Corporate Killing of Diversity
Philip Bowring ponders the merger of the news bureaus
of two regional publications
[This is a slightly expanded version of a Column which
appeared in the South China Morning Post on Monday November 19, 2001.
Philip Bowring writes a fortnightly column for the SCMP, Hongkong's
main English-language daily, as well as being a Columnist for the International
Herald Tribune. He has been based in Asia since 1973 and is a former
editor of the Far Eastern Economic Review.]
It may not be a turn up a blind alley for the magazine,
but it surely marked the end of an era for an institution born here
and raised in Hongkong's freewheeling spirit. Ten days ago, Dow Jones
& Co announced that Asian news bureaux of the Far Eastern Economic Review
would be merged with those of the Asian Wall Street Journal. Many correspondents
jobs would also go.
Readers will judge in time how a weekly can retain
its identity when correspondents also have to write for a daily paper
which they used to view as a competitor for good stories, as well as
for the regional advertising dollar. But now is a good time to look
back at the history of the Review, which was founded in Hongkong in
1946 and was to become a global pioneer in regional journalism.
It is also an occasion to consider some related issues
in the wider media world. Firstly, the damaging impact on media diversity
and hence of political pluralism of the acquisition by a few large multinational
corporations of national and regional publications which were products
of local entrepreneurship. Secondly, the impact on editorial quality,
integrity and independence of publishing agenda either set on other
continents or by advertising and marketing executives who are driven
by short term returns and often have scant knowledge of the readerships
their organs are supposed to serve.
I must declare an interest. I was involved with the
Review for all but three of the 20 years from 1972 to 1992, including
seven years as deputy editor and four as editor. I was sacked as a result
of disagreements about the nature of the publication with the New York
executive placed in charge of it, Karen House, wife of Dow Jones chief
executive Peter R. Kann.
The Review was sui generis, a product of Hongkong's
peculiar circumstances as commercial hub and centre of a free press
in a turbulent post-independence, post-Chinese revolution Asia . It
was set up by two central European Jews, Eric Halpern and Karel Weiss,
who has survived the war in Shanghai and then moved to Hongkong.
Its tiny seed capital was provided by the Kadoories, Jardines and the
It limped along for years before Dick Wilson arrived
as editor in 1958. Wilson, subsequently a prolific author of books on
Asia and still to be found at conferences on Asian issues in London,
developed its regional political coverage. In the mid-60s he was succeeded
by Derek Davies, a pugnacious Welshman who was to delight readers and
offend governments for more than 20 years.
When I joined as Business Editor in Hongkong in 1973,
the circulation was still under 20,000 and no staff writers outside
Hongkong. It relied on finding good contributors and a willingness to
challenge received opinions - people like Simon Leys, whose analysis
of the Cultural Revolution was almost uniquely accurate. Davies gave
it a reputation which attracted imitators, The Asian and Asia Magazine,
both long deceased.
It grew furiously in the 70s and 80s. Its first staff
correspondents outside Hongkong were only appointed in 1973 - Susumu
Awanohara, an brilliant US-educated Japanese, and Nayan Chanda, an Indian
who later became editor. By 1992 it had 21 overseas staffers and a circulation
of 74,000 - and had been higher till it lost its 10,000 sales in Singapore
due to Lee Kuan Yew's inability to let his subjects to learn all the
facts and hear diverse opinions.
Those who viewed the likes of Newsweek as the quintessence
of weekly journalism considered the Review dull to look at and difficult
to read. Those who liked individual products with "their own stink"
like The Economist or Barrons, tended to be loyal to the Review's mix
of worthy analysis and investigative journalism which riled governments
and big business, and faint-hearted ad salespeople.
It always had a quirky hiring policy, preferring to
spot individual and entrepreneurial journalistic talents than recruit
clones from journalism schools and wire services. It eschewed formula
writing and homogenized prose. It writers were allowed opinions but
the magazine then seldom ran editorials and had no ideology to impose
on a diverse region beyond a general belief in freedom of expression.
