An Online Platform Bringing Together Agricultural News and Produce Markets–A Taiwan Case Study

News page of News & Market's website and its retail store. (News & Market, Taiwan)

By Lin Hui-chen (News & Market reporter)

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News page of News & Market's website. (News & Market, Taiwan) Product order page of News & Market's website. (News & Market, Taiwan)
News & Market won the Excellent Journalism Award. (News & Market, Taiwan) The author of this article (left) and one of the founders of the website, Wang Wen-hao. (News & Market, Taiwan)
News & Market started a physical retail shop in Taichung. (News & Market, Taiwan) The dried fruit of ‘Home-Plum’ co-developed with the indigenous people. (News & Market, Taiwan)
Dried fruit Home-Plum sold in the retail store. (News & Market, Taiwan)  

News & Market Taiwan's attempt to use new media as a medium to promote small scale ecological farming, as well as an internet platform for issues around food, agriculture, land and the environment. Its website contains both news reports and educational information. It also includes an online marketplace which lends solid support to small farms, helping them to develop eco-friendly products and their sales.

This cyber platform was formally launched online on September 3, 2011. It started with five founders and two divisions: Produce and News. Currently it has 12 full-time staff: one news editor and four reporters in the News Division; plus seven people in the Produce and Administration arm. In addition, News & Market has hired a special correspondent in Japan. The website embraces participatory journalism, as it is open to public contributions. It is Taiwan's first flagship news site majoring in land and food.

Before talking more about News & Market, we must first describe Taiwan's situation. Let’s turn the clock back to four months before this website was established: the Department of Health (reorganised into the Ministry of Health and Welfare in 2013), the unit in charge of Taiwan's food, found that unscrupulous operators had replaced emulsifying food additives with industrial-grade plasticisers, which in turn affected thousands of food items, and dragged big name manufacturers, including “Uni-President”, into the downfall. Since then, Taiwan has been troubled by major food safety issues every year, including the 2013 tainted starch scandal, and, in 2014, the adulteration of cooking oil with recycled waste oil and animal feed oil.

These food safety problems did not develop overnight. After food production was industrialised, people gradually lost any idea of what their food originally looked like. During rampant industrialisation and urbanisation, they lost their connection with their land; agriculture and villages were sacrificed and images of agriculture and villages homogenised. Agriculture has become a sunset industry awaiting government subsidies. News & Market's mission is to fill in the missing pieces from farm to table.

Taking the hard and soft issues head on

News & Market's news coverage focuses on issues relating to agriculture, food, land and environment. In addition to accepting submissions from the public, it also hires reporters to cover daily news and plans out feature stories and investigative reports so as to produce at least 2 to 3 pieces of news daily. It produces not only soft pieces about good food and good fun, but also about food safety, agricultural development and policy changes, including coverage on school lunch bribery, the US Clenbuterol-tainted pork, water shortage and fallow farmlands, and most recently the “planting” of solar panels in farmlands, and illegal farmhouses.

In fact, the founding of News & Market has nothing to do with the plasticisers scandal. Its founder Feng Hsiao-fei had this idea way back in 2010. However, it was only when reporter Wang Wen-hao joined that the vision could be realised.

Wang Wen-hao has a background in traditional media and has worked with United Daily News and CommonWealth Magazine, reporting on environmental and agricultural issues. In 2011, he became the co-founder of News & Market, and was then the organisation's only full time reporter. In the first year, he planned and delivered the serial report ‘Nutritious School Lunches’. This report became one of the finalists of Taiwan's most prestigious ‘Excellent Journalism Award’ the following year, immediately kicking News and Market's visibility up a notch. In 2012, he exposed the story that Vedan had been forcing local organic farmers to abandon their farmlands in order to build its water bottling plant. The report attracted nearly 90,000 hits, and mounting public pressure finally led Vedan to withdraw its project. This report also established News & Market as a reputable professional news agency.

Choosing to hire a full-time reporter, rather than just counting on contributions, allowed the agency to follow through on social issues at will. Feng Hsiao-fei was previously head of the News Network for A Small Local Community, a government funded news site inviting contributions from community writers. Since most of the authors were not professional reporters, their writing had a strong grassroots essence, which supplemented the top-down reporting style of the traditional media, as they dug up many interesting stories big and small from rural areas and communities. However, the News Network for A Small Local Community could not choose its own subject matter and follow them through. News & Market allowed the two reporting methods to coexist in its website.

