One of the lessons we’ve learned from COVID-19 is that to survive we need to embrace new ways of thinking and managing our businesses.
In June 2020, MDIF conducted a survey of 36 Myanmar media outlets to gather information about the impact of COVID-19 on their businesses between March and May. They represent a mix of national media, as well as local media from the ethnic states and regions. Their operations are of various sizes: three media have 70-150 staff, 7 have 20-69, and 26 have 1-19. Please click here to see a map of the names and locations of the survey respondents.
All the media surveyed felt the impact of COVID-19 almost immediately. Not surprisingly, as this has generally been the experience of media worldwide, commercial revenue decline was often dramatic: half of the survey respondents reported more than a 75% drop in income. This is, though, significantly greater than the 40-60% decline that media companies MDIF is working with elsewhere around the world have experienced.
Thirty-two of the 36 respondents had advertising revenue prior to the start of the pandemic, and all of them reported that it was negatively affected. All 19 media with print products were obliged to either reduce or even halt production.
In response to collapsing revenues, 31 of the 36 survey respondents instituted spending cuts between March and May including, in some cases, cutting salaries and staff.
Even as they reeled from the economic impact, Myanmar media also had to adapt their working environments. All the media surveyed quickly instituted work from home practices or else established social distancing in their offices and provided protective equipment for their staff.
At the same time, more than half of the media reported having to contend with safety and security challenges. These came in the form of restrictions on movement, websites being blocked, on and offline surveillance, staff harassment and arrests.
In common with media in other countries, one bright spot in this bleak picture has been audience growth. MDIF’s survey found that almost all media saw both their digital audiences, and audience engagement, increase. This had a positive knock-on effect for the media, with 30 respondents reporting that during this period they were able to strengthen their digital skills and knowledge due to the increased focus on their online content.
The good news that 21 of the 31 respondents that sought emergency funding during the survey period obtained it, is tempered by the reality that the impact of COVID-19 has been deep and will be long lasting. The future for media in Myanmar is precarious.
COVID-19 has had a swift impact on the type of media platforms that survey respondents are using. As of 1 March, at the beginning of the survey period, 22 of the respondents were multi-media, and 14 were digital only. By 31 May, at the end of the survey period, the number of multimedia operations had dropped to 14, and the digital had risen to 22. This was because six of the media’s print publications were temporarily suspended, and two had stopped permanently.
As of the end of May, two-thirds of the 36 respondents to MDIF’s survey predicted they could only survive the next three months if they either cut costs further or else increased their revenues. One quarter of the media surveyed expected that by the end of 2020 their operations would shrink further in order to survive.
Key Survey Findings
Commercial revenue: 35 of the 36 media surveyed were generating commercial income prior to COVID-19. In all cases commercial revenue dropped as a result of the pandemic and, for half of them, the drop was especially dramatic, falling by more than 75%. Five others experienced a drop of between 50-75% in commercial revenue, and six more saw a 25-50% revenue decline.
Advertising: Advertising revenue generally constitutes a major source of media revenue. Thirty-two of the 36 media surveyed were generating advertising revenue prior to COVID-19 and they all saw a decline; for 11 media the losses started early on, even before the first cases were officially announced in Myanmar.
Cost cutting: 32 of the 36 media operations instituted wide-ranging cost-cutting measures between March and May. Thirteen media cut salaries, eight laid off staff, and eight reduced freelance work expenditures. Twenty-one of the 36 media foresee further cutbacks between June and August. Fifteen media say they have no more cuts planned over that period. This is likely because 13 of them have either pre-existing longer-term grants or else have secured short-term emergency grants, or both, providing an important buffer from the loss of commercial revenue. Some may also have access to other business or personal revenue sources, as well as investments and/or donations.
Audience engagement: In common with the trend worldwide, 27 of the 36 media increased their audience engagement both on and off-line. In many other markets this kind of audience bump has been only temporary, as COVID-19 news fatigue sets in.
Print media: 19 of the 36 media had print publications on 1 March, at the start of the survey period, but eight had stopped publishing as of 31 May, at the end of the survey period, either temporarily (6 media) or permanently (2 media). Of the 11 print publications still in operation, all reduced circulation by 10-50%.
