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MGG: The death of Asiaweek was one waiting to happen
By M.G.G. Pillai
8/12/2001 2:33 am Sat
07 Dec 2001
Asiaweek went into rigor mortis as in May it transformed into a
business magazine when its parent, AOL Time Warner, found its
balance sheet suffering, and Asiaweek's part in it. So, when it
was finally put to rest, few were surprised, though the speed
with which it got rid of its correspondents and others who had
worked for it was inexcusable.
Asiaweek suffered as the Far Eastern Economic Review does; as an
adjunct of publishing empires headed by apparatchiks more
concerned about the bottom line than on what news magazines are
for. When advertising declines, and money does not flow in as it
wishes, it is removed with surgical precision.
When Time Inc., as it then was, decided when it took over
Asiaweek, it did not want its Chinese edition (because, I was
told in New York at the time, its top brass could not read it),
it injected the rationalistation which led to last week's closure
of the magazine.
Asiaweek and Far Eastern Economic Review survive only as "perfect
fit" for a global agenda. Once it decides it does not for
whatever reason, usually declining ad revenues, it is excised.
It is rarely sold. The cost of bringing it back to what it too
costly for even a good regional publisher to consider.
The simple fact is that both Asiaweek and Far Eastern Economic
Review had long ceased to shapers of opinion in Asia. Once, they
provided a view one does not often hear in Western-owned
magazines. The two lost theirs when their editors and founding
lights were removed with the usual ruthlessness their
Changing focus into oblivion
The Asiaweek correspondent in Kuala Lumpur had but 24 hours to
clear out of Malaysia, and told if he stayed longer it was at his
expense. A Sri Lankan national, he had no choice but to comply
and left immediately.
Meanwhile, the Far Eastern Economic correspondent returned from
lunch to find a stranger in the office; neither knew who the other was,
and once it was known, the stranger bluntly told him he is from
Dow Jones, the owner, and that the office is closed, and he is
ordered to report to the Asian Wall Street Journal, where he
would henceforth work, with the editors in Hongkong deciding
whether the stories he writes would appear in the paper or the
magazine. It does not augur well for the future of the magazine.
The heyday of both magazines were before the American takeover.
Asiaweek was founded by five former Far Eastern Economic Review
editors, correspondents, and the accountant -- TJS George;
Michael O'Neill, who died in Manila in the late 1990s; Graham
Wilde; Cheng Huan (now a QC in Hong Kong); and this writer.
When Reader's Digest bought into Asiaweek after its financiers
baulked at putting more money into the seriously bleeding
magazine, I had to leave because I was an "unknown" quantity.
In due course, Wilde and Cheng Huan followed; George when Time
Inc came in; and O'Neill sacked when it flexed its muscles.
The magazine changed its focus, and it became increasingly
Americanised, changing its worldview and a pale edition of an
American magazine circulating in Asia. This constant revamping
and changing focus brought new readers and advertisement but the
soul of both magazines disappeared. They became no more
magazines that one had to read.
There was the inevitable talking down to the natives, the
arrogance seeping through in editorials that one come to expect
from American magazines in the United States when discussing
Asia. I dropped my subscription years ago, and read them
intermittently or when an interesting article or view appeared.
When they switched to attract the global executive in Asia, it
was at the cost of the Asian reader who looked to them for a view
they could not get in their own countries. But that was never
its purpose, which was to make money, and therefore bent easily
to government pressures.
It is not unusual, this conflict between a local magazine owned
by Americans and an American magazine circulating abroad. I was
a 'stringer' for Newsweek in Malaysia for two decades. When I
began in the early 1970s, Newsweek had a separate edition
overseas that was different from the home edition. There was a
section on Asia which covered the region in some depth and
Then came the US defeat in Vietnam, and the widely differing
coverage in the two editions, and often penetrating analysis not
in the American edition led to a turbulence at head office that
led to Newsweek International defanged, as it remains to this
Asiaweek and Far Eastern Economic Review became an ideal place
where well-regarded home-based editors and executives to get the
required "foreign experience" before they scaled the ladder of
promotions. Stories appeared to a formula, though it still had a
corp of correspondents whose expertise was so valued that even
within the constraints produced good copy. But these were
exceptions to the general rule.
So, the breast-beating about the loss of yet another English
language is neither here nor there. In Asia, the local view is
submerged in this globalisation of the publishing industry. With
censorship and other pressures inhibiting a different view than
the government's, its loss, in one sense, means nothing to help
understand Asia or make Asians understand more of the region they
live. That went by the wayside more than a decade ago.
Would there be another magazine to replace it? Highly unlikely.
The cost is prohibitive. Those who try want one to highlight the
views of a leader. The idea of an independent journal without an
axe to grind is so alien to these financiers as in Wall Street
that one can write it off altogether. Which country in Asia
outside of Japan, the Indian subcontinent, the Philippines have
magazines that survive without the patronage of whoever is in
power? That tells it all.