Currently prominent Hongkongers who made earlier marks
at the Review include Emily Lau, as conscientious a journalist as she
is confrontational in Legco, and Gary Coull, Credit Lyonnais Asia's
high profile head who had the sense to see that he was smarter than
most of the business figures he was writing about. Court of Final Appeal
judge Andrew Li had a short spell there between legal studies, recruited
by then deputy editor Leo Goodstadt, later to head the Central Policy
The magazine nurtured then unknown talents including
the late David Bonavia, the best of his generation of writers on China,
Ian Buruma, now a literary figure of some distinction. I could name
a dozen or more other names who distinguished themselves in diverse
fields as well as post-Review journalism. It also spawned its dissidents,
notably T.J.S. George and the late Michael O'Neill who left to set up
a rival, Asiaweek, now also swallowed up into a multinational maw, in
this case the Time/Warner/AOL/CNN etc etc colossus of media mediocrity.
This may all sound nostalgia which has not much to
do with either the present day demands of readers or the constraints
of commerce. It is not. The Review flourished both commercially and
intellectually when it was left to find its own way in the world. Asiaweek
was probably never profitable as an independent entity but it made its
mark, albeit erratically, by establishing an identification with the
region it covered.
The SCMP had majority ownership of the Review from
1972 to 1987 but was interested in the printing contract and dividends,
not the editorial content. In 1987 Dow Jones, a minority shareholder
since 1973, acquired 100% consequent on the sale by HSBC of control
of the SCMP to Rupert Murdoch's news Corp. Initially Dow Jones was supportive
of the Review as it was and backed expansion of its bureaux.
But the arrival of Ms House on the scene in 1989 led
to the build-up of pressure to model its content after US newsmagazines
and its editorial stance along Dow Jones lines. In 1992 an editor was
sent from New York and an editorial column reflecting the right wing
and furiously pro-western sentiments of the Wall Street Journal editorial
page instituted. One dogma would fit all conditions.
It would be hard to criticize if all this actually
benefited the shareholders, even if it was not what the readers wanted.
That seems unlikely. Though figures are not available, it seems unlikely
to have shown much, if any, total return on Dow Jones investment in
it over the past few years. To judge by the bureaux merger news Dow
Jones seems to have made no more of a success of the Review than of
Telerate, the financial news service which it bought a decade ago and
later sold for a fraction of its multi-billion dollar cost.
Total circulation has risen by some 20,000 over the
past decade, but almost all of that has been accounted for by the return
to Singapore - at the cost of in-depth or frank coverage of the sensitive
little republic - and by a surge of Bulk Sales in Hongkong. Indeed,
the deterioration in the quality of sales of both the Review and Asiaweek
has been very evident.
A decade ago, the vast majority of circulation was
individual subscriptions at or near full price and, in the Review's
case, enjoying a high rate of renewals. Now individual subscribers account
for less than 50% of the total sales. Bulk sales, mostly at 5-20% of
the cover price, are now 51% of total circulation and 75% of that in
Hongkong. Over the 6 months to June, individual subscriptions fell by
5% and newsstand sales by 14% over the same period of 2000 while the
hugely discounted bulk sales increased by 7,000.
These low grade sales can of course become self-defeating,
especially if they are outside Hongkong and incur heavy distribution
as well as printing costs while advertisers remain wary. Asiaweek seems
to be learning that lesson. Its average total sales in the last six
months fell by 16,000 to 111,000 as a result both of sharply lower bulk
sales and over heavily discounted subscriptions. These have high mailing
costs and generally low renewal rates so that if the increased circulation
fails to generate more advertising revenue the net effect is to increase
I would not suggest that the troubles of these weeklies
all stem from poor editorial content, low regard for readers' intelligence,
and content - for example endless articles on tech toys -- aimed more
at advertisers than readers. Obviously, factors ranging from the economic
downturn to the improved quality of national publications in regional
markets to the success in Asia of Business Week and The Economist in
grabbing a handy share of a slow growing market have all played a part
in the problems of the two regional weeklies.
However, the merger of the Review and AWSJ and the
size of the cutbacks suggest that Dow Jones at least believes that the
current situation is more than a cyclical event. Meanwhile Asiaweek's
latest of many re-makes indicates that it is following formulas which
have already reduced its separate identity. Will it too, like other
US media, now keep Bin Laden and other "enemies of America" from stating
It always struck me as odd that Dow Jones and Time
should both want two publications which necessarily would be competing
against each other for revenue in the smallish English-language regional
marketplace. Now it seems the home-grown publications are likely to
be the victims of large corporations which once had more money than
sense and believed that they had some magic American formula for success
Now the lumbering giants face cost of follies elsewhere
which threaten their ability to bear the costs of their mistakes in
Asia. Hongkong and the region are the losers from this unsuccessful
bit of globalization.
Diversity has been killed. Homogenization, whether
of format or ideology, is not working.