Cat Barton (r), who started her career in journalism at The Phnom Penh Post
It was slightly after 11:30 on a cool, sunny Friday morning, January 2006, when I first walked into Michael Hayes’s office at the old Phnom Penh Post, just across from Wat Botum.
Hayes and I had been in sporadic email communication for some weeks.
I had just moved to Cambodia and was eager to write, so I rang him soon after I landed in Phnom Penh. His phone battery had died mid conversation – I had been somewhat concerned that he had hung up on me – but he subsequently emailed telling me to “come on in”.
The office was deserted. This was in the days when the Post was a bi-monthly publication; the paper had already been put to bed. I walked past the security guard sleeping in the shade of a giant bougainvillea into the old, peeling villa.
The newsroom – creaking wood tables; a handful of antique computers; yellowing news clippings plastered across all the walls – seemed exceptionally glamorous, in a suitably faded, foreign-correspondenty way. I knew immediately that
I had to work there.
I knocked on Michael’s door. He had an office off the main newsroom, filled to the brim with exciting relics of over a decade of reporting from Cambodia. I stared covertly at the dog-eared photographs, UNTAC memorabilia and Kipling poems taped to the walls. A Cambodian spirit shrine lay in the corner, half-buried under a stack of old Posts. Hayes barked a gruff hello and told me to take a seat.
He was hammering away on his old white Mac and seemed in no rush to actually speak to me. Eventually, he turned his attention to the over-excited English girl perched on the edge of a bamboo chair, staring at a half-full ashtray. I launched into an introductory speech, he listened for maybe 30 seconds then held up his hand to silence me, a slightly pained expression on his face.
“Are you intelligent?” he asked.
I paused. Was it a trick question? How to answer without seeming like an idiot or a braggart?
“Yes,” I said, carefully.
“Okay, fine, you can work for me.”
“I can’t pay you for now, but we’ll train you up and, if it works out, maybe we’ll be able to sort some money out for you further down the line.”
No money, but I was thrilled. I had my first job in journalism. I was a reporter, no less! When the Post printed business cards and got me my first Cambodian press credentials a few days later then sent me out on my first reporting
assignment – a feature on the Catholic church at Svay Pak, which I would now wince to re-read – O, how my cup ranneth over.
The Post’s delicate finances did not stretch to putting me on salary, but some advertisers paid in kind so Michael – affectionately known as Okhna (Lord) Coupon among the Cambodian staff – would often kick some vouchers my way. I could eat steak at La Croisette and salade nicoise at Lyon d’Or and, occasionally, stay at the Intercontinental for a night, but I couldn’t pay rent or my bar tab at the old Talkin’ to a Stranger.
As the Post then provided a breakfast of fresh bread, jam, peanut butter (when the ants hadn’t got to it) and coffee; and as Michael’s housekeeper Phean cooked lunch for the reporting staff during the second week of the news cycle, I was able to keep my costs low enough to survive until I was given my first pay cheque – US$300 a month.
Whatever the Post’s financial straits, it made up for it in its commitment to reporting the news. Hayes’s devotion to reading, research and really getting to the bottom of the story (which is, I now realise, easier when you have the luxury of a two-week deadline) was a priceless education for me.
Despite the occasional flop – a “hard-fluff” story on the Dickensian poverty of Phnom Penh’s drug users springs to mind – the old Post managed a level of investigative depth that few news organisations in the syndicated mediascape muster now.
And even after it traded the ramshackle old villa for shiny new offices with WiFi, hired a raft of well-paid staff and went daily, the paper struggled to maintain that commitment to quality journalism – congratulations on 20 years of being the paper of record.
Cat Barton is now AFP’s Hanoi bureau chief.