In Burma, a Short Reprieve Expected for Newspapers
By Kyaw Hsu Mon 12 November 2013
KUALA LUMPUR —The global newspaper industry’s very existence is threatened by the rise of digital media, editors and commentators said at a regional conference this week. In Burma however, as a post-censorship media landscape begins to take shape, observers say constraints on access to online news sources mean there may be some life in the printed word yet.
More than 300 media executives and journalists, representing 115 organizations from 31 countries, met in the Malaysian capital this week for the Digital Media Asia conference, organized by the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (WAN/IFRA) Asia Pacific.
The gathering, which included speakers from the Financial Times, the Globe and Mail, the Economist and the Mainichi Shimbun, as well as Internet firms Google and Yahoo, inevitably involved discussion of the crisis in print media, a sector ravaged by falling readerships and advertising revenues in recent years.
Speaking at the conference, Warren Fernandez, editor of Singapore’s the Straits Times, compared the gradual, but quickening, decline of newspapers to a Tsunami. “It comes slowly at first, then suddenly,” he said.
He said while print readerships had almost completely collapsed in Western countries, in Asia there was some resilience. Even so, the Straits Times is moving to a paid-for digital content model. Digital subscriptions, which cost 2 Singaporean Dollars (US$1.60) a month and are mostly taken out by readers using tablet devices, are up to 18,000 at the Straits Times, said Fernandez.
“I believe we have to make a transition,” he said.
For Burma’s media, censorship has only recently been lifted, and the dominance of state-owned media is being rolled back after a quasi-civilian government took power in 2011.
The first private daily newspapers in decades were licensed earlier this year and the weekly journal market is thriving. Meanwhile, despite limited access to the Internet in the country, free online news sources have grown in popularity.
One attendant of the conference was Myat Swe, a.k.a. Sonny Swe, who co-founded the English-language Myanmar Times and recent became CEO of former exile media group Mizzima. Sonny Swe told The Irrawaddy that he thinks, for now at least, print media will remain dominant in Burma.
“In Burma, publishers can survive for longer than in other regional countries because the newspaper market is still strange for readers,” he said. “They have not been free for more than 50 years.”
Although mobile phone and Internet access are expected to boom in coming years—two international firms are set to launch affordable SIM cards with 3G technology next year—Sonny Swe said newspapers could retain a strong place in the market for another decade.
“The main thing for the digital media market is we need very good infrastructure in our country. Compared to even regional countries, we’re still behind them,” he said.
Myint Kyaw, a freelance journalist and member of the Myanmar Journalist Association, agreed that significant digital media market would take time to emerge in Burma.
“Burma will take at least 10 years to change to digital because online media is only used by people like tycoons, NGOs, government officials, politicians and people in the media industry,” he said. “It means very limited users here. Internet connectivity is also still poor, so the print market will still go on, against the global trend.”
Pichai Chuensuksawadi, editor-in-chief of the English-language Bangkok Post newspaper, said much depended on how fast Burma’s telecommunications infrastructure can be improved.
“I think print will survive for a while, but it depends on how much the young generation uses new media in Burma,” he said. “It also depends on the penetration and use of smart phones. If penetration and usage is high, then newspapers may be in trouble.”