Donor funding: 30 of the 36 media surveyed were receiving grant funding between March and May. Twenty-nine of them got short-term emergency grants related to COVID-19, and 23 had funding from longer-term grants secured before the pandemic.
Looking ahead: 14 of the 36 media predicted the need for a further contraction in their operations by the end of 2020. Five of the 36 media predicted they would transform from multi-platform media to digital-only by the end of the year. Twelve predicted no further changes to their operations would be necessary before the end of 2020.
Methodology and Survey Respondents
For its survey on Myanmar media’s response to COVID-19, MDIF conducted interviews with one or more representatives of 36 private Myanmar media outlets.
The interviews were conducted from 1-24 June 2020. Interviewees comprised senior executives of 10 national outlets based in Yangon, 8 outlets from five of the country’s seven regions, and 18 outlets from the country’s seven ethnic states.
All of the media surveyed are private outlets that publish news, information and investigations, and that were in operation at the start of the survey period (1 March 2020). MDIF conducted one-on-one Zoom or telephone interviews to maximize comprehension and accuracy, rather than distributing an online survey. As with all surveys, the onus was on participants to answer the questions clearly and honestly; MDIF also verified and cross-checked the veracity of the information provided to the extent possible.
While not representative of all media outlets in Myanmar, the survey offers a snapshot of the impact of COVID-19 on a broad cross-section of private media outlets across the country as of June 2020.
List of respondents (alphabetical order)
Type of media:
National media – 10 respondents
Media from the ethnic states – 18 respondents
Media from the regions – 8 respondents
Size of media:
4 large media - 70-150 staff (all national)
7 medium-sized media - 20-69 staff (4 national + 3 media from the ethnic states)
25 small media – 1-19 staff (2 national, 15 media from the ethnic states, 8 media from the regions)
7Day - Yangon
Ayeyarwaddy Times - Ayeyarwaddy Region
Chin World Media - Chin State
Chinland Herald - Chin State
Dawei Watch - Tanintharyi Region
Delta News Agency - Ayeyarwaddy Region
Development Media Group - Rakhine/Arakan State
DVB Multimedia Group - Yangon
Frontier Myanmar - Yangon
iVision - Chin State
Kachin News Group - Kachin State
The Kachin Times/The 74 Media - Kachin State
Kantarawaddy Times - Kayah/Karenni State
Karen Information Center - Kayin/Karen State
Khonumthung Media Group - Chin State
Magway Journal - Magway Region
Mandalay Indepth News - Mandalay Region
Mawkun Magazine - Yangon
Mizzima News - Yangon
Modern & Kumudra - Yangon
Mon News Agency - Mon State
Monywa Gazette - Sagaing Region
Myanmar Now - Yangon
Myitkyina News Journal - Kachin State
Shan Herald Agency for News - Shan State
Shwe Phee Myay News Agency - Shan State
Tachileik News Agency - Shan State
Than Lwin Times - Mon State
The Chinland Post - Chin State
The Hakha Post - Chin State
The Irrawaddy - Yangon
The Magway Post - Magway Region
The Voice Daily - Yangon
The Voice Journal - Yangon
Voice of Myanmar - Mandalay Region
Zalen Media - Chin State
Ye Naing Moe: Witnessing the Impact of COVID-19 on Newsrooms
One early morning in April I received a telephone call from one of my former students who used to work as a business reporter for a major newspaper based in Yangon. She wanted to interview me for her story about how COVID-19 was threatening local newsrooms. We talked on the phone and the next day her paper published her story. I still remember the headline: Will Myanmar Media Collapse during COVID-19? It was the 23rd of April. That was the day she received a letter from her paper’s management that she was one of the people being laid-off, along with dozens of her colleagues.
The impact of COVID-19 in newsrooms has been “a pandemic within a pandemic”. But it’s not only in Myanmar. COVID-19 has stormed newsrooms across the globe.
Yet Myanmar is still different. Our troubled country is in transition and is trying to tackle numerous challenges: ongoing civil war, sectarian divide, rampant corruption, war on drugs, unemployment, a resource curse, poverty, and so on. There are so many things local watchdogs have to cover. And thanks to COVID-19, our society needs the power of independent media more than ever.
But the pandemic has shaken the existence of local independent newsrooms.
