The Post publisher Bill Clough, under whose leadership the publication went from a fortnightly to a daily one, discusses his unwavering spirit in The Post ever since taking over the reins in 2007. In an increasingly digital age, he visualises his plans for the paper’s future.
What was your relationship with The Post prior to becoming the publisher?
In 2007, Ross Dunkley, as publisher/CEO of The Myanmar Times, was approached by Michael Hayes as owner of The Post to see if we were interested in acquiring. We got former The Australian/The SCMP, and Bangkok Post editor-in-chief, David Armstrong, to advise us on the possible acquisition.
At the time, The Myanmar Times was profitable but constrained because of our weekly license and we were looking for ways to expand in the region. The Phnom Penh Post seemed like a perfect fit.
What are your other business ventures besides The Post?
I would say my investment in Post Media has become my main cause in my life, as certainly it cannot be justified from financial rationale alone. It is important to say that I have no other business interests in Cambodia to ensure that there are no possible conflicts of interest.
My day job; to be able to keep backing such a worthwhile cause, has been in construction, mining and oil and gas within the Asia-Pacific region but also in Brazil which takes me far and wide. And the slim pickings over the last several years has made this Post Media adventure quite challenging, but I am optimistic about its potential still especially the huge online following in Post Khmer.
What made you decide to take over the paper in 2007?
So in 2007, with Ross Dunkley’s boundless enthusiasm and optimism, and the wise sage of David Armstrong, we agreed to acquire The Post and convert it into an English daily edition from its previous every fortnight. Michael Hayes was reluctant to hand over; he needed to be convinced that our plans for his “baby” were going to be worthy and that we would deliver. He once said to me: “Bill, I have no children, just The Phnom Penh Post.” It’s always great to see Michael about town and he tells me he is happy in what we have achieved.
I would like to also thank the other main investors in Post Media, the owner of The Phnom Penh Post, being Kevin Murphy and his investment group and my father, Harold Clough, who has been a huge supporter along with my sisters Sue and Libby Clough.
How has The Post evolved since you took over the reins?
As we started, we used the tried formula we had used in Myanmar, but we were faced with a more challenging market as the incumbent newspapers were more competitive than we had imagined compared to the state-run press in Yangon.
Did you come in with a vision different from the previous publisher’s?
As I just mentioned, we quickly moved from a fortnightly English edition to a daily Monday to Friday edition and bought a couple of second hand printing presses to do our own printing.
Unfortunately, unlike in Myanmar, we never made any profits; so after 12 months we decided that we would start a Khmer language edition, emulating what we did in Myanmar, where the local language was the big earner at the time.
Again unfortunately, this did not go as well as planned, but a great milestone was reached in establishing the first truly national daily newspaper with both English and Khmer editions.
Was there anything in particular that you wanted to change either from the journalistic or commercial side of things?
On the journalistic area, we have kept investing and creating the strongest independent English edition and Khmer edition newsrooms in Cambodia; we intend to continue to focus on building an increased Cambodian nationals presence in both newsrooms and the growth is clearly coming from our Khmer online edition. Compared to our experiences in Myanmar, operating in Cambodia has been exceptionally free of any interference despite some open angst on some members of the ruling party. The few times we have been issued with so called “yellow cards” they have in my view been justly made. There are always some journalists who sometimes have their own axe to grind and there is no place for these within an independent newspaper.
But only rarely have we moved journalists on that management has had a problem in this regard; but certainly there have been some truly ideologue shit-stirrers, which we just had to move on. My own personal experience with the English newsroom, is that if I ever suggested a worthy story, it has been an automatic ‘kiss of death’ with that story disqualified and would never get run; so I would say I have a less than zero impact personally on the newsroom, if that is possible as the owner.
On the commercial front; like the rest of the world; the newspaper business continues to get more challenging and we need to become more innovative in providing more impactful results and products/services for our advertisers. This remains a challenge, but on a positive note, our online penetration especially in our Khmer edition across all mediums continues to dominate with a recent milestone of almost 5 million likes on Facebook. So we have the readers and a fiercely loyal customer base in both the English and Khmer editions. We need to work hard to be able to reach out and get our advertisers closer to their customers which could include more events like our now-ceased Finishing Post networking events which will be more aligned with targeting customers for our advertisers. Our management team, led by Alex Odom, have made huge progress in the last few years in making the operation more efficient and I am confident they are up for the challenge.
Can you recall some of your most memorable moments with The Post staff?
In fact, the last major Post Media event was the 20th anniversary in 2012 which was a great success. I can still recalling Kimsong, our long-standing Post Khmer editor, cornering me that night for ongoing commitment. Kimsong, with his deputy Sam Rith, has built a great newsroom team which is a big reason for my ongoing support.
The Phnom Penh Post has built great camaraderie within the staff and my favourite way of getting the team together informally is on Mekong river cruises. It is a great way to relax and get to know staff in an informal setting. For the 3-4 hours we are together, everyone can get together and it is surprising what information you can get about what is really going on which is impossible in a formal work environment.
