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Keeping a relationship of trust

Veteran journalist discusses the media and his vision for the Post’s progress

David Armstrong, a media veteran who has held senior editorial and management positions at papers in Australia and Asia, took over as chairman of Post Media Ltd this week. In an interview, he reflects on lessons learned during his 40-year career, as well as his plans for the Post.

In an interview timed to the launch of Post Khmer last September, publisher Ross Dunkley noted that the English-language edition was “not profitable”, but that it would be “commercially viable in a short amount of time”. Do you agree with this assessment?
Well, I think it’s a good decision to invest here. I think newspapers in Asia have a very good future. Certainly in the West, in America they’re really struggling, but not so much in Asia. So I think it’s the right decision, I think it’s the right decision to invest in both languages.

But to do both – to take the English-language paper daily and start a local-language paper in such a short time – does mean the company has bitten off quite a lot and has to chew very hard. I think looking at the projections, the company is still losing money, but the revenue is growing, and we can look forward to breaking even or making a small profit next year.

Are there glaringly obvious things that aren’t working in the paper at the moment?
Not glaringly obvious. I think the presentation could be a little bit brighter. I think some of the writing is a bit wordy in its style, a little bit slower and harder to work through than it need be, but not all of it. Perhaps recognising that a large part of the readership here is in fact an international expat audience.

Perhaps there could be a little bit more attention to what’s going on in the world around us when it comes to deciding what’s going on the front page.

But then on the other side, the big priority for the company is to work out the right advertising strategies to get the revenue that can support this kind of effort.

What position do you think the Post should take within the Cambodian media market?
I think we stand for some old-fashioned journalistic virtues which give us a special position in the marketplace. We have to stand for old-fashioned virtues like accuracy and fairness and balance, so that readers can see that the news is reliable and that they can trust what they read in the papers.

I think probably with the Khmer edition, we need to use that as a base perhaps for going for an audience target a little bit above the general news [market] in Cambodia. Not a mass market paper, but a very reliable, accurate, honest paper which is pitched for an audience which is a little bit more educated and more interested in the quality of the information rather than the entertainment value.

In a memo to staff at the Bangkok Post in 2005, you wrote: “When I look at the paper, I think we spend too much time, energy and space on recording and recounting the statements of various officials and not enough on finding what is really going on – and telling our readers.” Do you think this is the case at the Post?
I don’t think it’s the case here. There are more active stories in The Phnom Penh Post than the Bangkok Post; more stories where people are getting out, and sometimes in the course of that they have to be quoting officials to get the information that they need to say what’s happening in the field, but it’s not as though they are just going to the parliament or the lunch and writing down what someone says, and then coming back and writing.

And just going out of the newsroom, there’s a lot more where people are going out and finding out about what’s happening in the countryside or in the city.

There have been a couple of minor controversies related to layoffs at other papers where you’ve held a management role, for instance at the South China Morning Post. Do you have any regrets about the manner in which these were handled?
The South China Morning Post faced a new competitor, a paper called the Eastern Express, and they tried to raid the staff. They wanted to take 50 percent of the staff. One way of keeping the staff was to increase their salaries, which added to the salaries bill, and once the threat had gone away the board decided we had to cut salaries by 10 percent, which meant cutting 10 percent of the staff.

Now I thought that was a very bad thing to do – the people who’d stayed to fight off the new competitor were then to be punished for being successful. But nevertheless, it still had to be done. And when you do that there is no nice way to do it.

What are the most important lessons that you’ve learned in your career that you plan to bring to this paper?
The most important lesson I’ve learned I think is the readers regard the paper as their paper, and people often use that phrase – you know, “My paper is…” – which means you have a relationship of trust with the readers and you should never abuse that relationship.

You should always strive to do the best you can to present news which is accurate and impartial.

Interview by David Boyle

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