THE past few months have been rather gloomy for Thai magazines. Last December, a 35-year-old monthly lifestyle publication, Priew Magazine, published its last issue, after alternative lifestyle monthly Way Magazine announced it would reduce frequency and focus on online content. In February, fashion and lifestyle magazine Volume closed its doors after 12 years.
As much as the disruption from digital media was anticipated worldwide, Thailand’s print media was hit even harder because of the country’s own consumer culture. And we are only seeing just the start of a long downward spiral.
You have heard it all before: Print is dying and must adapt to survive because people are changing the way they read. A newly released study by the National Statistics Office of Thailand confirms the readership decline for print media. While readerships for newspapers and magazines dropped by 7 percent between 2013 and 2015, only 50.1 percent of Thais aged 15-24 said they read magazines outside study and work in 2015, down from 61.7 percent in 2013. Print subscription are in decline as people read more on their mobile devices, and this is hitting revenues. As eyeballs go online, so do advertisers.
Although advertisers are spending more with digital media, the standard rate is not catching up fast enough to replace print ad revenue for most publications. According to The Nation, ad spending fell by 14.28 percent to THB4.22 billion (US$118 million) for magazines and by 6.45 percent to THB12.33 billion (US$345 million) for newspapers. Yet total ad spending for print is THB16.55 billion (US$463 million), still higher than THB9,869 million (US$276 million) in digital, according to Digital Advertising Association Thailand.
“As most popular Thai newspapers are tabloids, what will happen to serious journalism, which requires more resources and doesn’t guarantee clicks and traffic?”
Going online, where there is more revenue growth, has seemingly become a necessary move for publications. But it also means these magazines and newspapers must work at a higher pace in a congested market, competing against click-inducing sites such as Dumbcat and Petmaya, which are rough Thai translations of internet viral content, as well as microbloggers on social media. A knee-jerk wordplay Facebook page, Sudlokomteen (สัตว์โลกอมตีน), for example, has over 1.5 million fans, outgrowing the readerships of many entertainment media. Its staffing headcount? One person who does it for fun. With harsh censorship on traditional and online media, people now read about politics from Facebook posts by academics and activists for free.
Everyone likes free stuff, but perhaps Thais like it a bit more. Included as one of the 14 countries on the priority watchlist of USTR’s Intellectual Property Rights Protection and Enforcement report, Thailand’s market is not the most enthusiastic when it comes to paying for intellectual properties. In the Netherlands, 500,000 readers pay for each article they read on Blendle to support journalism. A paywall or premium membership may work for many publications in many countries, but Thai magazines and newspapers will find it a lot harder to generate substantial revenue from paywalls.
The problem with online advertising is that, unlike print, it is very measurable. As page views and click-through rates become the standard metrics, it will skew competition that prioritizes traffic volume and favors sensational content. As most popular Thai newspapers are tabloids by nature, what will happen to serious journalism, which requires more resources and doesn’t guarantee clicks and traffic? Quality reporting has value to society, but how many Thai media outlets can leverage it enough to generate revenue? For a person to appreciate journalistic and editorial values, to tell quality from fluff, it requires media literacy, something that Thais largely lack and media advocates have been campaigning for.
Print is not going away anytime soon, but publishing companies that rely solely on the medium will struggle to survive. Thai media may face a tough challenge in adapting to the non-paying online readers. The cultural threats against media value, though, is a challenge not only for Thai magazines and newspapers, but for every reader.