May 23 - 29, 2011
As expectations grow among leading private sector journals about the granting of daily publishing licences, editorial executives and journalists have acknowledged that the move will create significant challenges.
More than 40 years after the closure of Mandalay Ludu – the last private sector daily to be published in Myanmar – the question being asked by many in the print media sector is whether it is ready for a daily cycle.
For some, there is no doubt that leading journals can meet the challenge of the increased pressure on newsrooms that will accompany the transition to daily publications.
“We are more than ready,” says Saya Mg Wuntha, the consultant editor at Pyithu Khit (The People’s Age).
“Reporters and editors work hard and the way they write the stories and present the news in today’s papers is standardised,” he said.
“Some have been preparing for two years for the day they can go daily; at least five big media groups are ready.”
His comments were echoed by a spokesperson from Eleven Media Group, which publishes four journals: Weekly Eleven, Bi-Weekly, Premier Eleven and First Eleven, of which the last two are devoted to sport.
“If the government granted daily licences today, our group and The Myanmar Times could go daily tomorrow,” the spokesperson said.
“Yangon Times, 7-Day News and The Voice can go daily within three to six months if they acquire web presses,” he said.
The spokesperson said “everything was ready” for Eleven Media Group to go daily.
“We are prepared in terms of human resources, skill levels, the ethics embraced by our reporters and in equipment,” he said.
The Eleven Media Group has made a significant investment because of the expectation that the role of the print media would blossom after the election last year.
U Ko Ko, the chairman of Yangon Media Group and publisher of the Yangon Times, said a big question facing the sector was whether those who say they are ready for the transition have the capacity to make the change.
“Every journal would say it was ready to go daily if granted a licence; but only those who are really ready will remain in the industry and the rest will stop,” said U Ko Ko, who is also secretary of the Myanmar Writers and Journalists Association.
He said the transition, when it comes, would mean that some publications would relive the situation that occurred when weeklies were launched.
“When weekly papers were allowed, no one had that experience but they met the challenge and survived; it could be a similar situation when they go daily,” U Ko Ko said.
Mr Ross Dunkley, the editor-in-chief of the English edition of The Myanmar Times and the co-founder of its parent company, Myanmar Consolidated Media, aired similar concerns as U Ko Ko.
“Publishing day after day is a grind – it is taxing, stressful and risky as a business proposition,” said Mr Dunkley. “Only those who are committed will enter this game because it is about the long run and there is no short term quick buck.”
Mr Dunkley said he had no doubt that Myanmar Consolidated Media and Eleven Media Group both had the capacity to make the transition.
“They [Eleven] have been around for a long time. They are committed publishers and have recently invested heavily in machinery. They are ready, but they also have challenges to overcome,” he said.
“The players who can go daily are those who have made considerable investments in capital equipment, gathered a sufficient number of staff and taught them how to work together as a team.
“They also have the required experience in the industry and the vision to know where they are going and how to get there.
“The Myanmar Times has those credentials and can move onto a daily platform but we have challenges to overcome as well.”
While the issue of press capacity is a critical one, just as important is another at the heart of journalism: the responsibility of editors and reporters to ensure that their publications meet the highest possible ethical standards.
Ko Ahr Mahn, the editor of 7-Day News, said being able to work to exacting ethical standards while under the pressure of meeting tight editorial deadlines will be a key test for journalists on daily newspapers.
“Weeklies have days to cover a story but having to write a story accurately and fairly within a few hours will be one of the biggest challenges we will have to face,” Ko Ahr Mahn said.
With no schools of journalism in Myanmar and without proper training, reporters and editors will have to adjust to this challenge through experience, which may be a difficult barrier to overcome, he said.
Mr David Armstrong, a veteran Australian journalist and editorial executive and conjoint professor at the Journalism and Media Research Centre at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, said it was essential for reporters to do their research thoroughly and be absolutely certain that their information was accurate.
Reporters should also avoid asking awkward or hostile questions as part of a “fishing expedition”, said Mr Armstrong, who is also chairman of Post Media Ltd, based in the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh. Post Media, which has launched two dailies in three years, is owned by Mr Dunkley and his partner, Mr Bill Clough, who is also a shareholder in MCM.
