Cambodian journalist Sothea Thai: ‘This region isn’t a big fan of Western press’

What is it like to be a media entrepreneur in Cambodia nowadays? The closing down of several newspapers in 2017 by the government isn’t a hopeful sign of press freedom in the country, to say the least. Journalist Sothea Thai founded Cambonomist, an online business news platform in Khmer language with over 80.000 followers on Facebook. I had a chat with Sothea on my visit to the capital of the country.

Falling in love with journalism
‘A good journalist is not rich’, Sothea Thai tells me halfway our conversation in a coffee shop in the centre of Phnom Penh. It’s a valuable observation in a country where the level of corruption is high. Sothea continues: ‘When you meet a rich journalist, he or she either works for a political influence group with an agenda or gets paid not to write certain content.’ For this reason, he has difficulty building a team for his startup. He explains it’s not easy to find people who have the same commitment as he does and who see the long term values instead of just looking at the salary they’ll get. So currently a friend of Sothea does the book reviews and he reaches out to scholars to contribute to the platform: ‘They love our publication, that’s something money can’t buy’.
He himself ‘fell in love with journalism’ when he worked as a translator in a telecom company building bilingual websites. ‘I worked together with experienced journalists. I would translate their work, they would edit my translations and go back and forth like that, I needed less and less editing and became a better writer. To learn English I’d read newspapers like The Cambodian Daily and The Phnom Penh Post .’ It’s no secret in Cambodian that both of the newspapers closed down because the government didn’t like the influence of the western mindset of the foreigners working for them.

Sotheathai2Don’t just work for the money
Sothea Thai applied for a journalism workshop in 2002 without any experience in that field and by his surprise, he was selected to attend. ‘The organizer found me very interesting because I used the internet.’

‘That was such an exception, that I knew how the internet worked. He wanted me in the program to teach other students.’

When he later started working for Radio Free Asia, funded by the US Agency for Global Media, he experienced a gap between the local reporters on the ground and the management from outside of the country. When he spoke up for a friend of his whose contract got terminated, they fired him too. He started working for television broadcaster but that wasn’t a match: ‘I felt there was no room for me. I wanted to change the ways people reported on things. I thought the journalists weren’t creating stories, they just followed what was happening, without asking themselves the basic journalistic questions. I think a big deal lays in the fact that people coming from print love their script, whereas I found it more important to make a story visually appealing.’
It made him decide to travel to the US to follow multimedia training. There he realized he didn’t want to just work for the money. He wanted to differentiate himself from others by focusing on real storytelling, from a human perspective. And now at Cambonomist he finds those stories and collaborates with another good friend to write the content. His co-founder at Cambonimist is a “tech-person” who build the website during evening hours, aside from his regular job. They’re thinking of expanding to the region, maybe even in the English language, because the subjects they write about are interesting for a bigger audience than just the Cambodians.

An emerging startup
Being an online platform, working for Cambonomist means you need to understand the rules of social media. ‘We try to re-angle every story, to make it stay longer on the platform. And listicles still play a big role, it’s easy for us to sum up the “top 5” investors for example. We can’t compete with breaking news sites, we’re too small for that, but we do focus on being first in topics that we’re expert in.’ Cambodia is one of the Facebook countries with around 90% of the population using the platform and a lot of them believing Facebook is the internet.

‘Our prime minister has more followers than the estimated number of Facebook users in this country. In Cambodia the internet is Facebook and the level of education isn’t very high. People can hardly distinguish good content from bad content.’

And Sothea Thai is very aware of the bad reputation media has nowadays. ‘We’re very transparent about our collaborations. When it comes to our business model, we do branded content as well. But we don’t collaborate with companies we don’t trust. If companies really want us to report about something but we don’t think it’s an interesting news topic, we charge them for a paid advert or sponsored content.’
It’s not easy for a media startup to build a business model. Producing branded content is one way of getting an income. ‘We have our mission and values, we’re an independent media organization, so no one will dictate us how to write things. When we’re doing branded content we still need to stand out as well with scoops. So we calculated we need at least two quality stories a month with a certain depth and do a maximum amount of PR content. In our meetings, the main question is how we can differentiate ourselves from others.’
Expanding to organizing live events is also part of their business idea. When it comes to content he wants to broaden the range of subjects when they grow bigger and start publishing about political topics as well. Isn’t he afraid of a shutdown by the government? ‘We’re an emerging startup, we’re small but we do what we think good journalists should do. This region isn’t a big fan of the Western press, after all.’