Features

Coconuts gets ‘serious’ – new editor outlines vision

Chad Williams took over as editor of Asian news website Coconuts last month, after spending six years at The Phnom Penh Post. He talks to Eleanor Dickinson about the Cambodian journalism scene and his plans to give the brand a more serious tone

So you are American, but you have been in South East Asia for seven years now. What originally drew you here to work as a journalist?

“I used to be at The Hollywood Reporter in Los Angeles, back when it was more of a Monday-to-Friday trade publication. It had more of a business focus then; not the glossy weekly it is now. I was then laid off in 2009, a time when the bottom essentially dropped out of the advertising model of print advertising in the US. Publishing had its own separate crash regardless of the financial crisis then.

“I was then freelancing for a while and was approached for a job at the Cambodia Daily – the rival to The Phnom Penh Post. It paid almost nothing and was quite a step back in my career, but I took it as I thought it would be an adventure. I thought I’d be there for a year, but then I was wooed away to The Phnom Penh Post and soon I found myself very much engulfed in the stories about politics and human rights there.”

In light of that, how would you describe the industry for news outlets and journalists in Cambodia? Was there much intrusion from the government?

“From the perspective of the English-language press, that being Cambodian Daily and The Phnom Penh Post, it was ludicrously free. the Post was allowed to pursue stories with a very straightforward and, indeed, very Western approach. Meanwhile a lot of the radio and the television is in lockstep with the government – either through direct ownership or through their cronies. The level of scrutiny the Post is under will increase over the years.

“Of course with the advent of smartphones, the footprint of the Post is getting bigger, so now you don’t need to have distribution to a tiny village in the hinterland, so they can read this view of the government they would never see on television. So because of that, the government may soon see the Post as more of a threat.

“There wasn’t any kind of tangible crackdown that I saw, but right before I left, an analyst who criticised the financial wealth of the prime minister and his children on the radio was murdered in broad daylight. That’s one of the moments you worry about the safety of journalists there: not necessarily the westerners, but more for the Cambodians.”

Touching on the demographics in Cambodia, what is the balance between western and local journalists – and how does it affect the styles of reporting you see?

“There is a number of Khmer-language press publications, and those outside of the Post’s own edition, are very skewed towards the government. They are owned by people with deep government connections: there’s little criticism or coverage of protests. At the Post, there is a mixture of Westerners and Cambodians. But of course the locals are the heartbeat of it. You could not put out the paper without them. The Western journalists tend to be younger; they come out for a shorter period and tend to bring a hard-headed sensibility. It’s a true dual-language newsroom.”

What was it that ultimately made you decide to leave The Phnom Penh Post in the end?

“Largely because I wanted a new challenge; the Post, like everyone else, is moving into the digital landscape. Even though I was focused on a print product, most of our readers were coming from online.

“There is still a level of prestige with print for the advertisers, but the number of readers we are reaching online dwarfs what the paper reaches. So I had been in Cambodia seven years, and I had a good position, but I thought that given the way news is reaching people now, it was time to pick up new skills.”

So you were appointed editor of Coconuts back in March. When you were first approached about the job, did Coconuts seem like a bit of a departure from what you were doing before?

“It was a bit out-the-blue and I didn’t know too much about them, but that was partly because I was so focussed on The Post. But there was a degree that Coconuts is so very different and so out of my comfort zone that I found appealing – I saw it as a challenge and a learning curve. It’s certainly different.”

When Coconuts announced your appointment, you said you were looking to take the title into more of a “hard news” direction with less of a focus on the popular viral content. Can you tell me more about your direction?

“There is a fine line that has to be tread. As a business model, you are probably dependent on getting the reach and clicks. That’s a reality and you are not going to sell advertising if you do not have a decent-sized audience. But I do want to start introducing some tougher material into the mix. There’s definitely room for that.

“One of our columnists was recently nominated for an award for a feature taking down Au San Suu Kyi, so that shows there is definitely room for this kind of material, alongside the stuff coming from social media. The best way of broadening that is with feature writing, but that’s tough as we are a small news team and they all have a responsibility to get up X number of items a day. It’s not a hard and fast rule, but the site needs to be active and have regular postings. I’m now trying to encourage them to carve out a chunk of their day to be working on stories with longer lead times. My job is to prioritise the best ideas and ensure they are followed up.”

How much will the new model be influenced by Buzzfeed, a publication that seems to have successfully diversified away from just clickbait stories into some hard-hitting investigations?

“I would say they’re a good inspiration; they’re a model you can look towards and aspire to. It’s the type of thing we can absolutely accomplish – but not overnight. Buzzfeed is of course a much larger company. But we have one advantage: we’re here in Asia and can really focus on Asia. There are some publications that move here and they only really cover the edges.

“In addition, because of Buzzfeed and its reputation as a clickbait site for a long time, it took a while for people to step back and say this is serious. But you look at them now and you see some very fine work is being done by them.

“We recently hired a second editor in Manila, who comes from more of a hard news background   – he used to work for Rappler, which is an online news site with a fairly serious news focus. We’re looking for someone in Hong Kong too.”

Coconuts is currently in eight different cities, each with its own team and way of working. How do you plan create some more unity within the operation as a whole? And how much individuality will each site still be allowed?

“There’s always going to be the countries’ own unique take on stories, but there is definitely a challenge there to get all the markets unified more in terms of tone. That’s down to simple things like reworking our style guide and making sure everyone knows how we are approaching things. It’s difficult working from Hong Kong with the vast majority of my staff being in completely different countries: you don’t have the same oversight of calling their name out and screaming across a newsroom. So to be engaged with all of the editors, I am basically on Skype all day long, and there is still a learning curve to wrangle these different people.

“Because of the volume of stories though, it is impossible for me to read every story before it goes live. If it’s a quick story or quick hit, you have to trust your editors – that they’re not going to make an egregious error. Stories that are a little more contentious or any features would definitely go through me.

“It is weird for me though; like any editor, I am a bit of a control-freak,so I do have to pick my spots on when I can have an influence on a story. Also, helping unify the tone is a main part of my mandate.”

One of Coconuts Singapore’s currently trending stories

And how exactly would you describe the tone you would like to set for Coconuts? Will it be more serious than the tongue-in-cheek, light hearted style used traditionally?

“There’s definitely going to be a middle-ground. You will see now that some of our sites approach stories with a more humorous fashion and others with a more straightforward tone. We don’t want to lose the humour; especially with breaking news, we still want people to feel like, ‘this is a Coconuts story’. There’s going to be a little attitude because it is a unique voice. It’s not for everyone, but it creates a loyal group of readers in the group it does appeal to. I don’t want to in anyway quash that voice, but I do think there are some cases it can be moderated a bit so it’s not too wacky.

“You want people to be entertained, but you want them to be able to trust what they are getting from you, so that may entail changing the tone on certain kinds of stories down the road. The more you approach high quality journalism, the more people approach you with news and know what they’re getting. Even if there is a fair amount of humour and snark, you need to give users that legitimate breed of journalism.”

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