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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

The death of Asiaweek was one waiting to happen

MGG Pillai

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 correspondents were.

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.

Cultural conflicts

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 spread.

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 day.

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.

M.G.G. Pillai