Print publications have suffered the most. MDIF’s survey on Myanmar media’s response to COVID-19 shows that many media have had to stop, at least temporarily, their print publications due to the outbreak. One editor who has often asked me to write for his paper whispered to me, “If you want to write for us, write now. The future is uncertain.”
Sitting at home, at the dining table, with a computer, I’m witnessing how this pandemic has been transforming the lives of my fellow journalists and their beloved careers.
A friend of mine, a respected editor, who recently had to leave his newsroom because of job cuts due to COVID-19, posted on his Facebook page that he has started an online food service. He’s offering his delicious cuisines of dry fish, dry lobsters and fish paste, and showing pictures of his cooking. He promises quick and efficient door-to-door service. Another experienced editor posted pictures cooking coconut rice and chicken curry on her Facebook page. She guarantees that her home delivery service is timely. Sweet jellies are a special bonus she’s offering.
I can feel the pain in their hearts. They’re away from their newsrooms while the biggest story of our time is happening. And the reason they’re not in their newsrooms is not because their audience is leaving them. Actually, audiences for many media outlets are growing. But their survival is a different issue.
Assistance from organizations like MDIF will be a great help for Myanmar media organizations. Building a good revenue model will mean survival for local journalists.
Meanwhile, as media are struggling, the general elections are approaching.
We need to put ventilators on Myanmar newspapers.
Ye Naing Moe is the founding chief trainer of Yangon Journalism School
Myanmar’s first COVID-19 cases were officially announced on 23 March. During the first days it was not always clear what the rules were or what people should or could do, including the media. Then a strict lockdown was imposed from 10-19 April, during the country’s annual new year water festival (Thingyan) celebrations. From late April till the end of May, restrictions were gradually eased at different times in different locations across the country. On 1 June many companies, shops and restaurants in Yangon, Mandalay, the capital Naypyidaw, and in some of the larger towns in Myanmar’s seven ethnic states and seven regions resumed operations.
As of 11 July, there were six COVID-19 related deaths and 326 confirmed cases in Myanmar. At the time of this report’s publication, the international airport was still closed and there was a three-week quarantine requirement for all Burmese entering the country.
According to a 15 June Asia Foundation report, nearly one-third of companies in Myanmar closed temporarily due to the pandemic. The World Bank’s Myanmar Economic Monitor: Myanmar in the Time of COVID-19 report, published on 25 June, predicted the country’s economic growth could drop from 6.8% to 0.5% during the current fiscal year as a result of COVID-19.
We used to think that our print media still had a future. But what we’ve learned from COVID-19 is that it may not last much longer.
The impact of COVID-19 on the Myanmar media has been severe and speedy. During the first three months of the pandemic, 35 of the 36 respondents saw commercial revenue declines; the one remaining media did not have any revenue before the pandemic so did not suffer any losses. Eight media were obliged to lay off staff. All 19 respondents with print publications had to reduce circulation or halt production either temporarily or permanently. Twenty media reported that their newsrooms were less productive, and 17 of them produced less content during this period.
Amidst these adverse developments, one positive outcome was digital audience growth, experienced by 32 respondents. Yet while the value of growing audiences is undoubtedly positive in enabling media outlets to provide news and information to greater numbers of people, because digital revenue is generally only very modest for small or medium-sized media outlets, this has had little to no impact on their severely hit revenues.
- The 10 national outlets surveyed were much more likely than the 26 local outlets in the ethnic states and regions to state they were more productive from March-May as a result of COVID-19. In some cases, for example, the national media said that after an initial period their staff adjusted to working from home and produced more content than they had previously done from the office. By contrast, some of the local media in the ethnic states and regions noted that they had to contend with challenging conditions in working from home because of equipment and telecommunications limitations.
- Small outlets (1-19 staff) were more likely to say they were less productive and produced fewer stories due to COVID-19, compared to medium (20-69 staff) and large-sized outlets (70-150 staff).
Even though the Myanmar government only announced the first official COVID-19 cases on 23 March, we felt the impact weeks earlier, especially with regards to our advertising clients.
31 media felt the first impact in March
5 media felt the first impact in April
Eleven survey respondents said they could already feel the impact of COVID-19 during the first half of March, even before the first cases were announced in Myanmar. Twenty others noted that 23 March - when the Myanmar authorities officially announced the country’s first cases – was a turning point. Four more pointed to early April and the run-up to Myanmar’s annual new year water festival (Thingyan) as being the pivotal point for their media, and one to late April.
