ONE of the most colourful characters in Cambodia’s publishing industry is Australian Ross Dunkley, 54, the publisher of both The Phnom Penh Post and The Myanmar Times.
Dunkley has sailed with Rupert Murdoch, smoked cigars with Robert DeNiro, watched Francis Ford Copp-ola speak on the telephone in Hanoi, joked with Vaclav Havel and received encouragement from United Nations secretary-general Ban Ki-Moon on an aircraft out of Myanmar.
Here in Phnom Penh, he is on the verge of pushing The Phnom Penh Post into profit-ability following more than four years of losses.
“What people don’t acknowledge enough is that Cambodia has the freest media market in Asia,’’ Dunkley says.
“This is unique and wonderful, and it makes Cambodia the most exciting place for adventure in this region.
“I see young Cambodians who may not think about this, but the fact is that they are smiling and excited because this is a place where they can realise their dreams.
“Statistics will tell you that as a country modernises. the demand for information grows exponentially.
”With a 100-strong news room, we have the largest information-gathering force in the nation.
“I know better than most that advertising is the lifeblood of newspapers, and we are in a tremendous struggle at the moment to find new ways to place advertising on non-printed materials.
“Advertising will remain the most important source of our energy.”
Dunkley was invited to meet with Prime Minister Hun Sen on September 12 in a private visit and described the encounter as “polite and inquisitive.”
Dunkley began his career in Melbourne, at one of Aust-ralia’s oldest newspapers, The Stock and Land, in 1980.
Since then, he has gone on to break new ground with The Vietnam Investment Review, which was later bought out by media magnates Kerry and James Packer with newspap-ers, magazines and a radio and television partnership.
In 2000, Dunkley partnered with Australian mining and energy entrepreneur Bill Clough and founded The Myanmar Times, which has since grown into Myanmar’s largest private-sector media group, despite every page being scrutinised by the government censors.
“Every week for more than a decade, we endured the red pen of the censors. For a journalist, that’s a knife in the stomach every week.
“You don’t become immune to that pain. So, I’m very much looking forward to a free press soon in Myanmar,” Dunkley says.
Dunkley was jailed by the Myanmar authorities for 47 days this year in what he describes as a kind of power struggle between shareholders, but came out undeterred.
Here in Phnom Penh, since the acquisition of The Phnom Penh Post in 2007, Dunkley says he has witnessed sig- nificant changes in the way people conduct business.
“Cambodia used to be an NGO story, and its media reflected that.
“Today, we’re living in a fast-paced, innovative atmosphere and the requirements of a potential reader are much more than they used to be.
“ We have to compete with the Internet, and nothing moves faster than that.
“At end of 2007, we transformed the newspaper from a fortnightly into a daily, and since then our staff numbers have grown from 20 to 250 and our revenues have grown tenfold.
“I came here because I believed there was opportun-ity in a dysfunctional marketplace. We brought in a conventional newspaper, something with the sports on the back page, news on the front and business in the middle,” he says.
As for the future, Dunkley is optimistic both about Cambodia’s future and the publishing industry.
“Our growth will rely on information migrating to mobile phones and to laptops and PCs. We will be able to compete with television because demand for quality information will always be paramount. Harnessing that is our objective.
“We have to deliver our information in other ways than on dead trees.”
Dunkley says media market leadership requires that you transfer your knowledge to others, especially local Cambodian employees.
“We should never forget that we are a community newspaper and our role is to service our community.
“We’re not the New York Times, and we have to keep our feet on the ground. I’m proud of our local journalists. They are the backbone of our organisation and increasingly in management positions.
“It will be a proud day for me when all our key posit-ions are filled by Khmer people. Our longer-term goal is to see the staff becoming partners in the paper, as shareholders. In fact, to preserve the notion of a fourth estate, we will most likely list as a public company.
“That’s when the mums and dads of Cambodia become the checks and balances of society. And that will further cement democ-racy in this country.
“A newspaper is a reflection of the society we live in. I’d like to think The Phnom Penh Post fits smack bang into that concept. We feel confident about the future and fortunate to be at the heart of a dynamic and seemingly relentless momentum to a better future.
“The product in your hands is part of that future.The advent of The Phnom Penh Post coincides with the advent of a modern Cambodia. Cambodia is a success story in so many ways, and we should not lose sight of that. The enthusiasm of its business sector, the commitment of the government to encourage foreign investment and the warmth and vibrancy of its people make this country a unique place.
“When we look around, we see that we are maturing and becoming sophisticated as a nation. The more this happens, the greater confidence we feel. As such, The Phnom Penh Post is more than ever the mirror through which society is reflected.”