Bottomline overrode sentiment in the closure of the iconic Far Eastern Economic Review.
Five years ago, when it turned into a monthly from a weekly, the Far Eastern Economic Review was virually comatose. Now the decision has been taken to formally lay it to rest. In December, this iconic Asian magazine will be published for the last time. Then it will slip into oblivion.
Will it be mourned? I doubt it. Most people outside Hong Kong, its home for 63 years, won’t even notice. Those in Hong Kong won’t even care. But those who had known it in its heydays as a brand that once rivalled HSBC or Jardine Matheson or Hutchison Whampoa, or remember its famous spats with Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew and later his son Lee Hsien Loong, should at least shed a tear.
The Review served a useful purpose as long as it remained on its own. Building on the single-handed efforts of its founder, Eric Halpern, a migrant journalist — and embellished by the South China Morning Post, which acquired the publication in 1972 — it developed into Asia’s most famous English-language newsweekly that political, business, and industrial leaders across the region waited for and avidly read. It produced editors like Dick Wilson and Derek Davies, who became household names among educated Asians, and such respected journalists as Nayan Chanda, a personal friend of Cambodia’s Prince Norodom Sihanouk and who, for many years, was the world’s only window on Indo-China. During the entire period that China was hiding behind a bamboo curtain, the Review was all China-watchers’ only dependable peep-hole.
So why does it have to die? Dow Jones, which had acquired full ownership of the Review in 1986 and was itself taken over by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation in 2007, blames it on “continued losses in advertising revenue and readership,” and, given a puny current circulation of no more than 20,000 copies a month, one can’t but agree. One must also accept the point that China-peeping and Singapore-bashing that had been the Review’s major readership ploys in the past are no longer Asia’s favourite pastimes.
But, to my mind, another factor must be held equally, perhaps largely, responsible for reducing the once formidable Review to a rag: Its falling into the hands of American media moguls who had only a dollar-and-cent interest in Asia and little care for its sentiments.
The moment the new editors arrived to take on a region they hardly knew and new business managers were appointed to protect head-office account books, the whole equation changed. The Review — it was written by veteran Asian journalists and long-time Asia hands — stopped being an independent Asian magazine, acquired an American soul with all its whims and prejudices, and became a mere cog in a giant business wheel, dispensable if it didn’t serve its purpose.
We have seen one other pan-Asian newsweekly suffer a similar fate. Two Asian journalists and former Review hands, T J S George of India and Michael O’Neill of New Zealand, had founded Asiaweek in 1975 “to see the world from an Asian perspective and to be Asia’s voice in the world.” At the back of their mind, however, was the idea of positioning their news magazine as a counterweight to the Review, which they thought was too British in its flavour. Asiaweek took off with flying colours and its readership grew solidly across the region. Some people even considered it to be more powerful than the Review. But success brought its own headaches, and soon George and O’Neill weren’t seeing quite eye to eye about how the magazine, with its wobbly finances, should be run. Several struggling years later, George gave up and quit, but O’Neill was only too happy to grab a lifeline that Time Warner, looking for a foothold in Asia, had thrown in. Asiaweek became a Time Inc subsidiary and its Americanisation began in full swing. O’Neill himself was removed as editor-in-chief in 1994 and the news magazine was converted into a mainly-business journal. In December 2001, when Asiaweek still had a circulation of 120,000 copies, it was closed down. The excuse was the same: “A downturn in the advertising market”.
Perhaps there’s a lesson in all this. Native media should think twice before agreeing to be kissed by business suitors from outside. Their kisses, though tempting, can be fatal. They rob you of your identity and ruin your credibility for good. Of course, one may wonder if the Review and Asiaweek could have survived own their own. It would have been difficult. The market for regional mainstream print publications is no longer as great as it used to be in the ’60s and ’70s and even through most of the ’80s. But at least they could have died a dignified natural death, not an unnatural one ordered by callous masters in New York.