- Large national outlets (70-150 staff) felt the impact of COVID-19 earlier than their peers, particularly compared to small outlets with 1-19 staff members, as well as ethnic outlets (small and medium-sized), which noted the impact approximately two weeks later.
As a manager you see that most people have challenges working from home. They can’t just concentrate on their work. There are kids and families to deal with, and cooking and cleaning. Sometimes no matter how hard you try it’s difficult to stay focused.
34 media established work from home policies
35 media instituted social distancing in their offices
36 media provided masks and hand sanitiser to staff
24 media offered flexible working hours
18 media cited less productive staff and newsrooms
The next four charts (2a-d) highlight the ways in which the 36 survey respondents dealt with the human resource side of their operations during the first three months of the pandemic.
All 36 respondents say they provided masks and hand sanitiser to their staff. Thirty also provided gloves to staff, and 11 media provided them with protective overalls. Some of this safety equipment was provided by the Myanmar Press Council and the Yangon Journalism School. Thirty-five respondents also created some form of social distancing in their offices; the remaining outlet had already closed its office prior to the COVID-19 crisis so did not need to take these measures.
Thirty-four outlets instituted work from home policies, either for some of their staff or across the board. Thirty operations allowed their staff to choose whether to work from home or in the office, and between face-to-face or virtual reporting. Twenty-four also offered flexible working hours.
- Large national outlets were more likely to introduce safety measures such as increased cleaning compared to the other survey respondents.
As a mother, the good side of working from home is that you can be with your children, but the challenging side is that you have to figure out how to juggle personal and professional responsibilities.
Thirteen media cut salaries, eight laid off staff, and eight reduced the number of their freelancers/stringers.
Five of the respondents moved staff to new roles in response to the crisis. A reporter was promoted to editor at a small local media outlet. At an ethnic media operation, staff was moved from business to editorial positions. Business and editorial staff worked more closely together at both national and ethnic media outlets, and at one small ethnic outlet the same staff assumed editorial and business responsibilities.
Twenty-eight out of 36 respondents say they offered one-on-one management support to staff who were struggling with their professional and personal responsibilities and financial burdens linked to COVID-19.
- National outlets implemented significantly more changes than others as a result of COVID-19. For example, they were more likely to offer flexible forms of working and provide additional support to their staff. They were also more likely to reduce staff as well as staff pay.
While four respondents said their newsroom staff became more productive between March – May (see chart 1(a), above), 18 others said their staff and newsrooms became less productive (see chart 2(c), below). Twenty-three respondents confirmed that COVID-19 reduced communication and coordination with staff.
- Local outlets from the ethnic states and regions experienced a greater fall in staff productivity due to COVID-19 compared to their national peers. They also experienced increased difficulty covering stories and accessing sources/interviewees.
Unlike big media, we couldn’t afford to buy laptops for people working from home. That meant staff often had to use their mobiles or even paper notepads to do their stories. This impacted on our productivity.
36 media used mobile phones and Facebook Messenger most frequently
34 media used email frequently, and 30 used Zoom
19 media used Viber, 12 used Signal, 7 used WhatsApp, and 6 used Google Meet
When asked which communication platforms they had been using the most frequently since the start of COVID-19, all 36 respondents indicated a preference for two of the most popular means of communication used by Myanmar media: mobile phones and Facebook Messenger. These choices highlight the ubiquity of mobile phones and SIM cards in Myanmar, and the continued dependence on Facebook.
We were doing okay before COVID-19. We ran our operation with self-generated revenues. We didn’t need or want any donor funding. We were even making a profit from advertising. But COVID-19 turned everything upside down. All the local businesses in Shan State and on the Thai border – basically our clients - were hit hard by COVID-19 so they couldn’t afford to spend money on ads or events like they did in the past. We lost more than 75% of our revenue. We don’t know when this will be over so we don‘t know what our future will be like.
35 media experienced a decline in commercial revenue
18 media experienced commercial revenue losses as high as 75%
32 media experienced reductions in advertising revenue
The next three charts (4a-c) highlight the swift and, in some cases, brutal commercial revenue losses that media have suffered due to COVID-19. Commercial revenue sources include advertising, content sales, print sales and subscriptions, events, and other forms of revenue generation.
