Jakarta Globe Says Goodnight Indonesia

On Tuesday, Dec. 15, one of Asia’s most ambitious experiments in English-language journalism effectively came to an end with the decision to shut down the print version of the seven-year-old Jakarta Globe. The paper, in its final edition, cited high printing and distribution costs.

In a front-page message on the paper’s last edition, the company said the Globe would continue as a digital news operation, although the reality, current staffers say, is that the Globe now operates with precious few reporting resources and it largely reprints translations of stories from other outlets within its parent company.

The print edition joins a growing list of others in Asia and around the world on the ash pile of history and is another indication that print everywhere is less viable all the time in the face of an onslaught of free information from the Internet. Parent company BeritaSatu Media Holdings announced that with the death of the print edition it would spend US$65 million on digital operations.

Print circulation for all papers across Asia has continued to grow – by 32.7 percent from 2009 through 2014, according to the World Press Trends survey released last year by the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers, a rare bright spot in a world where readership has continued to fall, by 8.8 percent in North America, 4.5 percent in Europe and 5.3 percent in Australia. But for the first time in history, circulation earned more money last year than advertising did.

"The basic assumption of the news business model -- the subsidy that advertisers have long provided to news content -- is gone," Larry Kilman, the organization’s secretary general, told a conference in New York. "We can freely say that audiences have become publishers' biggest source of revenue."

The Jakarta Globe was created as a part of a media empire owned by the Lippo Group, controlled by the Riady family. During its heyday, the Globe won 30 national and international awards including 12 for journalistic excellence in three years from the Society of Publishers in Asia. The company has an Internet and cable TV company, a cable news operation, websites and two Indonesian dailies, among other holdings. The Globe has been credited internally with providing BeritaSatu with a high-quality international brand image.

But from the start it appeared to be a quixotic adventure – and an ambitious one, built on the theory that with a strong push, the Globe could overtake the venerable and relatively tame Jakarta Post and dominate the small but growing English-language market in Indonesia. It launched on Nov. 12, 2008, in full color with 48 broadsheet pages.

Lippo spent lavishly at the start, hiring talented senior journalists in Indonesia and others from across the planet including the Los Angeles Times and the International Herald Tribune, among others, while nurturing a young and energetic local staff and building an entirely new, high-tech newsroom atop a shopping center. For a time, it was arguably the best paid, best staffed and best equipped newspaper in the country.

Former Globe reporters and editors are working at virtually every major international news organization in Jakarta.

Salaries were among some of the highest in the region. The paper was edited for its first four years by A. Lin Neumann*, a longtime journalist and former executive editor of the prize-winning Standard of Hong Kong before it was emasculated by the owners and turned into a free paper. Dow Jones veteran David Plott, the last editor of the respected Far Eastern Economic Review, served as BeritaSatu’s media advisor.

But the paper suffered from a weak business side, as if it was started out of a belief that strong journalism could overcome the lack of a commercial blueprint. At one point, the telephone number listed in the paper for readers to advertise or subscribe rang in an empty building, frustrating would-be subscribers.

After three years of prize-winning reporting, resources started to dry up. Eventually the international staff drifted away or was let go. Staff layoffs became common. For the past couple of years, the paper has seemed rudderless, without coherent goals. In May of 2012, it was sensibly downsized to a tabloid from the broadsheet format but that did little to change its fortunes.

With the rise of online news portals, with more people reading stories online rather than in print, the paper shifted its focus to updating its readers on the latest breaking stories, leaving the print edition to provide explanatory articles behind the breaking news, cutting into its relevance. However, it now claims more than 800,000 digital daily readers both at home and abroad and the company clearly wants the digital brand to survive.

“It is the dawn of a new age in Indonesia’s media industry and the Globe will ensure that it continues to serve the readers’ needs in an era when information needs to be delivered fast,” the paper said in its last print edition. “Welcome to the digital world!”

In its launch edition, the Jakarta Globe opened with the words, “Good Morning, Indonesia!” As current and former staffers gathered at the paper’s office on Monday evening to bid the paper goodbye, many wore tee-shirts of the first edition. “The back of mine should say, ‘Good night, Indonesia,’” said a former Globe news reporter now working for a major wire service.

Disclaimer: A. Lin Neumann is a co-founder of Asia Sentinel