Saturday, August 25, 2007

The boss shows the way


AT THE height of speculation on whether Thai coup leader General Sonthi Boonyaratkalin would jump into politics, I clicked on The Nation’s new online offering – a video blog – to get an insight.

And there was the head shot of Suthichai Yoon, bald with round glasses, talking – amidst the sound of chirping birds – about Gen Sonthi’s ambiguous political ambition.

The video blog, which was uploaded to The Nation’s website on July 11, was some sort of a historical take for Suthichai, the group editor-in-chief of The Nation newspaper, as it was his first in English.

The homemade 7.5-minute video shot at his Bangkok home by his driver (who is now, according to his boss, “a solid camera man”) was a trademark Suthichai presentation.

“I have my own way. What you see – especially when I am emphasising a point – is only my eyes and lips, so that the audience will take note and think, ‘what the hell does he want to say?’'' explained the man who has a distinctive voice that Thai comedians love to imitate.

The newspaper man, who founded The Nation 36 years ago at the age of 25, produced the video blog “because I am a TV man and I know that compared with print and audio, video is the most effective in drawing people to what I have to say.”

Five days later, Suthichai, who has hosted television news programmes for 15 years, uploaded another video blog to The Nation Blog TV.

Why does the top man in The Nation have to blog in his newspaper’s weblog ( Suthichai explained that with the revolution in newspaper coverage, he had to turn the whole mentality of his newsroom inside out.

Even The New York Times, he said, is finding it difficult to convince its journalists to use the new information technology.

“The top guy needs to show the way. That is why I have decided I would show everybody in The Nation that with a video camera you can produce your own show,” he said.

The Nation’s digital push is a must, said Suthichai, as its younger and middle-age readers are migrating to the Internet.

The newspaper’s circulation (50,000) has been flat for the last two years.

Thus, the man who is for some the Buddha of Thai journalism is trailblazing his newspaper’s digital embrace.

On Sept 1, the group editor-in-chief will sort of officially launch his digital revolution at an editorial gathering. So far, 60% of his staff are into multimedia journalism, as compared with 5% two years ago. And Suthichai is aiming for 99% in the next few months.

“I have pushed them, harassed them,” he said.

“For example, when I meet my journalists along the corridor, I will ask, ‘Have you blogged today?’ or ‘Did you update the website last night?',” he added.

And, with a big smile on his face, the 61-year-old journalist, who is from the typewriter generation, relates how his revolution is bearing digital fruit.

On July 22, his photographer, who now also carries a video camera, captured a clip of the violent mob protesting outside the residence of General Prem Tinsulanonda, the top adviser to the Thai King.

“On that day, it showed the newsroom that when you have a great shot, it is possible for it to go out on our website immediately,” he explained.

“Nearly 50,000 viewers clicked on that video clip,” he said.

There’s also unintended consequence for the digital revolution in The Nation.

On July 21, The Nation’s editor Tulsathit Taptim posted in his blog about missing his chance to meet the legendary Indian actress Hema Malini, whose movie dialogue was dubbed by his mother.

“I almost cried when I read that his parents worked as dubbers. We’ve been working together for more than 10 years but I didn’t know that the Thai voice of John Wayne was his father’s,” said the hard-nosed journalist.

The blogging phenomenon in The Nation is fast catching on. Just as I was about to finish this article, its Life editor Veena Thoopkrajae excitedly showed me a video of her learning to cook Malaysian food, which will appear in her blog.

Published in The Star on August 25, 2007. Photograph courtesty of The Nation)