Half of the respondents - two national and 16 local media - saw their commercial revenues drop by more than 75%, and one lost all its commercial revenue. Another five reported revenue losses of 50-75%, while six others experienced a 25-50% revenue loss. Four media recorded revenue losses of 10-25% and one less than 10%. One media wasn’t bringing in any business revenue to speak of when COVID-19 hit, so did not suffer any losses.
In the disaggregated chart below, the average revenue loss linked to COVID-19 for all 36 survey respondents was 65% from March through May. (The average is calculated based on the mid-point of the range.) The outlets in Myanmar’s regions were hardest hit on average at 77%, followed by ethnic outlets at 58%, and national outlets at 53%. When looking at losses based on the size of outlets, the small outlets suffered average losses of 68%, medium outlets, 66%, and large outlets 45%. Average losses for the different platforms were very similar: digital at 65%, TV & radio at 64%, and print at 63%.
The revenue source most widely impacted, and usually the largest source of commercial revenue for Myanmar media, was advertising: 32 media reported suffering losses in advertising revenue.
Prior to COVID-19 we had business revenues and donor funding. So when we suddenly lost some of our revenues due to the pandemic, our donor funding provided a cushion that helped keep us on air. That makes us one of the lucky ones.
The print sector also had to contend with more than just the loss of advertising revenue: 18 of the 19 respondents producing print publications also experienced revenue losses due to a decline in print sales. The one other print publication did not indicate a decline in print sales because prior to the pandemic its publication was distributed free of charge. During the survey period, two media shut down their print publications permanently, and six others did so temporarily. As of 31 May, only 11 print media were still going to press.
Most of the advertisers weren’t comfortable meeting with us face-to-face due to COVID-19, so for the first time ever we had to build our relationships online. At first it was difficult, but we gradually adapted.
Rose Swe: COVID-19's Impact on the Advertising Sector
I’ve been working in Myanmar’s advertising industry for the past 26 years, but I’ve never seen anything like this. Usually at this time of year our management team has already started working on the next year’s budget plan. This year, though, I’ve told our Chief Financial Officer to delay our planning as I can’t predict what will happen in the fourth quarter, much less next year. It’s as though we’ve been blinded and are working in the dark.
That’s the biggest challenge right now. You have to live in the present and feel your way forward.
So what do we know for certain? Total media advertising spending for 2019 was US$126.6 million. From January-March 2020 it was US$34.5 million – about a 10% drop from the previous year. Then we were hit with COVID-19. By May we saw an additional 10% drop compared to previous years. June wasn’t as bad, but we still calculate there was an additional 5-10% decline. Advertising revenues for events were the hardest hit, followed by print. Digital advertising revenues were small to begin with and they slightly improved. Television remained quite consistent.
During the first two quarters of the year – January-March and April-June – advertisers were primarily spending on television. According to Nielsen MMRD data, for example, in March there were 4,400 advertising spots, 3,300 in April, and 3,000 in May. But most of that money went to channels belonging to the two private-state broadcasting joint ventures, Forever Group and Shwe Than Lwin Media (Skynet).
At the same time, advertisers cut their print budgets. In March, for example, there were 3,000 advertising spots for newspapers, but that number dropped steeply to 600 in April, and then rose moderately in May to 900. What remained went mainly to state-owned (government & military) newspapers, and that left almost nothing for privately-owned print operations. Weekly and monthly journals saw a similar decline. It’s not surprising, therefore, that 32 of the 36 private media in MDIF’s COVID-19 survey that had advertising revenues prior to COVID-19 all saw those revenues decline.
And now it’s already July, the start of the third quarter. That’s when we always see an annual slowdown. The first reason is that it’s the rainy season, and the second, that it’s Buddhist Lent, a period of fasting and prayer. And this year we also have COVID-19. So there are three things working against us. In normal times, advertising starts picking up again at the end of third quarter, or at the beginning of the forth quarter, in early October. But this year we don’t know what will happen. At best we may be able to forecast the state of recovery at the end of the third quarter, but for 2021 it’s certainly far too soon to do so.
For now, what is most important is that we need to work harder than before because clients are more demanding and they also aren’t doing well. You have to develop a partnership mindset. Instead of thinking that you’re doing badly so you need to make more money, you need to remember that other people are also doing badly and to have realistic expectations.
