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Tue, Jun 15, 2004 - Page 27 News List

The 'Taipei Times' grows up

Five years after launching, the paper has raised the bar for news culture in the country, but not without its share of obstacles along the way

By Laurence Eyton

For me the Taipei Times began with drinking a beer while sitting on the floor of an apartment in Neihu around Christmas, 1997. I was paying a visit to a friend, Anthony Lawrance, who was at that time running one of the other English-language newspapers and who was deeply fed up with his job. He was himself an Anglo-South African liberal, with the political outlook that implied. His boss was a Mainlander who wanted to vigorously protect the privileges of the KMT ancien regime. They were bound to loathe each other and he was certain to be unhappy.

The story of Taiwan was its transformation from something almost utterly contemptible, the Chiang family dictatorship which made it not only an international pariah but a laughingstock, to something quite admirable, a functioning liberal democracy and a surprisingly open society. The world needed to know more about Taiwan. The problem was that there was no credible source of information. News magazines might mention Taiwan once in blue moon, I could get a story about it into The Economist perhaps four times a year, but for Taiwan's situation to be better understood, both by foreign non-Chinese speaking residents here in Taiwan and those interested in the nation's affairs abroad, there needed to be a credible English-language daily newspaper.

"You would think someone would have the get up and go to do it" Anthony said. "How difficult could it be?"

"Have you ever met Antonio Chiang?" I asked.

I had known Antonio for two or three years, mostly for his quotability on Taiwan affairs. I knew that he had long harbored the dream of being able to start a decent English-language newspaper in Taiwan. I also knew that what stopped him was that he didn't know how to. Perhaps he could find the backing. But how to turn that money into a broadsheet available every morning was a process about which, despite his experience with Chinese papers, he did not feel knowledgeable enough to undertake. But maybe together we were.

So, right there, we started back-of-the-envelope calculations about how much it would cost. Anthony knew enough about the paper he worked for to have some idea of major budget items as well as advertising revenues. We both knew enough to be able to thrash out things like staffing levels, pay rates and so forth, and from this initial idea we began to put together a business proposal. Anthony met Antonio, who was interested, and said tell me more, and so it began.

I remember an article in a regional news magazine about the launching of the Taipei Times that said, with something of a sneer, that it had been put together in a pub. Actually this was not so very far from the truth. Anthony and I would meet perhaps once a week around midnight at 45 with a laptop and, over a few pints of Carlsberg, review and revise and add stuff to and delete items from a burgeoning spreadsheet that soon began to convince us that, first, we knew what we were talking about and, second, that it was not so impossibly expensive. Both of these were important. We had to be able to persuade Antonio we knew what we were doing, that we weren't fantasists about the project, so he could persuade his money man -- at the time we had no idea whom this might be -- that this wasn't pie in the sky.

In July 1998, I was in England at my parents' 50th wedding anniversary when Anthony called me.

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