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Wall Street blow to Asian media
By James Borton

"Dow Jones never understood the Review, or Asia," said Bertil Linter, a frequent contributor to the Far Eastern Economic Review (FEER), which ceased publication last week with a stunning corporate announcement issued in Hong Kong, home to the respected weekly magazine.

The news weekly, which succeeded in fostering dialogue and often steering the debate on Asian issues for 58 years, publishes its last issue this week on Thursday, It will be relaunched as an "opinion-led" monthly, stated Dow Jones & Co, publishers of the Asian Wall Street Journal.

At the historic Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents Club and bars in Wan Chai, expat journalists lamented their loss: more than 80 now unemployed reporters and administrative staff and a venerable Asia Pacific publication now silenced, not by an authoritarian Asian government, but rather by the citadel of freedom and capitalism - Wall Street.

It was only three years ago, that another US monolith, Time Inc, a business unit of AOL Time Warner Inc, under increased pressure from shareholders, closed its Hong Kong-based Asiaweek magazine after more than 26 years of publication. "I believe the era of regional newsweeklies, even excellent ones like the Review, is nearing an end, given the other available sources of daily and more frequent news and analysis," wrote Peter Kann, the chairman and chief executive in an internal Dow Jones memorandum obtained by Asia Times Online.

Dow Jones, the Wall Street-based corporation, said the weekly would be succeeded by a new monthly under the same name devoted to "issues and ideas", largely written by prominent figures in Asian politics, business and academia, similar in style to the New York-based Foreign Affairs journal. The monthly will be staffed with only two editors, led by Hugo Restall, until recently the editorial page editor of The Asian Wall Street Journal, and the periodical's office will be relocated from Hong Kong to mainland China.

The loss of the Review must be viewed as another major setback to Hong Kong's once acknowledged position as a media center. A few Hong Kong observers said, on condition of anonymity, that this corporate decision to close the publication will surely be regarded as a victory for China and authoritarian governments like Singapore, Vietnam, and Myanmar. At various times in the Review's pioneering reporting, the magazine was banned in these countries, and even brave and exceptional reporters - like Murray Hiebert, now in Washington as bureau chief for the Review - was imprisoned for six months in Malaysia. In a telephone conversation with this reporter, Hiebert refused to comment on the publication's closing, since he is expected to hold another position within the Dow Jones family.

Initially established as a modest trade journal, the Review emerged as a respected source of information about Asia during the editorship of the late flamboyant Derek Davies between 1964 and 1989. Davies built up the Far Eastern Economic Review from a small weekly into one of Asia's most authoritative magazines, with a circulation of nearly 90,000. At its peak, the FEER had an editorial team of nearly 100 news staff in 15 bureaus across Asia - the largest news team of any regional weekly.

Davies, a hard-charging Welshman, defied numerous Asian governments and big businesses at a historic juncture when there was little enthusiasm for Western democracy and free press as the region clamored for Asian values and Asian-led media. During Davies' tenure as editor, FEER provided a frontline forum for many talented reporters: Ian Buruma, Nayan Chanda, Nate Thayer, Susumu Awanohara, Christopher Wood, Philip Bowring, T J S George and Mike O'Neill, who went on to launch Asiaweek.

When Dow Jones took full control in 1987 - the corporation had purchased 40% of the magazine in 1973 and acquired the 51% owned by the South China Morning Post in a takeover. By 1992, Dow Jones, led by the husband-and-wife team of chairman and Chief Executive Peter Kann and Vice President Karen Elliott House, took formal control of the publication in an acrimonious battle that ultimately led to the resignation of Davies' popular and vocal successor Philip Bowring, over the magazine's editorial direction. The irony is not lost on some in Hong Kong that FEER has hosted numerous high-profile conferences, including one as recently in 2002 titled, "Corporate Strategies for a Changing Asia".

Under the watchful editorial purview of Dow Jones, the Review's brilliant business and political reporting standards became superficial and the publication reverted to a bland Wall Street Journal house style. Circulation remained stagnant at about 90,000 for most of the next 12 years, and its feature articles seemed more oriented to the occasional business traveler aboard Cathay Pacific rather than the in-country resident.

Sure, in recent years FEER still managed a few major reporting exclusives, including one in 1997, when Nate Thayer, the Southeast Asia correspondent, was allowed into the remote northern Cambodia field headquarters of the Khmer Rouge for a "people's tribunal" of their ousted former leader Pol Pot. Three months later, Thayer repeated his exclusive coverage, this time conducting the first interview with Pol Pot in 18 years.

AC Nielsen and Hong Kong industry sources concur that advertising never fully rebounded from the Asian financial crisis. Over the past six years, FEER's losses approached nearly $48 million even after the reporting staff merged with that of the sister newspaper, the Asian Wall Street Journal, in November 2001. FEER failed to find the formula for advertising sales and did not offer a free website. These corporate actions were mandated by Dow Jones & Co, which has been under increasing shareholder pressure to improve its market position and stem losses.

Gordon Crovitz, interviewed by this writer a few years ago in Hong Kong, was a classic example of how Dow Jones plucked a talented reporter from New York and dropped him into the churning media carnival in Hong Kong. There, he attempted under fire to complete the Review's editorial makeover and combined the conflicting roles of editor and publisher. "The magazine lost its way because people in New York thought they understood what the readers wanted more than those who were on the ground in Asia," wrote former editor Philip Bowring in the South China Morning Post.

It was only two years ago that Dow Jones also pulled the plug on The Asian Wall Street Journal Weekly, which had provided North America with business news and analysis on the Asian-Pacific region every Monday for 23 years. At that time, Karen Elliott House, the president of Dow Jones International stated, " We have reluctantly concluded that the weekly is no longer a publication that makes business sense for Dow Jones."

There's never any silver lining when a publication ceases publication. Various websites in the region were born out of the premise that Asia needs to have its own voice heard in the news. Perhaps Asian-driven websites, local bloggers and select quality regional daily newspapers may experience just a slight lift in readership because of the loss of FEER.

James Borton is an author, freelance journalist and director of Asia Pacific projects for Foreign Affairs journal, published by the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. He can be reached at asiareview@yahoo.com.

(Copyright 2003 Asia Times Online Co, Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact content@atimes.com for information on our sales and syndication policies.)



Nov 2, 2004
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