainability.’’

The assumption that there is a community of readers, supporters, writers, past staff, well-wishers who are interested in the organisation’s presence in public life was borne out by the survey conducted to assess the suitability of the membership model that could sustain the kind of journalism Himal specialises in.

Himal’s long-form articles have a lasting shelf-life and are archived by universities and research institutions, used in academic courses as required reading, and also by activists, practitioners and academics for their own further work,” said Mojumdar. “We know this quite well from the feedback we receive.”

Interestingly, the survey conducted before launching the membership program showed not only that a healthy percentage was willing to contribute financially, but most of them indicated that they would make such payments even if the products were not exclusive to them – potential members were willing to pay to support Himal’s work even if it was freely available to all.

In the pipeline are different forms of involvement with members, including say a quarterly online meeting with members to exchange ideas and experiences that resonate with the “idea” of Himal.

Readers undoubtedly respect the courage the magazine has exhibited in taking on challenges over the decades – whether related to the difficult subjects it covers, amplifying unheard voices, the pursuit of rigorous journalism or for weathering the political and financial challenges to its own survival.

Long-time readers of Himal, and its most loyal base, the South Asian diaspora, as well as non-South Asians interested in the region’s politics, culture and journalism, are being seen as potential members of the Himal community. Membership composition so far shows that half the members are from within the region and half from elsewhere.

The range of membership packages, starting from $19 caters to a variety of needs, with slots such as ally, comrade, fellow traveller, promoter, patron and a more heft institutional membership.

Allowing open access to content is one of the important drivers for Himal to opt for the membership model. “We wanted to remain as open as possible and keep our material outside any paywalls, which is not possible in subscription models as the value of the product is based on exclusivity of access,” said Pandey.

Potential members, he said, view journalism very differently. They are paying not just for themselves but also to ‘subsidise’ the journalistic product to anyone who wishes to read it. As part of the engagement, members – and readers in general – are encouraged to send comments and ideas for the kinds of stories they would like to see.

A recent example is Southasiasphere, a fortnightly analysis and outlook of developments in South Asia, which includes text, photo essays and podcasts which, it is hoped, will drive membership and readership.

As for measuring “success”, Pandey said, “In the instances where membership has been deemed a success, anything over 10% of revenue coming from the readers in the next five years would be considered a success.”

“Given what we know about the subscription habits in South Asia, and in light of the Covid-19, crisis, we feel 5% of the total cost being covered by membership is a worthy target to have over the next few years,” Pandey said. “However, the significant increase – nearly a doubling of readership per month on average – of readership since we relaunched our website and started the membership programme in January makes us optimistic in the long run.”

Laxmi Murthy was an associate editor at Himal Southasian from 2006–2010.

First published in The Story, a newsletter digging into the future of journalism in the Asia-Pacific. Find more stories about media in transition here and subscribe to the newsletter here.