Sometime last year, Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam was in Tembusu College at the National University of Singapore to talk to undergraduates about current affairs. Midway (or was it all through?) he bemoaned the lack of understanding young people have of the big challenges facing Singapore. Millennials don’t read very much, or they read only what was of interest to them, he lamented.
I was in the audience (I taught in the college last semester), and so were my class of students and some ex-students. The young people came out of the talk rather miffed at what the minister said. Yet, there was no denying that big, important news is usually pretty boring. Young people have so many calls on their time, which are either urgent, like assignments with deadlines, or more interesting, which is usually anything else but dull reading.
But they didn’t like being dismissed as bo chap people. A few would consider themselves pretty up-to-date on current affairs. How to get their peers as interested as they were? I told them to go prove the minister wrong.
So they started Millegram.
It’s a play on millennials and Telegram, which is their social network of choice. It began as a class exercise for the 16 students from faculties as diverse as physics and political science, who were taking my enrichment module on critical reading and good journalism.
The key question for them to answer: How to deliver boring but big news in such a way that it would get young people reading?
There were the usual replies on how the articles must be written short, get to the point and be accompanied by visuals. But there were many mediums which purport to do that. What was so unique about their model?
Other questions include how the issues should be selected, what the mix should be and the sort of language or tone they should be written in. Here, I suggested that they had an advantage over other media because millennials know their own language and how to make that connection with their peers. I showed them an American example, The Skimm. It was also started by students but written in a way that hooked big news to the lifestyle of their peers.
Young people being young people, they wanted to do plenty, including doing news reports and writing commentaries. But I didn’t think they would have time to do extensive reporting and also believed it was best that they chalk up some experience in thinking about issues before offering opinions.
I suppose I had the experience of setting up Breakfast Network in the college to draw upon. Some of their alumni had been worked mercilessly with weekend reporting and fact-checking, so much so that they were on the laptops working on the website rather than listening to their lecturers in the theatre.
So, to put it bluntly, I was hoping that they would clear the basic hurdle: make the news accessible. The model should be sustainable, handed down to generations of students, just like any college activity. Millegram should spread by word of mouth with subscribers who don’t have to pay a cent.
Because the students live in a residential college, they could call on other students’ expertise. Those from the coding society helped in more technical aspects like the software and hardware backend. I suggested that even business students could get involved to handle the subscription model and get sponsorships for events for millennials. I was very involved in the beginning, especially in helping them iron out the editorial concepts and, ahem, tearing apart their draft articles. But when life – that is, exams and holidays began – I thought that the initial enthusiasm had died out.
So I was surprised earlier this year when they told me that they’ve got it all up and running. Website, subscription model, email newsletter, Telegram channel etc. It was entirely student-generated. They only took funding from their residential college to register their website domain.
I ask that you take the time to read them.
They are pretty rough pieces but you’ll get the idea behind it. It costs you nothing to subscribe (I think the email newsletter is well-designed) and if you’re a parent, I hope you’ll give your kids a nudge.
Go here https://millegram.com/subscribe/ to subscribe to their weekly newsletter.
The newsletter is released every Tuesday evening, with all eight articles sent in one go. If you prefer short snippets everyday, their Telegram channel sends out an article or two a day and can be joined here: https://t.me/MillegramTele .
My hope is that Millegram will go from strength to strength. This is an effort by young people for young people. Let’s support them.