Newspapers’ fatal flaw

If newspapers have any future, it is at the hyperlocal level. But even this is under attack by the virtual world.

Guest column by Mark Hughes, Bangkok Post.

As it is a public company, it doesn’t take much to discover the Post Publishing Public Company Limited, publisher of the Bangkok Post, is losing money.

Most would put this down to declining interest in dead-tree newspapers and the burgeoning of the internet, especially on smartphones.

A few years ago, newspaper reading was on the rise in developing countries as the quality of, and need for, education rose. I’m not so sure that is still the case. I can count on one hand the number of times I have personally bought a paper over the past 10 or so years. When I want to read a particular news outfit’s view on something or a particular writer, I go straight to the net, as I suspect most people do.

The first mistake newspaper bosses made was not to recognize the threat of the net. When it finally dawned on them, they foolishly decided to put their content on it free of charge. That inculcated a sense that news should be free. Their next most damaging act of blindness was not to have a strategy on dealing with the likes of Facebook and Google, which garnered users in their millions and drew in a vast proportion of the advertising that traditional papers relied on to pay their staff.

The bosses’ reaction was to cut editorial staff, especially the more expensive experienced ones, and reduce pagination, making the product much weaker with less value for money. If newspapers have any future, it is at the hyperlocal level. But even this is under attack by the virtual world. Even TV news is threatened by the Web.

Here at the Bangkok Post, the Web edition draws on the resources of the paper’s journalism, but can enhance them with interactivity and limitless space for words, pictures and graphics. However, those in charge have opted for the paid-for model, which I understand attracts not the same, but declining ad revenues as the paper. It is a status symbol to have a Bangkok Post delivery box on your front gate.

Our website and paper both endure the same difficulties regarding what are known as the lese majeste laws, and their increasing use and wider interpretation by the ruling junta.

Lese majeste, the crime of offending the dignity of a reigning sovereign or state, has been prohibited by Thai law since 1908. The Thai Criminal Code elaborates:

“Whoever defames, insults or threatens the king, queen, heir-apparent or regent shall be punished with imprisonment of three to 15 years.” Missing from the code, however, is a definition of what actions constitute “defamation” or “insult.”

Given our deeply digital news environment that allows comment, the Bangkok Post’s website has to strictly protect itself and its readers from breaching this law. Unlike the Guardian, whose motto is “comment is free” (although in reality it is censored with a lighter hand), we have to strictly monitor our comments against what is an increasingly litigious government that, like many others, wants to control the information available to the public. Even an obscure act of lese majeste can mean a 15-year automatic jail term with no access to a lawyer.

We have a tough editor and leader writers who push the line, but their hands are bound increasingly tighter.

China clamps down on dissent, but dissenters have a knack for staying ahead of the game. I used a VPN there to access Facebook, which Beijing bans.

Thailand bans access to the U.K.’s Daily Mail, the world’s most popular newspaper website, because it was accused once for insulting the monarchy.

In a move that would restrict internet access, there is talk in Thailand of having one gateway for all internet traffic to make it easier to monitor.

Nonetheless, like many other places in the world, people here walk about with their eyes so glued to their screens that it has been suggested smartphone users get their own lanes on footpaths. But they may not be getting the whole truth when they read the news, and with the growing sophistication of identifying readers’ interests, their real identities are being harvested by advertisers and others with special interests.

The article was originally published on the website of the N3CON SEOUL 2016, n3con.com. 

About the author

Lee Tae-hoon

Lee Tae-hoon

Lee Tae-hoon is publisher at The Korea Observer. He previously worked for the Korea Times and Arirang TV. You can reach him at lee@koreaobserver.com.

Click here not to show this pop-up box again.