BANGKOK – Thai journalists Hathairat Wist Phaholtap and Yodsapon Tai Kerdviboon sit side-by-side on a couch at the Isaan Record’s office in Khon Kaen, 456km northeast of Thailand’s capital, Bangkok.
The small regional news outlet—which only employs five staff members—publishes several local print stories to its website every week, but is now trying to expand its repertoire, and Wist is helping Tai gain more video-making skills.
The duo teamed up for the first time last month to file a Facebook Live report on aid efforts during the flash floods in Ubon Ratchathani that led to 33 fatalities. The Isaan Record, founded in 2011 to tell the stories of northeast Thailand, had been one of the first media outlets on the scene in Ubon.
Wist has spent the last 16 years working as a journalist in Bangkok. Her career includes stints at Thailand’s leading Matichon newspaper and the Thai PBS television network. She returned home earlier this year to take up a job as an editor at the Isaan Record.
“I left Thai PBS in 2018. I felt I wasn’t being challenged any more,” Wist says. “I was a senior journalist. I could do any story I wanted to and go anywhere, but I wanted to come home.”
New media ventures in overlooked spaces
Isaan is Thailand’s agricultural heartland and a region often neglected by the Thai media. For the past eight years, the Isaan Record has set out to fill the gap, publishing in both English and Thai.
“I want to bring us more international recognition,” Wist says of her publication. “We’re an independent news media that’s quite alternative and progressive compared to the mainstream media in Thailand.”
Its success in covering stories and having them picked up in the national and international media has since inspired others—two new alternative websites are now trying to replicate its brand of journalism.
The Isaan Voice and the New Isaan Movement have begun reporting local news in Thai. The quality of their work has impressed experienced journalists; even Wist admits to checking these newcomers often for story ideas to pursue at the Isaan Record.
Isaan isn’t the only part of the country where independent media outlets are trying to correct the Bangkok-centric skew of the national media industry.
In Chiang Mai—known as Thailand’s “Rose of the North”—CityLife Chiang Mai magazine editor Pim Kemasingki felt the same pull that Wist did for her hometown when she returned to Thailand from abroad 20 years ago.
“I do like to show Chiang Mai as it is, which is a city with a huge amount of potential, lots of charm, but also insidious corruption like anywhere else in Thailand,” she says.
But this desire for localised reporting can sometimes come with its own risks. Last year, Pim and CityLife were threatened with prosecution by the Thai authorities for sharing an image to Facebook of Chiang Mai’s Three Kings Monument donning facemasks in a protest against the government’s lack of response to local air pollution. Due to a public backlash online, criminal charges were not filed.
Pim was unfazed and continues to challenge the authorities on environmental issues. She writes and edits all of CityLife Chiang Mai’s stories. The magazine had once been the only regional media in northern Thailand, but Pim has since seen the ebb and flow of online local news websites. Despite this, she thinks that local media start-ups have been overlooked in Thailand’s media landscape.
“Before, it was a slumbering little town. As the city grew there were more issues to deal with and things to talk about,” Pim says. “I don’t see any conversation happening now about the local media.”
Plugging gaps across Thailand
Mana Treelayapewat is vice president at the University of the Thai Chamber of Commerce School of Communication Arts in Bangkok. He sees the growing amount of online news generated from outside of Bangkok as giving Thais a better understanding of what’s happening in the country’s 76 provinces.
“Chiang Mai and Khon Kaen are two cities where local journalism is improving and stories there are now getting mainstream media attention,” Mana says.
But Thai journalist and senior staff writer at Khaosod English, Pravit Rojanaphruk, is concerned by the lack of news coverage from Thailand’s underreported “Deep South” provinces of Yala, Narathiwat and Patani.
“I think regional media is serving local news needs. I think it’s only in the Deep South where local news and alternative media is needed most,” Pravit says.
Former BBC Thai journalist Noi Thamasathien has responded to this need, founding Patani Notes last December to raise more national interest in local stories from the Deep South of Thailand.
“We started small. I wasn’t very sure whether it was going to be successful. Getting people to write is difficult,” she says.
“They depend on other people to report about the area, but I know there [are] a lot of people who want to have media done by and for the local community.”
Wist has big ambitions for the Isaan Record. Bringing her multimedia skillset with her, she’s planning on improving its investigative reports, in-depth features, and daily news coverage of the northeast—a known stronghold of Thailand’s pro-democracy movement.
But a journalist like her is a rarity; it’s still rare for Bangkok-based journalists to leave their jobs and relocate to their hometowns in the provinces to find a paid media job.
“Most Thai journalists in Bangkok are not from Bangkok, because there isn’t opportunity available elsewhere,” Pravit says. “Unlike in the US where there are a lot of cities where you can do media work, in Thailand there’s only one. But I think that’s starting to change.”
Before leaving Bangkok, Wist teamed up with Swiss Public Radio and Al Jazeera English to cover the 2019 Thai election. This led her to directly challenge 2014 coup leader General Prayut Chan-ocha while he was on the campaign trail. The video of her peppering Prime Minister Prayut with questions went viral and led to online memes about her hard-nosed approach to reporting.
“I’ve seen three coups in my lifetime and have covered two as a journalist,” Wist says. “Covering stories in Isaan is a new kind of challenge.”
Spreading the word
The Isaan Record wants to build a network of journalists in the north and northeast of Thailand to improve knowledge and coverage of human rights and democracy. To achieve this, it’s teamed up with Prachathai, an alternative news portal based in Bangkok.
“The mainstream media has stringers in each province. We’re a small news portal trying to focus on underreported stories or what mainstream media only sometimes highlights,” says Pongpan Chumjai, executive director at Prachathai.
The opportunities are certainly there for the taking, as long as platforms are willing to plunge into the breach. Since 2009, Thai authorities have shut down popular community radio stations across the north and south on the grounds that they were affiliated with the “red shirt” pro-democracy movement and insurgent groups in the Deep South.
This has prompted many prominent Thais to turn to popular social media applications like Facebook and Line to consume and distribute local news and information, shunning the mainstream media.
Back on the couch at the Isaan Record office in Khon Kaen, Wist pauses for a moment before wrapping up the mentorship session. She’s got a new idea.
“I grew up listening to radio. It’s important to people in Isaan,” she says.
“Maybe we should start a podcast.”