Economics Claims an Important Vietnam Media Voice

One of Vietnam’s best and most respected English language newspapers, Thanh Nien News, closed last week after being online since 2004. It wasn’t because the paper was too outspoken by Vietnamese standards or shuttered by the powers that be. The news industry in Vietnam is struggling and the first casualties are non-earners like English language versions of Vietnamese papers.

Although this comes at a time when Vietnam is becoming more international and integrated each day, it does show an interesting trend. Vietnam has its own version of the media wars, with readers distrusting news source and leaving in droves for foreign media or new media like blogs and social media news sites. The downside to some, not all, new media is that it though it lacks the censorship and propagandistic tone of old (guard) media it also lacks the comprehensive verification journalism should have.

And now, when Vietnam is internationalizing fast, steaming ahead with the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement and is arguing its sovereignty case internationally, its only propagandistic tools are outdated and often unread. China’s Global Times may earn laughs but its editorials are quoted in serious newspapers across the English-speaking world. Vietnam’s series of off-key tourism promotions of the past decade have shown that the government has a problem with branding or connecting with foreigners.

Vietnam’s newspapers often seem homogenous, but they are not quite so. Eight years ago former Dow Jones reporter Catherine McKinley produced a research paper, writing that most newspapers are owned by different government bodies but that those further from the party proper, like Thanh Nien, and Tuoi Tre, owned by youth organizations and based in the South in Ho Chi Minh City, not the capital Hanoi, tended to be freer in their reporting. They remain the more interesting papers today.

Thanh Nien survived mostly the way most newspapers survive, through advertising and other methods. It does not get money from the organization, according to sources. Meanwhile those Hanoi papers closer to the Communist Party and its other bodies like the Central Committee are still funded, but also more orthodox and usually deadly boring. They tend to translate a few stories but there is little original content for foreigners.

One longtime foreign editor told me, “It's the more distant from the state papers that are going to the wall.” Yet even with some funds there are still problems. “They (newspapers) don't understand editorial so can't ever succeed in developing a significantly large enough expat / foreign audience... Their main concern is to ensure continued funding.”

That means sticking to party precepts and not expending effort trying anything too new. Thanh Nien News actually did, with original long-form stories from journalists like An Dien and investigative pieces,such as Calvin Godfrey's reports on the American who murdered his younger Vietnamese girlfriend in Nha Trang.

The Vietnamese media landscape has changed astonishingly in the past decade or more. By 2007 there were well over a million blogs on now-gone platform Yahoo360! News blogs and anti-government opinion were part of this shift from the beginning. By the next decade many major international mastheads had set up, though they had to be locally partnered. Soon there was Vietnamese Esquire and local Cosmo girls were everywhere (and ingenious methods of describing sex and genitals to avoid the censors). People turned to foreign news sources too. The public became more sophisticated and worldly but their newspapers often did not, despite many good journalists.

Public cynicism is corrosive these days though. Khe noted, “The public, including the intelligentsia, has grown so distrustful of state media and the state itself that it is too quick to accept accounts criticizing the government as true, even when they are not well substantiated.”

But what he also pointed out on circulation is just as interesting: according to his sources Thanh Nien and Tuoi Tre’s circulation dropped by two thirds from 2008 to 2014. Some I’ve spoken to off the record confirm the same now in 2016 and say that the media can’t monetize itself and is cutting where it can, which means the English language versions that never made money are the first to go.

As it stands, there is not much to interest foreigners in much of the English language press often, save the same batch of recycled stories and bureaucratese peppered with stories about foreigners eating street food and an expat life column written by the most tedious man in the pub (any pub).

The English language papers do try promote Vietnam’s interests to foreigners. Viet Nam News is the approved English daily to explain the party line, but they do not fulfil the foreign outreach or soft power attempts that other nations engage in, from Australia’s now-defunct Australia Network to Germany’s DW (which also runs plenty of world news).

China is buying media real estate across the world to push its views and loudly declare its sovereignty and cherished nine-dash line outlining sovereignty over almost all of the South China Sda. Meanwhile Vietnam integrates more with the world and seeks a greater global role. Year after year it expands its ties, most recently with Anglophone India. It just hosted US President Barack Obama, who spent his time in Ho Chi Minh City talking to the founders of startups at DreamPlex. Yet its PR machine winds down further.

Helen Clark, who spent several years in Vietnam, is an Australia-based journalist