Thailand: The Rise and Fall of Sondhi and the Emergence of the Journalist-Camelô

https://i2.wp.com/www.manager.co.th/asp-bin/Image.aspx
Blowback? “Uncertainty clouds future of” Sondhi’s flagship Anglophone Asian “innovation journalism” title, August 2006. 

The situation for journalists in Thailand has gone from bad to worse. Before the military coup last year, the press was under constant attack by then Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Claiming defamation, he repeatedly filed lawsuits and censored the media. Since Sept. 19,2006, the new regime has not only continued the intense intimidation but has strengthened its hold over journalists. (Bruce Swaffield. The Quill. Chicago: Jun/Jul 2007. Vol. 95, Iss. 5; pg. 66, 1 pgs)

A story in the Bangkok Post says reporters are selling watches, jewelry, amulets, beauty products and snacks in order to make ends meet. Broadcast journalists for Thailand Independent Television (TITV) claim moonlighting is necessary because they are not being paid. The government seized control of the station in March. As a result, no one knows whether the reporters should be classified as civil servants or station employees. –Ibid.

In such a “me or them” national atmosphere, there are two extremely opposite scenarios to ponder. One is of a valiant media up against a corrupt, powerful leader who manages to twist, distort and manipulate in order to make himself look like a victim. The other involves a malicious, powerful and self-pitying media that manages to twist, distort and manipulate in a bid to overthrow a democratically elected leader while making itself look like a victim. –The Nation, [date?]

The age of ethics is over. The era of humanism is definitively dead. We are entering the age of pragmatism, or worse, of casuistry, which is pragmatism’s degenerate form. In short: An age of off-the-rack morality, of ideological pickpockets. –Millôr Fernandes (Brazil), The Bible of Chaos

Add to notes toward a timeline of the Sondhi-Thaksin relationship: Thai Publisher Plans to Expand Empire in U.S. (October 12, 1992, New York Times).

On which subject see also

I am just trying to make a rough timeline of the chain of events here, as they pertain to media, politics, and the patriotic forces who rise out of the barracks to purify the nation — based on the no-cost press-clipping archives I have available to me. (The Brooklyn Public Library is supported by my property taxes, presumably, so “no-cost” may be something of an oversimplification.)

This AsiaMedia daily from the UCLA Asia Institute seems like it has a pretty good archive of straight reporting on the subject. Add to open-source Bloomberg box.

2006: Limthongkul, in his yellow T-shirt, screaming for the patriotic armed forces to put the prime minister in front of a firing squad and shoot his ass.

On February 4 of last year, Thaksin said he would resign if His Majesty whispered in his ear. That evening, Sondhi thundered from his rally stage, “Where is the army? This talk is enough to bring [Thaksin] to the execution post.” The Nation (Bangkok) [date?]

In 1992, however, Sondhi was reportedly — by his own account — nearly arrested by the armed forces for “inciting” anti-military demonstrations. What was that incident all about?

How did Sondhi go from egging on the anti-military demonstrators to egging on the nation-purifying generalissimos at a time when he was reportedly unable to make his payroll?

And how did Thai innovation journalists wind up moonlighting as camelôs — informal street vendors? I find that detail dramatic, don’t you? Is it true? Cite multiple, independent corroborating sources. Ronald Reagan: “Trust, but verify.”

Imagine: Judy Miller forced to spend half her work day at the Times standing at the subway exit yelling, “Extra! Extra! Read all about it! Pinball Wizard in a miracle cure!”

Sondhi launched the Asia Times in 1995. The Economist announced the launch under the (sardonic) headline “Stir-Fried News.”

In the meantime (1997), Asia Times stop printing, Manager Group went bankrupt, and Limthongkul started looking for outside investors.

Wall Street Journal (Eastern edition), New York, N.Y., Jun 27, 1997 (abstract):

Thai media magnate Sondhi Limthongkul is suspending publication of the Asia Times, stepping down as publisher and looking for an Asia-based investor to acquire a stake in the regional newspaper. “Mr. Sondhi is doing business all around the world, but we need a full-time publisher,” said Pansak Vinyaratn, editor in chief of Asia Times, based in Bangkok. “It’s also been our view that the newspaper shouldn’t be just Thai equity, but that it also should reflect our Asian readers.” Andrea Ponzi, a spokeswoman for Manager Media, said the search is already under way for a publisher and outside investors. Ms. Ponzi said the struggling Thai economy was a significant factor because Mr. Sondhi had found it difficult to raise capital in his home country.