“Once you have done your research you can approach the government or business leaders involved, on the basis that you are doing your job,” Mr Armstrong said.
“The approach, I think, should be polite, if firm. A hostile approach will provoke a hostile approach; which might mean the reporter does not get the answers he or she wants.”
Mr Armstrong spent much of his career in Australia where, as in many Western countries, reporters are aggressive in their pursuit of answers. However, this approach might not be culturally acceptable in Myanmar.
The responsibility of reporters to report the facts with scrupulous accuracy was acknowledged by the Deputy Director General of the Ministry of Information’s Press Scrutiny and Registration Division, U Tint Swe, in a report in The Myanmar Times last month that focused on proposed changes to the censorship process.
U Tint Swe said the changes would force editors and publishers to take more responsibility for editorial decisions, including checking facts more closely and meeting their professional obligation to adhere to high ethical standards.
“At the moment, when publishers and editors of a journal or a magazine get a complaint related to an article they have published, they use the excuse that they have printed it after getting permission from the division,” he said.
Press freedom would mean that they would not be able to use such an excuse, U Tint Swe said.
“They will have to take responsibility for everything they publish, from A to Z,” he said.
Mr Armstrong said self-regulation was more important than censorship.
“I think the media should be free to report and comment, subject to constraints relating to defamation and some genuine issues of national security,” he said.
“Freedom of the media … also means a free flow of information and analysis. That leads to better decision-making, for citizens, governments and businesses.”
Mr Dunkley said a more relaxed approach to censorship would put an onus on publications to adhere to guidelines set by the government.
“There is a fine line and we need to judge where that is and how far we go. It would be a sensible decision to allow less sensitive information to bypass the censorship process and go straight to the presses, so to speak,” he said.
U Khin Maung Lay, 78, the chief executive officer of Favourite news weekly, was also in favour of guidelines.
“They say we have a disciplined democracy but what are the boundaries for the print media?” asked U Khin Maung Lay, 78, who won the Burma Reporters’ Association best news writing award in 1956.
For Ko Ahr Mahn, “more space would mean more challenges”.
“But if you believe that your story would benefit the public, then you should go for it, whatever it takes,” he said.
Many in the industry relish the thought of the opportunities that would follow the combination of an easing of censorship and the emergence of daily newspapers.
“With a daily, we can show what we’ve got and how we are ethical, competent, willing to work for the people and function as a bridge between the government and the people,” said Ko Ahr Mahn.
However, he acknowledged that while 7-Day News wanted to go daily and meet the responsibility it would entail, it was not ready because of human resources constraints – an issue confronting many weeklies.
“We have enough human resources for a weekly but not for a daily,” Ko Ahr Mahn said. “If we go daily, then we will need more people in every department – reporters, graphic designers and photographers.”
But an advantage of such a situation was that it would create more job opportunities for aspiring young journalists.
On the issue of human resources, U Ko Ko said reporters at weekly newspapers could be divided into three categories.
“The first group is hard-working, qualified and appreciates the important role that newspapers play in society; those in the second group want to be competent journalists but they need proper training to develop their skills; those in the third group are only interested in their salary,” U Ko Ko said.
“When we go daily, we will have to leave the third group behind,” he said.
Ko Ahr Mahn said another positive result from the introduction of private sector daily newspapers would be the sharp increase in information available to the public.
“The flow of information to readers every day will enable us to expand their knowledge and thinking power,” he said.
Increased competition would have other implications for the industry.
“Readers are happy to spend about K1500 on three journals a week. But once dailies are introduced, they will buy fewer newspapers and only the best will be able to attract readers,” Ko Ahr Mahn said.
But if many key players in the print media sector are ready to go daily, an obvious question is when that might happen.
Saya Mg Wuntha, referring to President U Thein Sein’s comment about the important role of the media in one of his first addresses after being sworn in on March 30, said he hoped the government would begin issuing daily licences within a year.
Whenever the licences are granted, Ko Ahr Mahn said the government should announce its intentions well in advance.
“We should be advised six months or a year ahead; then we’ve got some time to prepare,” he said.
Mr Dunkley said he hoped the licences would be granted sooner rather than later.
“Under the constitution there are certain inalienable rights and freedom of expression is one of them.”