Burma's Journals Brace for Coming Age of Dailies

By Lawi Weng 5 October 2012

After decades of imposing draconian restrictions on privately owned journals, Burma’s censors have discovered a new way to put pressure on the country’s publishers: by lifting a longstanding ban on daily newspapers.

Burma’s new Information Minister Aung Kyi recently announced that dailies could become a part of the media landscape as early as the beginning of next year. The move, which would effectively end a 45-year state monopoly on news reporting, has been welcomed by many, but will also present numerous challenges.

Among those most ready for the advent of a new age in Burmese journalism are some of the country’s best-known publications: The Voice Weekly, Eleven Media Group, 7 Days, and Pyi Myanmar. All have already applied for licenses to publish on a daily basis.

“We are preparing now for when we get permission, which we hope will be early next year,” said Dr. Tin Tun Oo, the chief editor of Pyi Myanmar and CEO of The Myanmar Times in a recent interview with The Irrawaddy.

But even publications that are already at the starting gate say they face numerous hurdles to success, including increased competition, lack of human resources and the threat of running out of capital before they are able to turn substantial profits.

For publishers without their own printing presses, getting the news out in a timely manner will prove especially difficult. In a new, high-speed media environment, missed deadlines and other delays will be extremely costly, and could spell doom for those who lag behind.

It’s not just the private publications that will have to make adjustments, however. State-run newspapers such as Kyemon are also busy thinking of ways to appeal to readers, after decades of functioning as government mouthpieces.

Weekly and monthly journals that decide not to make the transition to a daily format will also have to struggle to remain relevant. To do this, they will have to provide more in-depth coverage, like international news magazines such as Time and Newsweek, according to Ko Ko, the chairman of Yangon Media Group.

But even if they can achieve the quality they aspire to, publishers will also face many obstacles beyond their control. Burma’s poor transportation, for instance, will make it difficult to distribute outside of the main cities, limiting their ability to reach many of the country’s more than 60 million people.

Widespread poverty and generally low standards of living will also impose strict limits on how much ordinary readers can afford to pay. Most weekly journals now cost 500 kyat (around US $0.60).

“Burmese people won’t be able to pay more than 200 kyat for a daily newspaper,” said Ko Ko, adding that this would severely constrain the profitability of daily newspapers.

“We will have to rely heavily on advertisers, but even then, I don’t think anybody can hope to get rich running a newspaper,” he added.