Manager’s PR spokesperson was named Ponzi. There is satirical potential there.

In 1998, BRW (01/19/98, Vol. 20 Issue 1, p12, 2/5p, 1c) reflected on whether Sondhi was “through” as his flagship magazine published its list of “Who’s Who and Who’s Through” in Asian business.

Reports on the 1998 edition of the Asia, Inc. Who’s Who of Business in Asia. List of millionaires seeming smaller than before; Impact of the Asian financial crisis; Decision to include Australia and New Zealand’s rich people in the magazine; Sale of the magazine by Sondhi Limthongkul’s troubled M Group.

On 09/11/2000, The Nation (Bangkok) reported, “Sondhi is no fan of debt repayment”:

SINCE the outbreak of the economic crisis, many Thai businessmen haven’t hesitated to reveal their innermost feelings about debt repayment. Among those financially incapable of repaying loans, publisher Sondhi Limthongkul’s protests of insolvency have perhaps been the loudest. His own theories about debt, however, differ from those of most other businessmen in the Kingdom. For example, steel tycoon Sawasdi Horrungruang immediately set to work finding ways to repay his steel group’s loans, worth billions of baht. His motto, which was highly admired at the time, is: “I have no money, I can’t repay loans – but I won’t run away”. Sondhi, however, has shown no enthusiasm for debt repayment.

In 2002, the Thai government refused to bail Manager out of its crushing debt (Thaksin became prime minister in 2001.)

In 2003, Manager got out of banrkuptcy.

In 2005, Manager Media launched Thaiday.com, headed by Sondhi’s son, who was also CEO of Manager, I think I read.

In the same year, Thaksin, the head of government, dropped a series of lawsuits against the media group. What were those lawsuits about? Can I get copies of the complaints (in English)?

New York Times (December 7, 2005):

Thailand’s prime minister has told his lawyers to withdraw lawsuits filed against his staunchest critic, heeding advice from the king, officials said Tuesday. Prime Minster Thaksin Shinawatra had filed a half dozen criminal and civil lawsuits against Sondhi Limthongkul, a media mogul who has attracted thousands of people to weekly rallies at which he has denounced Mr. Thaksin as corrupt. During his 78th birthday speech on Monday, King Bhumibol Adulyadej indirectly advised Mr. Thaksin not to overreact in countering his critics and not to pay too much attention to the advice of lawyers. … ”My legal team has met with Prime Minister Thaksin this morning, and the prime minister is forgiving everyone in order to engender reconciliation by withdrawing all lawsuits against Sondhi,” said Thana Benjathikul, chief of Mr. Thaksin’s legal team. ”I will go to court and withdraw the suits this afternoon.”

“First thing we do is ignore all the lawyers!”

His Majesty seems like a fairly wise old gent.

At some point, Manager struck a deal with the International Herald Tribune, whose business model involves content-sharing and joint distribution and cross-marketing deals with a number of newspapers.

Okay, that deal was announced on January 12, 2005:

Manager Daily content will consist of a daily mix of translated articles from Phujadkarn and original features on Thai business, political and cultural news and the Indo-China region.The International Herald Tribune (IHT) announced today that it has signed an agreement with Thaiday Dot Com Co. Ltd., an affiliate of the Manager Media Group Plc. According to the deal, the Thai media group will start publishing ‘Manager Daily,’ a daily English edition of Thaiday Dot Com’s business newspaper Phujadkarn. The new publication will launch in the spring and be distributed exclusively within copies of the IHT. Michael Golden, IHT publisher, said, “We are very much looking forward to working with Thaiday Dot Com. The IHT/Manager Daily package will enable readers to follow global news and business trends more easily and enjoy high quality Thai news coverage in English.

