RANGOON — As publisher of one of Burma’s 12 fledgling private daily newspapers, the Yangon Times, Ko Ko has survival on his mind.
“No newspaper is making a profit,” he says, cagey about notions that a news-hungry populace is keen to snap up the array of daily newspapers now on sale, after five decades of a tightly controlled fourth estate.
Starting in April, private daily newspapers have been allowed to operate in Burma. Thirty-one licenses have been issued and so far 12 privately run daily newspapers are publishing, Information Minister Ye Htut told The Irrawaddy.
It’s anyone’s guess how many of the remaining 19 licensees will end up rolling a newspaper off the presses, in what looks like a tough game to be entering. “Circulation for most of the new dailies is between 10,000 and 30,000 a day. If anyone tells you more, they’re lying,” the 51-year-old Ko Ko says.
In a country where the GDP per head is reckoned to be around US$800 to US$1,000, according to the World Bank, most people simply don’t have money to spare. Faced with such low purchasing power, the country’s news media could face a shaky future in which only those newspapers with additional revenue, such as publications run as part of companies with a broader reach, will have the best chance of survival, Ko Ko told The Irrawaddy.
One such outlet is 7Day News, part of Information Matrix, a business that, among other gigs, does IT and website development, including for government clients
That portfolio is a reflection of the background of company founder Thaung Su Nyein, who studied computer science. A son of former Foreign Minister Win Aung, the 36-year-old is at the helm of a multifaceted company based in a plush, airy office in the north of Rangoon—a space likely the envy of fat-walleted transnational corporations struggling to find office locations in what is a strangled, overpriced urban property market.
“Dailies are struggling as an entire category,” Thaung Su Nyein concedes, though declining to divulge sales numbers for 7Day’s daily publication. It could sell more, he says, if Burma’s infrastructure—such as road and rail links—was improved sufficiently to enable timely distribution of the daily to areas outside of Mandalay, Naypyidaw and Rangoon, where most newspaper copies are sold. “It costs so much to distribute. Trucking is very inefficient here, for example,” he says.
The presence of weekly newspapers, or journals in the local parlance, is another hurdle for dailies, says Thaung Su Nyein. “Every day there is a different weekly journal available,” he says. “People are used to them, they are thicker than dailies, and people here associate that with value.”
And though daily newspapers are priced around the 200 kyats (20 US cents) mark—in an attempt to put them within reach of Burma’s millions of low-income earners—Thaung Su Nyein says that news readers are willing to shell out the extra for a weekly rather than try out a new daily. “The dailies lose their impact very quickly,” he explains. “The weeklies have more in-depth pieces and the content lasts longer, which is another incentive for the newsreader.”
Hampered too by spotty telephone and Internet services, and a sometimes flaky electricity supply, the pressure to get news out on daily deadline means that the depth of coverage takes a hit, Thaung Su Nyein acknowledges. “Sometimes there just isn’t the time to talk to that second or third source for a story,” he says.
Government-backed newspapers have the resources of the state behind them, meaning more cash and a logistical leg-up on private sector media. Those advantages stretch to newsgathering as well, it seems. “The government newspapers get information from the ministries before the rest of us,” says Ko Ko. “That is not a level playing field.”
Other publications, also new to the private daily realm, are linked to political parties. The ruling, military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) has its new Union Daily, while the National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Aung San Suu Kyi, publishes D-Wave.
In a small office near Rangoon’s Kandawgyi Lake, Empire Daily founder Kaung Myint Htut says that his publication’s obvious links to the Myanmar National Congress party do not mean that the newspaper, which sells for 50 kyats, is party propaganda.
“For me, I actually prohibit writing about me or the party in the newspaper,” the former political prisoner and current chairman of the Myanmar National Congress party told The Irrawaddy.
He says he can use the party newsletter, sanctioned by the country’s election commission, to campaign. “It would be boring for the reader if I put that kind of material in the newspaper,” he says. “We have the freedom now to write, so I want to inform by the newspaper, not try to preach.”
Burma’s media landscape is undergoing a schizoid opening up that has seen the abolition of the old censorship regime and, now, a wrangle over new media laws, pitting the Ministry of Information against the country’s interim Press Council, of which Thaung Su Nyein and Ko Ko are members. The government-drafted Printers and Publishers Registration bill has been passed by the Lower House of Parliament, but is opposed by the Press Council, which says the legislation is too restrictive. The government recently put forward a still-to-be-finessed “social responsibility” code for the country’s media, a proposal that comes off sounding like something lifted from stiff press regimes deployed in neighbors such as Malaysia and Singapore.
The country’s media liberalization has taken place side-by-side with several outbreaks of violence, mostly directed at Burma’s Muslim minority, in several regions over the last year. Some publications have been accused of biased, inflammatory or anti-Muslim reporting, with recurring mentions of “Bengalis” in reference to the country’s Rohingya minority—a group of around 800,000 Muslims that the Burmese government and many ordinary Burmese view as illegal migrants.
And locked off from the telecommunications modernization that has brought widespread mobile phone and Internet services to neighboring countries, Burma recently granted mobile licenses to two foreign operators that say they have big plans to connect much of the population within four or five years.
Despite these looming changes—and his own company’s background in IT, Thaung Su Nyein is nonetheless adamant that “there is a future for print in this country.”
Citing the growth of the now decade-old 7Day weekly, he hopes something similar can happen with the daily. “Initially the weekly sold just 3,000 copies a week,” he recalls. “Now it is over 150,000.”
But for some, the day of the conventional print newspaper may have passed. Laughing, Ko Ko says that any time he brings home a copy of the Yangon Times to give to his teenage daughter, she usually glances at it momentarily before tossing the publication aside.
“Oh, it’s not that she doesn’t read the news. She will open the same stories on one of these,” he says, holding up his cellphone.
Ko Ko says he can see his daughter’s point. “News on an app, on a website, posted on Facebook—people can interact, comment. Print news is passive.”
But there’s a downside that leaves Ko Ko exasperated. “Burmese people, the younger ones, these days only want to read the headline, the short summary on Facebook. Nobody wants the detail or to enjoy a well-written article.”
That is partly a product of the stultifying censorship imposed during military rule, which allowed flippant reading, such as local celebrity gossip, to flourish, while serious news withered. It meant, as well, that a generation of journalists developed bad habits—such as self-censorship or a predilection for yellow journalism
“At 7Day we prefer to hire new graduates, young reporters who are idealistic about the fourth estate and are keen to hunt news,” says Thaung Su Nyein. “Some of the older ones are tainted.”
Forty of the 60 or so staff working at the Yangon Times are fresh to the business—graduates from a variety of disciplines who get three months’ on-the-job training. But notably, there are no journalism degree holders among the ranks.
“We don’t take people from the one journalism school here [in Burma], there is funny stuff on the curriculum,” says Ko Ko.