Burma’s Private Newspapers Struggle to Stay Afloat

By Aye Aye Win 14 March 2014

RANGOON — With tears in his eyes, the chief editor scoured the last-ever edition of his newspaper before sending the proofread copy to the printing press. His once-bustling newsroom was quiet. Some reporters cleared their desks while others tried to cheer up their boss with words of gratitude, or even some homemade pork stew.

Khin Maung Lay is one of many Burmese journalists who last year embraced the chance to produce independent daily newspapers free from censorship for the first time in five decades. It was not the government that shut him down, but economics: His paper and others have been losing money as they struggle to compete with state-owned papers for advertisers and circulation.

“It breaks my heart,” said Khin Maung Lay, who has been part of the country’s ever-shifting media landscape for most of his 82 years and was jailed repeatedly when it was under military rule. “Today is my real last day as a newsman.”

One year after publishers and editors took advantage of a decision by the country’s nominally civilian government to lift a half-century-old ban on private dailies, the feeling of euphoria is fading.

Khin Maung Lay’s paper, Golden Fresh Land, published its last edition Wednesday. It is the first well-known private daily to fold, but 11 others that are still publishing also appear to be struggling.

“All the daily newspapers except the pro-junta party newspapers are running at a loss,” said an editor-in-chief of one of the most popular private dailies. He asked not to be named because he was not authorized to comment by management.

“We are losing around 3 million kyat ($3,000) every day and many smaller papers are in the red too. Some can barely survive,” he said.

The more popular private dailies sell about 80,000 copies per day, far less than the three state-run newspapers, which all have circulations of more than 320,000.

Though the state-run papers often read like government press releases, with stories like one on a bridge inauguration that named every official in attendance, they have established distribution systems and nationwide printing presses. That allows them to sell papers virtually everywhere in Burma, while the private papers sell mostly in Rangoon and other big cities such as Mandalay and Taunggyi. State-run papers also operate with public money, allowing them to keep the cost of advertisements low.

Tha Tun Oo, chief executive officer of the media conglomerate Today Publishing House, suggested that many of the new publishers did not concentrate enough on making their newspapers profitable. His company publishes weekly and monthly publications but does not own daily papers.

“Too many of the publications just focused on the product, not the market,” Tha Tun Oo said.

He said that in a developing nation of 60 million, “The media market is just too crowded.” He thinks six or seven papers would be about right.

After Burma won independence from Britain in 1948, the country had a vibrant free press. Newsstands fluttered with more than 70 daily dailies in the Burmese, English, Indian and Chinese languages. But in 1964, after Gen. Ne Win seized power and began military rule, private businesses were abruptly nationalized. Once-popular papers were transformed into propaganda sheets.

After generals handed over power to an elected government in 2011, the press became one of the fastest and most visible beneficiaries of sweeping political and economic reforms. Censors put away their red pens, and on April 1, 2013, private dailies began publishing again.

For Khin Maung Lay, it was a “second lease on life.”

He had been a senior newsman at the Burmese-language Mogyo daily before it was driven out of business by government pressure in 1964. He went to jail three times under Ne Win, including a three-year stretch in “protective custody,” a catchall phrase the military regime used to imprison critics.

Khin Maung Lay started Golden Fresh Land with a flock of young reporters, photographers and editors, mostly in the early and late 20s.

He thought he could compete against well-established state-run papers and those operated by powerful political parties by offering reliable, quality news, but now says he underestimated the strong market forces at work.

“The government’s goodwill toward private dailies is minimal,” Khin Maung Lay lamented. “Compared to the well-established state-run papers, we are really handicapped. It’s like having the oars broken while you are rowing.”

“We feel very sorry not just for ourselves, but for uncle [Khin Maung Lay], who put everything he had into this paper in the last year,” senior reporter Kyaw Kyaw Myint said with tremors in this voice. He was the one who tried to cheer his boss up with a bowl of pork stew his wife made.

Khin Maung Lay will continue to run two weekly papers, but he said it won’t be the same without the day-to-day buzz. It is a wistfulness that extended to his last editorial for Golden Fresh Land, titled, “Till we meet again.”