Son of Limthongkul:

Jittanart Limthongkul, CEO of the Manager Media Group and managing director of Thaiday Dot Com Co. Ltd., said, “We are setting up an especially high-powered editorial and business team for Manager Daily. As one of Thailand’s leading newspaper, magazine, television and online publishers, our aim is to attract premium readers, including local and foreign businesspeople, diplomats, public and private decision-makers, and the next generation of readers who want accurate and in-depth English-language news.”

On May 31, 2006, the IHT expressed the opinion that the Manager Group and others were not serving their Asian readers well.

A host of new English-language media outlets has sprung up around Asia in recent years to try to fill the void. But analysts say none of the new publications, which range from political Web sites focused on individual countries to broad-based regional magazines, has yet found the formula for success. As a result, they say, a highly literate and sophisticated market across East Asia remains ill served.

Does the IHT include itself among those failing to served literate and sophisticated East Asian readers?

A list of papers the IHT corporate Web site says it has “alliances” with: Daily Star (Lebanon); Asahi Shimbun (Japan); Joongang Daily (South Korea); Haaretz (Israel); The Moscow Times (Russia); Kathimerini (Greece); El País (Spain); Daily Star (Egypt).

The Manager Group is not among them, even though the deal with Manager described in 2005 sounded an awful like its deal with El País, for example.

Are they embarrassed about that relationship?

There are many more content deals like this out there, I would imagine.

Times content, translated (often fairly badly) into contemporary New World Portuguese, is distributed to perplexed Brazilian readers through UOL and iG as well, for example.

I say “perplexed” because the New York Global Metrosexual Times, like a lot of global metrosexual news organizations, has yet to solve the “cross-cultural readership” problem: How to satisfy and delight readers whose “horizon of expectations” — if I may trot out a $10 word from the literature on “reader-response” criticism — you do not understand the first thing about.

I might translate, for example, the works of Ray Kurzweil — the Age of Spiritual Machines — into the official languages of the indigenous territory of Nunavut, in Canada.

Will those works sell well in Nunavut, because Kurzweil is such a good writer and profound visionary? The Chico Xavier of the tech sector, you might say? (On whom more later.)

Not without a (credible) effort to explain why the people of Nunavut should care about the things Ray Kurzweil thinks his readers do, or should, care about.

As of 2007, the IHT is completely owned by The New York Times Company, after that firm purchased the 50% stake owned by the Washington Post Company on December 30, 2002. The takeover ended a 35-year partnership between the two domestic competitors.

This later reportedly caused the IHT some political risk-management headaches. “Political rows a threat to IHT stability in Thailand” (Media: Asia’s Media & Marketing Newspaper; 8/25/2006, p20-20, 1/4p)

The article focuses on the problems faced by media company International Herald Tribune in Thailand. The newspaper had entered into a partnership with Manager Media Group to distribute its newspaper “The International Herald Tribune” with Group’s newspaper “ThaiDay.” According to some of the reports, Sondhi Limthongkul, publisher of Manager Media Group, is unable to pay his staff.

Times-Mirror is in business with a man who, unable to pay his staff, screams for the patriotic (death-squad running?) forces to put the elected head of state in front of a firing squad and shoot his sorry ass?

How embarrassing.

But we return now to 1992, Dawn of the Age of the Bubba Bubble, and Sondhi’s early investment in the globetrotting journalism of buzz, for future reference and annotation:

Early last year, a new California magazine called Buzz was short of money and had to suspend publication. Two weeks later, like the deus ex machina of Greek tragedy who drops in improbably and resolves everything, a Thai businessman appeared and provided the astonished founders of Buzz with the money they needed.

The man was Sondhi Limthongkul, chairman of the Manager Group of Bangkok, which includes more than 30 companies in Asia and Europe involved in publishing, printing, global advertising sales, information service and information technology. The 46-year-old Mr. Limthongkul has ambitious plans to become a major media figure on both sides of the Pacific.

He is investing $10 million in Buzz Inc. to make it the centerpiece of his West Coast operations. He said he had already invested $3 million to $4 million in Buzz magazine. Now he wants to expand its parent company by acquiring new magazines in California that would be a good fit with his publishing enterprises in Asia. Where to Make Money

“I believe in across-the-ocean transactions,” Mr. Limthongkul said last week in an interview in New York. “I am trying to create a publishing network in the Asia Pacific region because I believe that is where growth lies and that is where you are going to make your money.”

