Is the age of the Asian newspaper tycoon really dead?

Newspapers are a dying industry, right? Not in Asia. Circulations across the region are actually going up, according to the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (WAN-IFRA). In its most recent World Press Trends 2011 report, the organisation reports that paid circulation increased by 7 per cent in 2010, and by 16 per cent over the five years between 2006 and 2010. 67 of the world’s 100 largest daily newspapers come from Asia. Those are stats that any western media mogul would die for.

Why are Asia’s newspapers bucking the trend? Largely because of huge aspirational populations, coupled with relatively low subscription prices in many markets, giving newspapers a flying start, even among younger generations.

To be sure, circulations are falling in some markets: notably Hong Kong, South Korea and Taiwan. But, in Asia, rising internet use does not always equate with falling newsprint sales. 90 per cent of the Japanese population, for instance, still read newspapers, and circulations rallied by 19 per cent in Singapore in 2006-10 – demonstrating there remains a solid audience for quality news analysis, features and investigative reports.

Asian newspaper groups can’t afford complacency: not least because of the rise of authoritative, independent, panregional online news services such as Asia Sentinel. But as they head into the digital 21st century, they at least have the luxury of time to study the winning (and losing) strategies of their peers in the west. Here we take a look at some of the region’s most historically rich and iconic titles.

The Singapore Straits Times

Established: 1845

Circulation: 365,800

Singapore’s highest-selling daily enjoys a near-monopoly of English language news provision in the city-state – and there are no signs of slumping profits at its owner Singapore Press Holdings, which also publishes The Business Times and the tabloid, The New Paper.

Originally started as The Straits Times by an Armenian, Catchick Moses, in the early days of British colonial rule, the then weekly paper quickly saw off early rivals such as The Singapore Chronicle. The Japanese kept it in print during WWII (renaming it The Shonan Times) and, following Singapore’s independence from Malaysia in 1965, the title became more Singapore-focused, leading to the creation of the New Straits Times for Malaysian readers.

The Straits Times has been criticised for leaning too close to government: many of its editors and senior publishing executives have been former civil servants. In 2004, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong deplored the way the newspaper was ‘under siege’ from digital media. In fact, it has managed to hold its own relatively well. Meanwhile, its publisher Singapore Press Holdings has built a flourishing online business including: AsiaOne portal (an online marketplace) RazorTV, (an interactive webcast service), and shareinvestor.com. It also prints 18 newspaper titles in 4 languages and owns 100 magazines.

Despite this impressive portfolio, there are clear limits to growth in Singapore, and The Straits Times is often described as “cash-rich with nowhere to go”. That may explain recent speculation about a possible tie-up with The South China Morning Post

The South China Morning Post

Established: 1903

Circulation: 104,000

One of the most influential media organisations in Asia, The South China Morning Post was founded in 1903 by Tse Tsan-Tai and Alfred Cunningham and is the oldest continuously published newspaper in Hong Kong and all of China.

The paper flourished during the upheavals of the mid 20th century, gaining a reputation for dogged editorial independence and analysis, and listed on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange in 1971. It was privatised by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation in 1987, and then relisted again in 1990 ahead of its 1993 sale to the Malaysian sugar tycoon Robert Kuok in 1993. The group, which also publishes Chinese editions of Cosmopolitan and Harper’s Bazaar, is currently led by his daughter, chief executive, Kuok Hui-Kwong.

Investors in the newspaper group have long urged expansion onto the mainland. The South China Morning Post has now established bureaux in Beijing and Shanghai – the better to cater for the growing international business communities there. This year also saw the landmark appointment of the paper’s first editor-in-chief from the PRC, Wang Xiangwei.

The Yomiuri Shimbun

Established: 1874

Circulation: 10 million

With internet penetration at 80 per cent, a mature broadcast industry and a massive blogosphere, Japan’s newspaper industry should, by rights, be under siege. Yet its three largest paid dailies remain the most widely read in the world. The two largest, The Yomiuri Shimbun and The Asahi Shimbun (circulation 8 million) are both owned by Japan’s largest media conglomerate, the Yomiuri group, which also owns The Nikkei.

Originally founded by three Japanese journalists, the paper was acquired by a former To kyo police officer, Matsutaro Shoriki, in 1924. Fol lowing a brief hiatus post-WWII (when labour unions, branding Shoriki a “war criminal”, imposed a four-year regime of ‘workers’ self-management’), the family retained control, building their “little newspaper” into a mass conglomerate which also owns the Nippon TV Network and the Tokyo baseball team, the Yomiuri giants.

The “Old Dinosaur” remains a centreright conservative paper. But is not immune to modern pressures: it has lost a million readers since 1997, but looks to be shaping up well for the 21st century. Its website, started in 1995, is the 44th most visited in Japan and its largest news-site. A 2009 tie-up with The Wall Street Journal, and a thriving English news website, The Daily Yomiuri, has helped consolidate its position as a ‘go to’ paper.

The Times of India

Established: 1838

Circulation: 4 million

Owned and managed by India’s largest media group, Bennett Coleman & Co (controlled and owned by the Sahu Jain family), The Times of India has the largest circulation of any English language publication worldwide – producing daily editions across India, tweaked for local markets.

Originally titled The Bombay Times & Journal of Commerce, and aimed at British residents of the Raj, the journal has always majored on international as well as local news: by the 1860s, when it had upgraded itself to The Times of India, it was the Indian agent for Reuters. The founding editor, Robert Knight took a consistent stand against mismanagement and greed in the Raj. That alienated some of his readers, but attracted a wider readership for The Times – and new Indian shareholders.

Still holding its own among India’s thriving and often raucous media, The Times has never been slow to speak its mind. When Emergency was imposed in India in the summer of 1975, a Mumbai edition carried in an obituary of D.E.M. O’Cracy: “the beloved husband of T. Ruth, father of L.I. Bertie, brother of Faith, Hope and Justica. Expired 26 June”.

That reputation for independentthinking ensured that eyebrows were raised recently when the group launched a controversial business initiative called “Private Treaties”, which offered to take an equity stake in a company in exchange for advertising.

The Bangkok Post

Established: 1946

Circulation: 74,000

“One of the finest daily newspapers in the region…in any language,” says the Asia-Pacifc Management Forum. “Why do Thais get all the best reporting?” They also have another quality English language paper, Nation, as well as the well-regarded Thai language KrunthepTurakij.

Thailand’s oldest newspaper claims to be the leading opinion-maker in the country and has always majored on neutral, balanced reporting. As the newspaper of record, says its owner, the Post Publishing Company: “we are responsible to posterity”.

Some, however, argue that the paper – founded by a group of Thai and US journalists in 1946 with an initial issue of just four pages – has always retained a pro-western bias. One of its founders, Alexander MacDonald, was a former officer in the US OSS (a fore-runner to the CIA). At times, it has also been accused of self-censorship. In common with every Thai publication, it never criticises the monarchy; and some have noted a reluctance to report on corruption among influential figures.

The newspaper has changed hands several times. After a stint in the stable of Canada’s Thomson Press, major shareholders of Post Publishing include the Chirathivat family (owners of Thailand’s largest groceries conglomerate); GMM Grammy, the media and entertainment company; and The South China Morning Post. Despite recent declines in circulation, The Bangkok Post benefits from being a stable-mate to the Thailand’s profitable mass-market tabloid daily, M2F.