Special Report: Pan-Asian Media - Asia's print winners

In a tough publishing environment, five magazines have bucked the trend to increase readership. Liz Shackleton finds out how.

The sad decline of east-Asia's top English-language weekly, the Far Eastern Economic Review, was a sharp reminder that Asian publishing is not for the faint-hearted.

The warnings were in the Asian Business Readership Survey results - as in Europe, Asia's business elite just isn't reading as many magazines and newspapers as it used to. Executives would rather skim-read a website or catch the latest news on television.

Of the 19 titles covered by ABRS, only five have grown their readership since 2001. As dailies face the greatest competitive threat from the internet, it's encouraging to see the International Herald Tribune managed to attract the greatest number of new readers, up 20 per cent. The fortnightly title Forbes was close behind with 18.5 per cent, followed by The Economist Group's monthly CFO Asia (up 15 per cent), Business Week (up 9 per cent) and The Economist, up 2 per cent.

Mirroring its purple patch in Europe, the IHT's readership has grown in the past three surveys, a leap of 106 per cent since 1997. Its circulation is up by 8.6 per cent to 82,744, overtaking The Asian Wall Street Journal.

The results follow a generous period of investment in the paper's Asian operations since 1999, when an early edition for Asia launched. The IHT has expanded its print-site network from three to 11 Asian centres and formed partnerships with the South Korean paper JoongAng Ilbo and Japan's Asahi Shimbun, through which it publishes English-language editions of each title as an insert.

Such innovations have doubtless had a big impact on circulation and readership figures, but Randy Weddle, the IHT's managing director for Asia, believes changes in the marketplace have also contributed to growth. "With all that's happening in the world, business readers and news readers have become the same thing," Weddle explains. "Terrorism, the environment, emerging economies like China and India - all these things are affecting business and stock markets."

Forbes is also thriving in Asia. Its circulation has grown by 30 per cent to 65,000 and readership by 18.5 per cent since 2001. The magazine appears to be a good fit with the Asian mindset. William Adamopoulos, Forbes' vice-president and managing director, Asia, says: "Forbes is a business magazine whose heroes are risk-taking entrepreneurs and that is a message that resonates throughout Asia."

The magazine has invested heavily in local content, although the ABRS results do not include Forbes' local-language editions in China, Japan and South Korea, which between them have a circulation of 232,000. Forbes' Chinese edition is the biggest success story, achieving a circulation of 100,000 since its launch less than two years ago. Adamopoulos is confident this will rise to 125,000 next year.

BusinessWeek's growth spurt has seen its circulation more than double since it embarked on a major expansion drive into Asia-Pacific in 1995.

Alan Lammin, its vice-president and managing director, Asia, attributes its growth to the title's "user-friendly" nature and heavy investment in marketing. A redesign last October, the first in almost 20 years, also helped.

BusinessWeek carries about 30 per cent local content in the Asia edition and publishes local-language titles - it was the first international news magazine to launch a Chinese edition and also publishes in Bahasa Indonesian.

Its rival weekly The Economist has chosen a different path. The magazine's stated aim of providing the global point of view - editorial content does not differ between regions - is proving successful in Asia, where its circulation is more than 100,000.

"Global recession and Sars make people want to read more and they want a point of view that is not necessarily the one they get locally," David Hanger, The Economist's publisher, argues. "They want a balanced point of view they can genuinely trust and know the rest of the world is reading."

Hanger says The Economist has added resources in Asia, including the hiring of Chris Kirk as the worldwide promotions director who spends half his time in Hong Kong. It is spending more on marketing in Asia. "We just keep pushing marketing budgets up relentlessly, despite the troubles of the past three years," Hanger says.

Growing from a much smaller base, CFO Asia, which launched in 1998, registered an impressive 15 per cent increase in readership. Its publisher, Andrew Altmann, explains the title focuses on its key market of C-suite senior executives and does not try to be a mass-circulation title. The magazine is also extremely localised, with an extensive editorial team in Asia.

Although the five titles adding readers in Asia have adopted different strategies - some localising while others remain global - all have increased investment and beefed up resources in the region. It is notable they are people-focused, appeal to entrepreneurs and have a strong editorial voice.

However, some believe that dailies and weeklies are in a weaker position.

"The expression 'news weekly' is an oxymoron now. I'm pleased to be working for a fortnightly in an age where news is a commodity and people are starved of commentary or opinion," Adamopoulos says.

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