Myanmar’s print media struggle to survive
Through The Irrawaddy Aug 25, 2018
Ko Ye Ni: Welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy. We’re going
talk about the dwindling number of newspapers and magazines on newsstands during the tenure of the government led by the National League for Democracy. I invited U Ko Ko (RIT) from Democracy Today and the Yangon Times, and Ko Zaw Thet Htwe from Tomorrow and the Healthcare Journals. I am Ye Ni, the editor of the Burmese edition of Irrawaddy.
Ko Ye Ni: When we look at the current situation, the People’s Cause Journal, formerly published by Union Minister U Pe Myint, recently ceased to be printed. And the last newspaper that disappeared from the newsstands was Thandawsint. I would like to ask why these logs disappear one by one? I’m going to ask Saya U Ko Ko first. Is it because of social media or is it market competition or something else?
U KB KB: Is it because of the popularity of social media like Facebook? I should say both yes and no. Yes, because online media play a role in the decline of print media, but the blame cannot be fully blamed. Print media suffer for many reasons. As you just said, it faces stiff competition from other media.
It also has to do with Myanmar’s current economic situation. The survival of the print media depends in large part on advertising. When the economy is good, businessmen can spend more on advertising. The number of announcements has fallen sharply. The number of print ads has fallen by around 15% this year, according to advertising agencies. While this applies to the entire industry, it is estimated that the private print media sector has lost 50-60% of its advertisements this year. The private sector cannot compete with the public media in terms of price and market. Neither can we blame the businessmen who advertise in the state media because they have to consider circulation and distribution. Thus, social media and the economy are contributing to the gradual decline of private newspapers.
Ko Ye Ni: As U Ko Ko just said, print media must compete with state media for market share. As they are comprehensive in terms of advertising, pricing and logistics, they are not on a level playing field. Has this been discussed with the Minister of Information? To our knowledge, State Councilor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi plans to discuss the economic situation with businessmen. But it’s unclear if anyone from the media industry will attend. How should the government help the newspaper industry?
Zaw Thet Htwe: We have heard that the State Councilor will meet with businessmen on August 26 and 27, but we do not know if anyone from the media will be present. In my opinion, they should be. We must ask ourselves what is the attitude of the government towards the private media in the democratic transition
We have three questions. Will the government allow the print media to survive or will it kill it? Will he leave it as it is to save the face of the international community? And which path should we take?
We are in crisis because the US dollar has appreciated and the price of paper is rising. Printing costs have gone up and businesses can no longer afford to advertise. Our advertising revenues have gone down. We had to downsize, lower our paper quality and reduce the number of pages. If the government continues to ignore the problem, it is essentially killing the private media. If they want to help us survive, we could discuss the methods at the next meeting.
Ko Ye Ni: Saya U Ko Ko, as you just said, when a country’s economy declines, so does ad revenue.
However, The Irrawaddy, despite being an online medium, also relies on ads, of which we got less than expected. Advertising revenue is down. The problem is not limited to print media. Is television suffering the same fate or is it profitable right now?
U KB KB: Each sector of the media industry is doing poorly, but to a different extent. The print media were in the intensive care unit and it was an emergency. He’s been given oxygen, but his graphics go up and down unpredictably. Everyone is worried that he will stop breathing.
Audiovisual media are processed in an outpatient care center. Doctors are examining it but we do not yet know if a cure will be prescribed or if it will also be sent to the hospital.
It’s an allegory, but the audiovisual media have to go to the doctor, because it also relies on advertising revenue. Audiovisual media must spend more money than print and online media. The problem this industry faces is that advertisers tend to choose which channels to use based on content but not brand. If a program has a large audience, advertisers are putting all their money into it. When this program ends, the money follows the audience. The difference is that advertisers choose broadcast media and content, but print and online media based on brand.
The problem is, who comes first, the chicken or the egg?
Without money, we resort to producing low-cost programs. People are unlikely to be interested in these programs, making it unlikely that we will have a large following or receive advertisements. Therefore, we don’t have the money to produce quality programs.
Ko Ye Ni: Do companies only advertise in entertainment, as opposed to education or news programs?
U KB KB: No. But this is the case in programs that deal with politics because people are afraid to advertise during these programs and fear that they will become scapegoats.
They shun these programs which they deem critical or attacking and they invest in entertainment in all sectors of the media.
The problem is that the content covered by the Fourth Estate does not receive funding. This funding is in crisis.
Ko Ye Ni: What would be the worst-case scenario if independent private media were to disappear?
Zaw Thet Htwe: It is the government that has won the hearts and minds of the people. We thought we could enjoy more independence, freedom, transparency and prosperity. With a better economy, we would be better informed about the international media as well. We were expecting so much and we have been wrong so far.
This is partly due to the government’s attitude towards the private media. This sometimes strained them and they even took legal action and arrested journalists. We understand that we cannot criticize the Tatmadaw because it is dangerous, but we fear that we cannot criticize the civilian government as well. With the declining economy and the appreciation of the US dollar, our chances of survival diminish even more – with Rays of Light and Thandatsint being just a few of the casualties.
U KB KB: I also had to shut down Flower News.
Zaw Thet Htwe: So journals that have been around for about two decades have done so. The doors to freedom of expression have been closed one after the other. Even if we discuss this, others will close.
Will it continue? Do we not raise such questions because we are not interested? No. In a democratic transition, freedom of experience must be allowed, the government and Parliament promoting this expression. If they respond by reverting to survival of the fittest, the transition will back off and we will remain in conflict as usual.
Ko Ye Ni: Can we find a solution to the problem?
U KB KB: We are looking for ways and means to overcome this. When we organize meetings, some people think that we are launching attacks on the public media or the Ministry of Information. But we are not asking them to shut down state media; we want to survive together. We are looking for a win-win situation and we want to work on ways to cooperate in order to resuscitate the written press.
Ko Ye Ni: What do you think?
ZTH: As Saya Ko Ko said, we will not cling to the print media. We will switch to digital media as soon as possible like the international community and neighboring countries. But we had to have independent media from the start of the transition. At the time, we weren’t ready to go digital. Human and financial resources were not strong enough. We needed a period of transition and we were just trying to survive.
But how to survive? We discussed this at one point with the former Minister of Information. He said all state media will be public service media and will no longer advertise in the future. Public service media are non-profit. This would help strengthen private media that depend on profits. However, the current government has not taken this position. At the time, we did not approve of the idea of public service media because there was still a lot to discuss. Thus, we continue on the paths of the past.
As a result, newspapers that are published with public funds at a loss have large circulation, wide circulation and confidence. We are struggling and posting in a limited area. Our logistics are weak. We don’t have the capacity to compete. How can we solve the problem? Should we meet with the government? They will say they cannot provide us with funds because they are the government. We are not asking them for money. There are many ways to help us. They could reduce taxes on the paper we import for the public. Plus, private companies can advertise anywhere – Myanmar Times, Democracy Today. It is their choice and we do not blame them. But more than 30 government departments issue public notifications such as announcements of gemstone stores, trade shows and tenders. They could place them in state media and private media that meet their criteria. Then we could survive. It would be a solution.
Ko Ye Ni: Thank you for your contributions.