As I have now spent almost 10 years travelling to this wonderful country I have grown to love the people and the energy which is transforming Cambodia at a break-neck speed. It has been great to be part of this story and contributing to the fantastic optimism that is increasing in living standards, which has occurred from an almost ground zero base, after the demise of the Khmer Rouge. Of course, there are huge problems and things can be done better, but we also need to acknowledge the positive which has been achieved in such a short period. I like to contrast with Myanmar, which post World War II, started at the top and relentlessly dragged the country down through sheer incompetence and inward looking; and even post-democracy today, is still gripped in total grid-lock, incapable of making anything happen.
What traits does The Post possess that make it different from Cambodia’s other English-language newspapers?
A key strength of the Post English over other English language media is the investment in investigative journalism. There is less reliance on using the wire and international news services. I would say from all bases, Post English is by far the leading newspaper in Cambodia with a fiercely loyal readership base. It is truly independent, but does not shy away from being pro-Cambodia and I believe we try to be truly unbiased in the very volatile political landscape. In the lead up to the 2018 general elections, the next 12 months are going to be a very interesting period politically in Cambodia with the younger generation likely to cause demographic headwinds for the long ruling party, which is determined to cling on to power.
One thing that I have noticed is that as the opposition has become more competitive, the ruling party has definitely lifted their game and are becoming a lot more responsive to voter needs. At The Post we pride wwourselves on delivering the news and providing the positive government stories as well as the negative, with a focus on what is the truth.
I would say, of our two English edition competitors – without naming – my view, which I concede may be biased, is that one is clearly anti-ruling government and never sees the positive, while the other is clearly pro-government. I would like to think we do not take sides, but rather get to the bottom of the real issues at hand.
You said The Post played a pivotal role in the election coverage of 2012-2013. How do you see our reporters covering the general elections next year considering the opposition is gaining more popularity now?
Yes. When The Post ran the front page story of the opposition leader returning to Phnom Penh during the election; we were the main news outlet that ran this story, while the crony related media, tried to ignore. The impact on our circulation was immense, especially in the Khmer edition, which has led Cambodia in news readership ever since then.
As I have said, the next year will be interesting and the ruling party will do what they need to do to win. This will potentially make them exposed if they push the boundaries, and our people will not be afraid to keep those under scrutiny.
But also, the opposition is still disorganised and they really need to show they are ready to lead. There are doubts about their capability to form government, so they have a lot of work to do.
With print media declining across the world and moving into a more digitised age, how is The Post keeping up with the times to sustain its readers?
Like a lot of newspapers, The Phnom Penh Post still has a strong loyal base of print readers, but of course, the future and especially for the younger generation, is digital and pleasingly our newspapers lead in Cambodia with an exceptional online following. We have built a great digital team within the company, which will continue to focus on all the digital outlets and including more video, which continues to make The Phnom Penh Post the leading newspaper group in Cambodia.
There is no point talking about a paywall for our Khmer Edition, so our effort will be to try to connect our readers to our loyal advertisers. With the English edition, we will continue to build our direct online base before considering any paywall. There is no question that The Phnom Penh Postmasthead and brand remains one of the strongest and most recognisable in Cambodia and with Cambodia followers around the world. This creates ongoing responsibility but also huge opportunities going forward, making it such an exciting space to be.
Describe how proud you are of the paper at present, and what your future vision is for The Phnom Penh Post to carry on its name as Cambodia’s most popular dual-language newspaper?
I first got involved with starting The Myanmar Times in Yangon with Ross Dunkley and Sonny Swe; as a mining and construction guy, I had no idea what I was getting in to. But almost miraculously, it took off and started a bit of adventure which culminated in acquiring The Phnom Penh Post in 2007. This has proved to be a challenge, but so is any worthwhile opportunity. As Michael Hayes recently said to me; “I hope the mining business has improved”, implying that, of course, the newspaper is a tough gig. The big thing that struck me when we started The Myanmar Times, was just how biased some media organisations could be. I can recall the ABC from Australia coming up to Myanmar and they had already written the script before they had come – The Generals were evil; Suu Kyi was an angel; and The Myanmar Times was a mere puppet of the Military Government. There was no effort to seek an alternate scenario, when the truth is generally never black and white. The truth was not their objective, but rather lining up actors to read out their pre-determined script. It was very eye-opening from someone who was an outsider.
The 25-year legacy, since Michael Hayes commenced the English edition of The Phnom Penh Post in 1992, is something which all people of Cambodia should be proud of and tonight we have many of the loyal advertisers and contributors to the newspaper over this period. It is the English edition which carries the international torch to the world.
And who would have thought, after 25 years, we would still have Chap Narith, still our national sales manager.
In this 25th edition you will also see a number of loyal advertisers that have been advertising with us for a large part of our 15-year history. Without their support it would be impossible to continue.