Like the media, many advertising agencies are doing cost-cutting. So far we’ve managed not to cut any staff or salaries at Mango and we’ve even hired a few people as replacements. But we also couldn’t consider salary increments or promotions. The industry doesn’t have the same kind of money as before, and that’s impacting on the sector, especially on some of the newer agencies that have fancy offices and used to hire a lot of staff at very high pay. Without clients, they’re suffering.
This all sounds depressing. Yet COVID-19 has also created some new opportunities. The consumer mindset is changing in Myanmar and so are lifestyles and values. The way we consume media is also changing. This year people can’t travel outside the country because the international airports are still shut and there are many restrictions on entering other countries. So people are now travelling inside Myanmar, shopping locally, and buying and selling online. Many people have started selling food online, for example, and this presents an opportunity for media to work with those kinds of newly established small businesses. The same goes for local travel and tour companies. As well, due to policy changes, international banks and insurance companies will soon be setting up inside Myanmar and looking to advertise. Telecoms will also continue advertising, and pharmaceuticals, mobile payments, fintech, hotels, education and healthcare will soon become more active. So there will be oppportunities.
This year, despite COVID-19, the November elections also present an opportunity for media to attract advertising, but only if they’re smart. Advertisers are hesitant to associate themselves with politics, but they do want to target young people and women. So the media need to figure out how to attract these two demographics. For example, by writing about why politics are important for young people, why they should get involved, and how we’re going to work together to create a country we all want to live in. Life seems miserable right now. Media need to think creatively and be more like TikTok and use storytelling, comedy, and entertainment to attract audiences.
These days people are always talking about transformation. It’s the new COVID-19 buzz word – the new normal. There’s an assumption that things shouldn’t stay the same. But to grow, innovate and transform you need to understand who you are, to build on your strengths, and to evaluate how much risk you can afford to take. You also need to work harder than before and to listen to your staff as they will also have new ideas that may be different than your own.
The media sector is changing but we aren’t sure what it will be like in the coming months and years. So we need to be paying attention and to be flexible.
Rose Swe is the CEO of Mango Media Group in Myanmar
Our revenue generating activities were just getting started when COVID-19 hit and unfortunately that put a stop to most of them. Luckily though we had sufficient donor funding to do our stories and to run our operations so we didn’t need to cut staff, salaries or activities. We’re also a fully digital operation so we weren’t hit with the same challenges as print media.
32 respondents implemented cost cutting measures
13 media cut salaries, 8 laid off staff, and 8 reduced freelance work expenditures
10 media reduced travel and on-the-ground reporting
While many external factors negatively impacting the media may be beyond their control, cutting costs is not and can be critical to the media’s ability to navigate the pandemic in the longer term. To that end, thirty-two media operations made wide-ranging cuts to their operational costs between March and May. Thirteen reduced salaries, and 12 reduced print circulation. Only four respondents said they made no cuts from March-May, either because they had donor funding, weren’t reliant on commercial revenue, or were already operating with very low costs.
Looking forward, 21 of the 36 media foresee further cutbacks being necessary. Fifteen media say they have no more cuts planned, but 13 of them have either longer-term grants, short-term emergency grants, or both, providing a buffer for the loss of business revenues.
- National outlets made cuts in more areas than local media in response to COVID-19. This may be because they have larger staff numbers and significant costs, and therefore more areas to cut compared to smaller media.
- Large outlets (70-150 staff) were more likely to cut staff, as well as staff and management salaries, compared to medium and small outlets. Their size and relatively higher salaries may explain this, at least in part.
We’ve already suspended our print journal and cut back our operating costs. If the pandemic continues or gets worse, we predict we’ll have to shut down our whole operation, at least temporarily.
In an unprecedented situation such as the one created by COVID-19, predicting the future is more challenging than ever. Uncertainty about how long the crisis will last, and how long its impact will be felt, makes it impossible to make long-term plans. But reconsidering and revising business projections to anticipate different scenarios can be a valuable means of helping to prepare for the future.
In the chart below survey respondents were asked if they would need to make further cuts due to Covid-19: 21 said yes, and 15 said no.
