Flipping through the Nikkei Asian Review

Until publication ceased in 2009, the Far Eastern Economic Review reigned as the Economist of the Pacific. For its devoted fans, no other English language publication better covered the sweep of the region’s politics, business, and culture. In the years since, other publications have stepped up their Asian coverage, mostly focused on China’s rise. That country’s state media in particular has increased the volume of information it produces, slanted but nonetheless useful. New media and newsletters have simultaneously sought to make sense of the cacophony while also adding to it.

Japan’s English-language Nikkei Asian Review has quietly worked to change that since it began publication in 2013. It professes to be a “global publication with a uniquely Asian perspective,” leveraging the 24 bureaux and 1300 reporters of Japan’s leading business newspaper. In 2015, its parent acquired the Financial Times. Despite its prominent sister publications, the magazine has attracted a modest audience of 25 thousand print subscribers and 2 million unique monthly page views. Are the rest of us missing out?

A focused regional publication such as this finds itself in a difficult position: by promising breadth, it alienates most readers interested in a single country. Rare is the reader who is interested in an entire region who would not be well-served by a global publication such as the Economist. According to the paper’s marketing materials, 64% of its print readership is in Singapore, Thailand, and Hong Kong. That would suggest an audience of English-language speakers who seek more than what their censored local papers can provide, but disinterested in the biases major international publications inject. (Its largest source of web readers come from the United States, at 22%.)

Indeed, the Review is less a “viewspaper” in the spirit of the Economist and more resembles a traditional newspaper’s balanced tone. The prose is clean and most articles run one thousand words. There is a mix of Nikkei round-ups and bylined pieces by staff and contributors. Occasionally, a Financial Times reporter will appear, but the paper seems to remain largely a Japanese operation. As an American reader, it’s like listening in on the minds of those in the region without their pandering to an outsider’s interest. Stories that Western publications would reinterpret through the prism of their implications for the US read as a refreshing primary source.

Anchoring each print edition are a section each on business and politics and economics, each with 6-8 stories per issue. Geographic coverage focuses on twelve regions from India to Indonesia, with most getting 1-2 story updates per day online. The print edition shares its opinion pages with a rotating cast of guests that are under-featured in the West, including Bill Hayton and Richard McGregor. Small science and technology and life and arts sections round out each issue.

There are few hints of the publication’s Japanese origins, other than a greater likelihood that one of its academics is quoted. For a largely nonideological publication, its single house editorial per issue is quite mild and usually focused on Tokyo. When the publication does venture out of the region, such as its looks at the rise of Asian fast-casual restaurants in the US and how immigration is reshaping Australia’s identity, its observations are unique and thoughtful. (For a humorous appreciation of why an Asian reporter’s perspective can be helpful, compare how the Review covered the growing fondness for bubble tea in New York with the accusations of insensitivity leveled at a similar article by the New York Times.)

The strongest and most distinctive part of the magazine are the themed features that anchor each issue. Often focused on a pan-regional theme, these packages are the magazine’s most distinctive. Back-to-back issues analyzing the anniversaries of the Asian financial crisis and Hong Kong‘s handover rivaled any publication in their depth of coverage. Recent packages on the globalization of Asian music and how the region’s millennials are reimagining travel are highlights.

Distinctive coverage extends elsewhere. Its Asia 300 index of the fastest growing companies in the region put a spotlight on corporate India all but ignored by Western publications. Anyone who has spent time an Eslite bookstore would have appreciated the obituary of the company’s founder, Bob Wu. Its pages take seriously that efforts may be underway for the long-dreamed Thai canal that would unite the Pacific and Indian Oceans. This was something that the Wall Street Journal last discussed two years ago in an “A-hed” column reserved for ridiculous stories.

It is the Review’s coverage of the must-haves, particularly China, where the magazine falls. Coverage of the pending Party congress have some useful tidbits – such as Xi seeking to eliminate party elders from straw polls –  and conforms to the consensus of who’s up and who’s out. But nothing here rivals the excellent coverage in the New York Times on China’s now humbled “grey rhino” companies or their murky political connections.

This is a publication that deserves to succeed, but not without improvements. The editing could be tightened with a greater forward-looking focus. An article suggesting that Hong Kong conglomerates’ easy mainland profits were coming to an end spent most of its word count revisiting the glory days, for example. A deeper commitment to investigative reporting, profiles of corporations and leaders, and book reviews would be nice additions. The near-total absence of luxury lifestyle preoccupations can stay that way.

At $119 for a year’s digital subscription, the Nikkei is pricey compared to $152 for the digital Economist. Indeed, students might be best served by the Wall Street Journal‘s $49 discounted rate. Four years in, the Nikkei Asian Review is a quality publication, but not yet an essential one.