Mr. Limthongkul is now the majority shareholder in Buzz magazine, with the three founders as minority shareholders. He also has a 25 percent stake in Globe Media of Los Angeles, which acts as an advertising sales representative for publications in the United States, Europe and Asia. His other American property is Frye & Smith, a commercial printing company in Costa Mesa, Calif.

Mr. Limthongkul, who attended U.C.L.A. and Utah State University, asserts that he has the resources to finance his expansion plans in the United States. Since 1982, the Manager Group has grown from a small monthly business magazine, Phu Chad Karn, or Manager, to 32 companies associated with publishing. Mr. Limthongkul said they had annual revenues of $600 million.

Hey, I also took classes at Utah State once upon a time, believe it or not.

Three of the companies went public in 1989, with Mr. Limthongkul selling some of his stock for about $60 million. Still, he retains a controlling interest in them.

Looking for Synergy

Mr. Limthongkul envisions an Asia Pacific network linking regions like California, Thailand and Hong Kong. To this end, the Manager Group has diversified into data bases [sic] and communications technology.

He foresees a business synergy among publications like Buzz, which covers Los Angeles culture and life styles, and Asia Inc., the group’s first regional magazine, which was begun in June and is based in Hong Kong. He talks about advertising packages for airlines, hotels and department stores that do business in California and in Asia.

He also sees an editorial synergy. For instance, he said, a piece about Hong Kong in the current Buzz, entitled “The Capital of Chutzpah,” could be adapted to run in magazines on both sides of the Pacific.

“There could be so much interaction between the two coasts,” he said. “The only thing you have to do is tailor your media products.”

Oh, that’s all.

I had to do that in a job I had once as chief copy editor for a trade title — adapt U.K. and Aussie content for our U.S. readership.

It was a real practical demonstration of the old maxim according to which the Imperials and the Colonials are two nations separated by a common language. Fleet Street values had not yet consolidated their grip on the Gotham publishing world at the time.

(That e-commerce-related publishing venture crashed along with the Bubble that dashed apocalyptic hopes for a Kurzweil- and Gilder-projected imminent tech singularity and Rapture.)

His expansion plans, however, include neither licensing agreements with existing companies nor joint ventures. He said he preferred to retain control himself rather than share decision-making with the kind of entrenched bureaucracies found at many media companies.

“The difference between me and publishing executives in the U.S. is that if Eden wakes up tomorrow and finds a nice magazine in Southern California that she thinks would be another Buzz, I can sign the check at once,” he said, referring to Eden Collinsworth, who with Allen Mayer and Susan Gates founded Buzz.

I would rather build my house strong enough so that when major U.S. publishers want to come to Asia, they will have to knock on my door,” Mr. Limthongkul said.

He apparently convinced them to do just that, even after the bankruptcy of the Asia Times.

Which was by all accounts a paper loaded with high-class (imported) journalistic talent, by the way. A preview of the Al Jazeera model for global journalism.

During his publishing career, he has learned that more than the bottom line on a balance sheet may be at stake. Last May, when hundreds of thousands of Thais demonstrated against the military, Mr. Limthongkul’s Bangkok-based Manager newspaper, which he likens to The Financial Times of London, ran huge photos of the demonstrations and increased its normal press run to 300,000 copies from 120,000.

Did the Financial Times welcome or resent the comparison? (The Economist announced the venture with the mocking headline, “Stir-Fry News.”

“We were warned that the paper would be closed because it was a major inciter of the riots,” he said.

Warned by whom?

By chance, the father of a young woman whose studies at the University of Chicago had been paid for by Mr. Limthongkul worked as a “coffee man” for the generals who were the target of the demonstration. The man overheard them say they were going to arrest the publisher.

By chance? Really? How fortuitous!

The man reportedly overheard the generalissimos saying this. Unless you have the man to verify the story, this is hearsay about hearsay, isn’t it?

The man immediately sent his wife to warn Mr. Limthongkul, who slipped out of the country and went to London. When the authorities arrived to arrest him that night, he had already gone.

I will have to dig into that story.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s