It was like the death of a family patriarch. But instead of long-lost cousins
and aunts arriving for wakes or phoning condolences from Patagonia, there was a
surge in e-mail traffic among that far-flung but tight-knit community -
journalists, past and present.
One is a billionaire, one a new media
entrepreneur, another a big name banker, a clutch are analyzing economies,
ensconced in think tanks or lecturing in academia. Others are still scribbling
or editing for a living in Tokyo, New York, Dhaka, Jakarta, Hanoi, London,
Bangkok, San Francisco and Beijing. Others are retired in the Dordogne or on the
This was the community of the many past
and a few current journalists of the Far Eastern Economic Review, a once iconic
Hong Kong-based weekly that came to an end last week after 58 years. The
magazine had been bought by Dow Jones in 1987 when it was at the peak of its
reputation and profitability. For whatever reason, it went into a decline that
proved fatal. Rather than sell the title, Dow Jones fired the staff and is
turning it into a Beijing-based monthly.
One person who might have had a wry smile
on his face was Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore's former leader. In 1989 the Far Eastern
Economic Review was the last foreign publication to confront in the Singapore
courts one of Lee's many libel actions. It lost, but its defense was so vigorous
that Lee was kept in the witness box for five days and the judge awarded
aggravated damages because the cross-examination "exacerbated the hurt to the
plaintiff's feelings and the damage to his reputation."
In its youth and in its prime the Far
Eastern Economic Review thrived on not readily kowtowing to the likes of the
Filipino dictator Ferdinand Marcos. Its journalists were not infrequently asked
to leave, occasionally jailed, and the publication frequently banned for
Many a business leader was similarly
discomfited by its exposés of insider dealing, banking scandals and corporate
skulduggery. If that upset the advertisers, too bad. It was the readers that
mattered and the ads would follow.
Its editor for 23 years, the late Derek
Davies, gave correspondents their heads. The rotund, pugnacious and occasionally
crude Welshman believed the magazine was there both to inform and to incite
debate. Editors were there to make sure that the magazine came out, but not to
impose an ideology or rewrite copy into homogenized prose. It was sui generis,
not an Asian version of Newsweek.
The magazine cared little whether many
thought its articles too long or too dense, as long as they appealed to part of
the coalition of niches that made up its market - the minutiae of Malaysian
politics, Southeast Asian diplomacy, Bangladesh development or Hong Kong
investment scandals. It declined to write down to its readers. Journalists,
especially the young and ambitious, naturally liked to write for such a
publication, even if the pay was modest. Under Davies, roughly half the
contributors were Asian, half expatriate. A few became famous writers, and many
more made reputations that they parlayed into more lucrative jobs in journalism,
finance, government and politics.
The magazine later appeared to lose its
way. Having had just four editors in its first 46 years, it had another six
during the final 12 years, and various makeovers aimed at broadening the appeal,
making it less controversial and easier to read. It was allowed back into
Singapore, but did it now have anything to say to Singaporeans? Business
coverage became more gushing than teeth-gnashing. In 2001 it was forced to merge
editorial staff with Dow Jones's Asian Wall Street Journal, previously a rival
for stories and revenue.
It lost many core readers without gaining
new ones. Of course the market had changed, too, with the entry into the Asian
marketplace of new media and magazines such as The Economist and BusinessWeek.
But those interested in Asian media diversity and freedom could not resist a
feeling that multinational corporations were not the right owners of small niche
businesses, particularly ones that competed for revenue with their other
The Far Eastern Economic Review's earlier
success had spawned rivals, notably Asiaweek, started in 1975 by rebels from the
Davies camp. It was more self-consciously Asian and for a while had a Chinese
edition. Time Inc., a shareholder since 1985, took full control in 1994 and
closed it in 2001. Sic transit Asian weeklies.