Weathering the tides: newspaper readership in the Philippines and Myanmar

A typical newspaper stand in the Philippines, with people barely taking a glance on what's news for today. (Mick Basa)
A typical newspaper stand in the Philippines, with people barely taking a glance on what’s news for today. (Mick Basa)

Down in Davao, a city in Southern Philippines, a class in a university pass the hat to acquire an Internet domain and web host package for their journalism project: an online news site.

Their project has never been done by previous batches of mass communication majors. The school’s idea was to prepare them into what journalism has turned into today. And the whole idea of migrating from traditional media projects like a newspaper is a reflection of what some mainstream journalists in the Philippines are doing.

Jefrey Tupas, then correspondent for the Philippine Daily Inquirer for more than a decade, is setting up an online news outfit NewsDesk which would be launched come February. He says it’s a realisation of a long-desired platform run by journalists and media workers themselves. Poor and delayed remuneration by big news organisations to provincial correspondents have been a long-standing issue.

“Most of us felt being in a network, funded by media capitalists, was limiting what we are and what we can supposed to do,” he lamented.

Their team is experimenting on what particular business model NewsDesk would operate and Tupas says “we still do not know how we will go through it.”

“We have started from scratch so we are banking on the help of friends. Some are philanthropic enough to help us. But everything came from our own pockets. We are exploring this idea where community will fund the coverage on a certain issue,” he says.

Looking for a lucrative business model is something Carmelito Francisco, editor of Mindanao Times, does not have to worry about, at least for now, as he believes the Philippine media print media industry has continued to thrive unlike what’s happening in Western countries where newspaper readership has dramatically declined.

“The community newspapers can still grow by concentrating on affairs of their host communities,” said Francisco.

With a circulation of 10,000 in Davao, the daily community newspaper competes with three other local dailies, Sun.Star Davao, Mindanao Daily Mirror and Edge Davao, which just recently began publishing from a weekly business newspaper into a daily community paper.

Like Mindanao Times, Sun.Star and EdgeDavao publish an e-copy of their newspaper online to remain relevant in the long time, says Francisco.

“There is no drastic change in so far as readership is considered. But there is already, although gradual, an interaction between the media and their readers (both print and online) and we must sustain this not only to continue attracting these readers but also because this will result in better bottom line,” he says.

But Francisco admits community newspapers have had a hard time as advertisers are shifting to online media.

“Many advertisers even turned to bloggers (many of them pretend to be legitimate journalists),” he said.

Times are changing, he says, and traditional media have to adapt so a newspaper with a developed, interactive website, can sell itself in a wholesale manner to advertisers.

“Remember that in all of media, newspapers have the credibility so with its updated website itself. Of course, many, if not all, newspapers rely on advertisement as not one has existed because of subscription,” he said.

Francisco says there has been no drastic change in readership, although figures have shown a decline in newspaper readership in the Philippines.

In 2006, Raymund Mercado, spokesperson for the Newspaper and Magazine Dealers Association in the Philippines, noted that readership in the Philippines decline by 10 percent a year, saying “fewer young people are buying papers and that older people are getting their news from the net or TV.”

This trend prompts many to jump into conclusions that Filipinos are not “readers” when it comes to news and information consumption.

But Philippine audiences have found Internet to be a better conduit as most of the content they can access online is free.

This is why more and more online news organisations in the Philippines have started to emerge. Last year, Maria Ressa, former senior vice-president of ABS-CBN News and Curent Affairs, left the Philippines’ biggest news network and started her own social news site Rappler.com, producing video newscasts and documentaries as well as the usual text and picture stories you see on online sites. But it does not run a TV channel or a radio station. She calls it convergence.

(Video courtesy of European Journalism Centre)

Because of this trend, newspaper sales have declined due to increased competition from television and Internet, says Francisco.

avg-hours-on-sn-sites-apr-11-ww

Meanwhile, the Philippines ranks fourth highest time spent per visitor on social networking sites in the world, with an average of 7.9 hours, only behind Israel (10.7), Russia (10.3) and Argentina (8.4). And news organisations here have utilised social networks to drive traffic to their online sites.

“Social media can be both a threat and support. The traditional media must and should use it to its advantage rather than fear it. Updating content through Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and the like can enhance the delivery of news,” he says.

“But one good thing about all of this will be compelled to enhance themselves so they cannot be left alone.”

In Myanmar, social media have been working well to the advantage of newsrooms.

Le Yi Myit, senior reporter of The Voice Weekly, one of the two weekly news journals suspended in July 2012 by Myanmar’s Press Scrutiny and Registration Division (PSRD) for allegedly violating government regulations, says reporting about natural calamities have been efficient as their audience get the information fast through their Facebook page.

“Sometimes people need to know the information (such as earthquake and flooding) as fast as possible. That’s why we can’t be competitive by circulating on print alone,” says Myit.

And for one, engaging with audience through social media is still a challenge in Myanmar, with efforts to modernise the country’s telecommunications legislation in the works. Phones are also expensive (starting $285) and not to mention – slow Internet speeds.

So Myit believes people in Myanmar will continue to read newspapers as the traditional medium is an ideal conduit to discuss in-depth reportage, something Soung Oo Ko Ko, editor of YC Online News, agrees.

Myanmar’s private newspapers can only publish weekly journals. The government recently announced it would begin issuing licences to private-owned newspapers before they could publish their dailies this April.

Myit says newspaper readership in Myanmar will continue to thrive. Their journal, he says, publishes nearly 100,000 copies. He says the figures significantly climbed after the 2010 elections and the release of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

“But now, there is another set of challenges for print media such as competition, talent, market and distribution for the coming daily newspapers,” says Myit.

Censorship in Myanmar loosened up when the government began reforming media regulations in August. So private newspapers like The Voice Weekly no longer have to go through the regulatory board before printing.

But Myit believes as long as there is a need for in-depth and critical journalism, “I don’t think print is going to die.”

“Social media will be able to upload short news immediately. But it cannot publish news analysis,” says Ko.

(A report by Mick Basa, Nay Aung Khine and Wendekhar / Asian Centre for Journalism)

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