In 2013, News & Market launched a six-month investigative series and exposed the fact that over 90 percent of rice vermicelli actually used corn starch to fake as rice. The mainstream media picked up the story with follow-up reports, forcing the government to enact a new regulation -- only rice noodles containing 50 percent or more rice may be labeled as "rice vermicelli”. This series of reports won the 12th Excellent Journalism Award under the Print Press Investigative Report category, and also the 2013 Annual Consumer Rights News Award's Special Jury Prize. The 2014 Excellent Journalism Award for Special Contributions was also bestowed on News & Market's founder Feng Hsiao-fei.

News & Market started visiting Myanmar and Japan in 2013 and 2014. Its special reports ‘Myanmar: The Key to Transformation’ (on Myanmar's agriculture, and agricultural cooperation opportunities between Taiwan and Myanmar), ‘Taiwan and Japan: The Road to Wheat Revival’, together with other international news reports, currently attract about 15,500 visitors to News & Market daily, reading close to 37,000,000 pages per day on average.

From reporting to action: trouble shooting in villages

News & Market accepts no advertisements. It has one Taiwanese reporter and one Japanese correspondent, together with an annual special report funded by Chengchen Foundation for Environmental Education. The rest of the budget is covered by the profit on sales in the farm produce markets operated by the organisation.

This operating model did not come about by chance. Initially, News & Market had considered specialising in news production, and funding its operation by raising money from the public or by setting up a foundation. However, if the organisation was funded by public donation, they would not be able to control how long these donations would be sustained; if it was funded by a foundation, then the direction of the organisation might be affected by the change of directors from term to term. Therefore, News & Market finally decided to self-finance.

As well as producing news and information, News & Market also sells produce from all over Taiwan, including organic, eco-friendly and pesticide-reduced. It only carries a few imported items that are not available in Taiwan. News & Market does all this through its own website and retail stores. In addition to selling pre-packaged products from farmers, it also initiates collaboration with them to develop new agro-products. The ‘Home-Plum’ is an example.

The reddish pulp of the plums produced by an indigeous tribe from Taoyuan Township, Kaohsiung, is the raw material for making Home–Plum. However, this tribe is located deep in the mountains, and the bumpy and rugged mountain trails spoil the plums in transit, leaving the people no choice but to sell them off dirt-cheap rather than watch the fruits waste away. For this reason, the News & Market collaborated with the locals there to produce dried fruits, vinegar, jam and other products from the plums, to ensure a steady income and sustainable livelihood for the local indigenous group.

Feng Hsiao-fei explained that the markets were established with the hope of creating opportunities for actions supporting the small-scale farmers. Since news reports must have a news angle, a single event could only be mentioned once or twice, but a market can help farmers more directly. For example, Hung Hsiang, a farmer of the Wan Bao area of Miaoli County was feted as a heroine for the resistance she put up against land acquisition, yet, once the spotlight was turned off, she and her community were left to face difficulties in selling their produce. When News & Market learned about this, they went to assist Hung Hsiang to sell her sweet potatoes and mill them into flour. The organisation also assisted the Wan Bao community to become organic and eco-friendly growers.

Currently, News & Market depends on Facebook for promotion. Based on traffic analysis, visitors to its News pages are a very different group from the visitors to its Produce pages. Those who click into the News page usually click out of the site directly, and rarely click into the Market page after reading the news. The News Division always adheres to strict journalistic ethics by not publicising the organisation's own products.

However, to avoid suspicion, whenever the News Division releases a news story about a particular product, the Produce Division will try to avoid the limelight by off-loading the product for a certain period of time. For instance, before the fake rice vermicelli news story broke, the Produce Division was planning to load the plain rice vermicelli already in stock onto its sales racks. Yet, once the news was out, the division deferred selling the product for half a year, even though this batch of rice vermicelli had to be wasted.

Meet the future of digital imaging

It is nearly five years since News & Market was established, and its reputation has gradually grown. The information explosion and the increase of reading-listening netizens have led to a change in the layout and news programming. Before, the order of the layout was major headlines, minor headlines, body text and then pictures; now bigger photos are used to attract readers, and timely aerial shots and audiovisual clips are incorporated, to take full advantage of the internet.

Many traditional media are already flocking to expand their cyber terrains, and News & Market is still exploring the road ahead. News & Market envisages stepping up interaction with readers in the future, instead of just responding to their messages. Better infographics are planned, and Questions and Answers pages. Different forms and presentations are being considered for content delivery, as well as how to use everyday language to explain the news.

The Taiwanese media industry has been declining in recent years, and has been subjected to increasing political and commercial interference. News & Market has often been referred to as independent media, but it does not make that claim itself, partly because there is no consensus about the meaning of the word ‘independent’, and partly because News & Market holds strong core beliefs. The aim is to deliver news of public importance without political or commercial interference. Since this is the basic requirement of any media, it is unnecessary to refer to it as independent media. Feng Hsiao-fei said if a label is necessary, the most appropriate description would be ‘a small but professional’ media service.