Another one bites the dust

Another one bites the dust

The demise of The Nation's print edition leaves a last man standing

It is a rule of competitive businesses not to recognise the competitor, pretending it does not exist — a rule that is broken, naturally, when something terrible happens to the competitor.

Such was the relationship between the Bangkok Post and The Nation, Thailand’s two major English language newspapers who fought relentlessly for the niche but influential market of English readers for nearly 50 years.

They were two newspapers with two very different personalities.

The Bangkok Post was the more staid of the two. Having been around a little longer, she cast a reproachful eye upon her upstart younger sister.

That was The Nation.

While the Bangkok Post was seated in the living room, pince-nez perched on nose, reading the latest Dickens instalment, The Nation was nowhere to be seen. That’s because she was out on the streets in baggy trousers and flip-flops attending the latest protest, holding placards and shouting for justice. Her friends looked at her either as a champion for human rights — or a loudmouth.

The Nation was created by media icon Suthichai Yoon who, almost half a century ago, expressed concern that the Bangkok Post’s only competitor, Bangkok World, had been swallowed up, leaving the English media in Thailand as a foreign monopoly. The Nation would be Thailand’s only Thai-owned English newspaper.

The Nation began publication on July 1, 1971. Just four months later it reported on Thanom Kittikachorn’s military overthrow of the government, and two years later the student uprising against Thanom. For the next few decades it was a champion of democracy, standing up to despots, juntas, the elite and anybody else who eschewed democracy.

(It has to be quickly added that the Bangkok Post, too, has always been a champion of democracy. The Nation was just a little more vocal about it.)

My first reporting job in Thailand was at The Nation. The year was 1990 and The Nation was operating out of a rundown complex on Kluai Nam Thai in inner city Bangkok, not that far from where the Bangkok Post offices are now situated.

Soon after we moved out to the boondocks.

The Nation Group constructed two buildings, one of which, for a brief time before Baiyoke Tower went up, was the tallest building in Thailand. It was 40 floors. How times have changed; that same building is now the 107th tallest building in the country.

This office was in the middle of nowhere, in an outer suburb called Bang Na — the very same suburb that is today a traffic-clogged, jam-packed eastern district that feels inner-city.

Back in 1990 it was a semi-rural area with herds of buffalo wandering down Bang Na-Trat Highway. And there the newspaper stayed for a good two decades until disaster struck.

Suthichai Yoon saw it coming.

In 2002, I graduated from a Thai university and Suthichai came to my house for the graduation party. A group of Nation journalists sat around that night discussing the future of journalism.

These were the early days of being online. The internet had only been around for five years. Suthichai was mad about technology. He embraced all the changes and was quick to seek out new technology.

Someone in the group brought up the fact that more people were reading news online because it was more immediate — more so than TV news even, the previous threat to newspapers before the internet came along.

“Don’t worry,” said one journalist, sitting next to Suthichai. “You’ll never replace the feeling of actually holding a newspaper to read the day’s news.”

“I don’t know about that,” said Suthichai. “This new generation doesn’t have that experience. They are growing up with instant news at their fingertips. Things could change.”

What foresight. Despite running a media empire that relied on hard copy newspaper sales, he was looking ahead and seeing its demise. Things could change, and they did.

My feeling was that for many decades, it was good to have the staid Bangkok Post and more jittery Nation on the news-stands. They complemented each other. This was evident on one famous day in Thai history, when I happened to be in the newsroom at The Nation.

The year was 1992 and Thailand was embroiled in one political crisis after another. In a single year there were two general elections, three prime ministers and four governments.

On Sunday, May 17, during the “Black May” crisis, the military and police crushed a pro-democracy protest, killing dozens of people. After clamping down on the population, they clamped down on the media.

I was standing not far from Suthichai’s office when the military called The Nation late Sunday night, forbidding the paper from printing anything that constituted a “threat to national security”. If any publication ignored the order, they would be shut down.

The Bangkok Post got the call too. As a protest, for the first time ever the Bangkok Post printed a front page with large areas simply white. If the paper was to be censored, then they would censor with a passive protest. Across pages one to three, the white space was deafening.

And The Nation? Well, it was the precocious little sister, remember? Thepachai Yong, the editor, gave the order to go ahead and print everything, including photographs of police and military stomping on protesters. “Protesters battle police” screamed the headlines. In its 48 years of history, that was its most famous front cover.

As stated at the top of this column, rivals rarely acknowledge each other unless something terrible happens. This week, the event wasn’t terrible — it was tragic. After 48 years of publication, The Nation stopped the printing presses.

The internet swallowed it up, just like it has swallowed up so many other industries. I miss holding maps, listening to the radio waiting for my favourite song to come on, sending Christmas cards, and deciding as a family what we would watch together on TV. But one has to move with the times.

How quickly it has changed, though. During the healthy newspaper era of the 1990s into the noughties, this country had something like 15 daily newspapers. Thai Rath, the biggest seller, printed over a million copies a day. There was even a third English paper for a while, Asia Times, from 1995 to 1997 and then a fourth, Thai Day, run by the Manager Group.

This was despite the relatively small market, but the influence of the English papers, especially the Bangkok Post, was far greater than its circulation.

The halcyon days are gone. Thai Rath used to take five printing presses working furiously to get all its copies out. These days it is down to two.

On The Nation’s last publication day, Friday a week ago, its final headline was “A New Beginning at 48”. This was not just rhetoric. News organisations like the Bangkok Post and The Nation are still relevant, but that relevancy will seep more and more into online news.

And more importantly, we owe it to ourselves to keep respectable news agencies relevant, in their role as gatekeepers of what is real and fake news. Otherwise society will be reduced to a scramble to search out authoritative and trustworthy news.

Sure, the Bangkok Post and The Nation occasionally slip up in regard to this objectivity and gatekeeping, but not deliberately or frequently, and besides, the alternatives — Fox Network News, for example, or the Facebook news feed — are abhorrent.

Recently the Bangkok Post upgraded its website to make it more readable and user-friendly. It, too, is keeping up with the times, but since it remains a publication too, the English-language newspaper industry in Thailand has done a full circle. We are back to just one, albeit no longer foreign owned.

In whatever form it takes, let us continue our quest for the truth, and let us allow the healthy competition to continue online.

Andrew Biggs

Regular Freelance Writer

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