Thai news industry faces tough outlook as layoffs mount

กองบรรณาธิการ TCIJ Thu, 27 June 2024 | Read 2728

Thai news industry faces tough outlook as layoffs mount

Former Thai prime ministerial candidate and ex-Move Forward Party leader Pita Limjaroenrat (center) speaks to the media outside the Constitutional Court in Bangkok after the court decided to reinstate him as a lawmaker, Jan. 24, 2024. [Manan Vatsyayana/AFP]

Original published: Benarnews Thailand

After being laid off by a large news company several years ago, Thai journalist Smanachan Buddhajak decided to strike out on his own. 

He launched an independent news website focused on the environment and funded primarily through grants from Thai and international donors. But after fewer than three years online, he was forced to shut down his operation in December.

“I had to work constantly, without a budget to hire help,” the 32-year-old told BenarNews. “So when my mother fell ill and I had to care for her, I had to abandon the site for a while. When I tried to return, I couldn’t regain the same engagement.”

Smanachan is now freelance, writing on everything from football to political news – piecemeal work that he takes on no matter how low the pay. 

His experience highlights the increasingly fractured nature of Thailand’s media ecosystem and the difficulties that many journalists face to find secure employment. The industry is facing uncertainty because of inconsistent revenue from advertising and sponsorships, as well as unfair sharing of revenue from advertising platforms, observers say.

While the internet’s disruption of traditional business models is not new, this year has proven to be exceptionally difficult for the Thai media. In the first half of the year, private media companies in Southeast Asia’s second largest economy axed approximately 300 jobs.

Smanachan Buddhajak, an independent journalist, carries out tasks at a co-working space in Bangkok, June 19, 2024. [Wittayakorn Boonruang/BenarNews]

Voice TV, owned by the family of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, ceased broadcasting on all platforms in late May after losing more than 800 million baht (U.S. $22.5 million) over the past five years. Nearly 200 employees were laid off in the process. 

PPTV, another major television channel, reported a loss of 1.07 billion baht (U.S. $30 million) in 2023 and dismissed about 90 staff members in May. Elsewhere, a production company affiliated with the state-owned Channel 7 laid off 12 employees in April.

The Thai Civil Rights and Investigative Journalism (TCIJ) estimates that between 2020 and 2023 at least 1,000 jobs were cut in the media industry. It also noted that this might be an underestimate, as many outlets do not disclose dismissals.

Interviews with journalists and researchers paint a bleak picture of an industry grappling with rapid change. And many say they are concerned about the impact this could have on overall standards. 

“Layoffs in the Thai media industry will continue because revenue, mostly from sponsorship or advertising, no longer covers the operating costs of most media outlets,” Chuwat Rerksirisuk, former executive editor of the respected Prachatai news website and a 30-year journalism veteran, told BenarNews.

Overworked, underpaid

In recent years as mainstream news sources have clipped back their operations, a rush of small online outlets have emerged. According to the latest research from the TCIJ, more than 100 new digital media outlets were launched between 2015 and 2019, following redundancies at major media companies. 

Smaller players have been able to harness the popularity of YouTube, Facebook and TikTok to deliver the news. Meanwhile, traditional media outlets have been forced to adapt to changing consumption habits by creating short clips and news recaps to compete for followers and engagement.

“Online media competition is intense and is exacerbated by economic conditions as advertisers spend less,” Nattharavut Muangsuk, from the Thai Media for Democracy Alliance (DemAll), told BenarNews.

In May, audience measurement firm Nielsen said that spending on advertising spending in Thailand for the period January-April 2024 had increased by 4% compared to the same period a year earlier. But there was a 33% decline in print spending and a 2% drop in radio over the same period. Spending on linear TV – traditional satellite or cable broadcasting – rose 1% year on year. 

Most marketers attributed the increase in ad spending to social media, Nielsen said.

Chuwat Rerksirisuk, former executive editor of the Prachatai news website, poses for a photo at the Prachatai offices in Bangkok, Feb. 7, 2024. [Kocharak Kaewsurat/BenarNews]

Journalist organizations say shrinking newsroom budgets and cutthroat competition is ramping up pressure on journalists.

In 2022, the Ministry of Labor reported there were 22,408 workers in the information, news and communication industry – a drop from 29,161 in 2021.

For journalists who have held onto their jobs, workloads are increasing and there is a shift towards more flexible “freelance” employment, according to the National Union of Journalists, Thailand (NUJT)

“Many haven’t seen a raise in 10 years. They’re overworked, covering five assignments a day across TV, print, and online platforms due to reduced staff, while editors demand more news to keep up with trends. How can reporters manage to cover all these stories?” Sumet Somkhanae, secretary-general of the NUJT, told. 

There is little freedom to unionize or negotiate employment conditions either, Sumet said.

“Many field reporters and photographers have been laid off, forcing remaining reporters to work harder. However, their employers don’t provide overtime pay, per diems, days off, or workplace safety measures,” he said.

Kanokphorn Chanphloi, a project coordinator at the Prachatham Media Foundation, which supports independent media, said freelance journalists were not adequately compensated for their work. 

“They bear all content production costs themselves, such as travel and coordination expenses,” he told BenarNews. “These costs are bundled into the fee for a single piece of writing, which is often not worth it. But freelancers don’t dare to negotiate for fear of losing future work.”

A threat to democracy? 

Media experts and academics worry that the restructuring and closures of news outlets will affect the ability of the Thai media to act as a watchdog and scrutinize the actions of powerful interests. 

Journalists in Thailand already face considerable challenges in doing their jobs, including the threat of prosecution for reporting deemed too critical of the government and monarchy. Cybercrime laws and the charge of lèse-majesté, or royal defamation, are often used to harass journalists.

Journalists try to get photos and videos of former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra as he arrives at his family compound following his release from a police hospital in Bangkok, Feb. 18, 2024. [Jack Taylor/AFP]

In a recent case, Nutthaphol Meksobhon, a reporter for Prachatai, and Natthaphon Phanphongsanon, a freelance photographer, were arrested for reporting on graffiti related to the royal family on a temple wall. They face up to seven years in jail. Natthaphon Phanphongsanon used to contribute photos to BenarNews.

Disruption of the traditional news business model and politics both pose a threat to media freedom in Thailand, according to a study published in April.

“The highly competitive media market, unfair revenue-sharing systems from advertising platforms, and an illiberal political regime all contribute to news organizations not fully fulfilling their social institutional role according to the journalistic mission in a democratic system,” said the authors, Assistant Professor Arin Jiajanpong of Silpakorn University and Assistant Professor Phansasiri Kularb of Chulalongkorn University.

As the Thai media adapts to new economic realities, the industry faces a challenge of maintaining quality journalism and reporting a diverse range of stories, experts said.

“These days, we only have political news from Government House, Parliament, or political parties, crime news, and sports news,” said Nattharavut, from DemAll.

“Environmental news, civil society movements, and news related to human rights protests are hardly presented anymore.”

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