- The large national outlets were less likely than their peers to be planning future cuts in office costs, such as rent or utilities. This may be because they have less flexibility regarding workspace provision for staff compared to smaller media operations. According to three of the national media, there is also the need to maintain production space for their broadcast equipment. Although they are already operating with small budgets some of the smaller outlets are anticipating the need to further cut with regards to office costs.
Survey respondents were then asked what would happen with regards to their costs and revenues if the pandemic got worse between June and August. In this case only 12 predicted they could survive with no further cuts, while 24 projected the following scenarios:
- 11 media predicted they would either need to cut costs further or else increase revenues in order to survive
- 7 media predicted they would need to increase their revenues even if they further reduced costs
- 5 media predicted they would need to shut down temporarily
- 12 media predicted they could survive with no further cuts
- 1 media said it couldn’t predict what would happen due to ongoing uncertainty
- The large national outlets (70-150 staff) foresee making further changes or cost reductions if COVID-19 continues or get worse.
- Ethnic outlets were significantly more likely to predict being able to survive without making further changes or cuts if COVID-19 got worse. This is explained, at least in part, by the fact that 18 have grant funding.
Due to COVID-19, our focus on print was disrupted. Our distributors didn’t want to work. Our printing company shut down. We couldn’t depend on the people who usually provided transport. We finally woke up to the fact that we had to focus on digital and launched a website in April. Yet we are also still printing our journal for the sake of our audience even though we are losing money.
19 media had a print publication prior to COVID-19; only 11 of the 19 were still printing at the end of May with 10-50% reductions in circulation
4 print media reduced the number of pages in their publications by 10-40%
Nineteen of the 36 media surveyed had print publications as of 1 March 2020. The challenges they faced included dwindling circulation, decreasing advertising revenues, increased difficulty getting their print publications distributed and collecting money from distributors.
During the survey period, ten media suspended their print publications. For two the stoppage was permanent, while eight said it was a temporary measure.
- Seven small outlets with print publications at the start of the survey period stopped publishing them either temporarily or permanently due to COVID-19, as did 3 medium-sized outlets. As of 31 May, at the end of the survey period, four of the media had relaunched their printing, and six were still suspended.
- Five national outlets and seven local media in the ethnic states with print publications on 1 March, at the start of the survey period, saw a drop in circulation due to the pandemic.
Although we took the tough decision to stop printing our weekly journal Kumudra in March, we decided to keep our other journal, Modern, going. Modern is a business weekly and given all of the challenges facing businesses due to COVID-19, we thought it was important to keep it in print even though we were losing money.
Ten survey respondents suspended their print publications as a result of COVID-19. Monywa Gazette and The Voice Daily both shut down their print publications temporarily for the month of April and then restarted their printing. Six more media suspended their print publications from March through May, and on 31 May, at the end of the survey period, they were still suspended. They are Magway Journal (stopped printing on 1 March), The Chinland Post (5 March), Khonumthung Media Group (15 March), Kumudra (30 March), Kantarawaddy Times (1 April), and Frontier Myanmar (9 April). Two survey respondents shut down their print media permanently during this period. The Kachin Times /The 74 Media shut down its monthly magazine permanently on 1 April. Shan Herald Agency for News shut down its monthly magazine permanently on 31 May. All these media also have an active digital presence.
The chart below demonstrates that there was a 56% average drop in circulation for the 19 outlets that had print publications at the beginning of the survey period. Small print outlets (one national + seven local print media from the ethnic states and regions), and medium-sized print media from the ethnic states and regions (2 media), fared the worst with 60 or 61% average drops respectively.
For those continuing to print, challenges included a loss of subscribers, a decline in copy sales, and difficulties linked to transportation and distribution.
- The closing of newsstand and distribution agents, as well as distributors’ reluctance to continue working due to COVID-19, affected small and medium-sized ethnic outlets the most.
- All ethnic outlets that had print publications at the beginning of the survey period (1 March) made larger circulation cuts than the other media operations.
We’ve increased our digital audience by 25% since the start of the pandemic. That’s because for the first time we’re paying attention to the digital side of our operations. For example, we‘ve increased our digital content, and we’re shooting a lot more video. We used to pay more attention to print so this isn’t easy for us, but we have to do it.
Thirty-two of the 36 media surveyed increased their digital audiences from March through May. Eight of them saw an increase of 10%, while 15 others had digital audience growth of 15-30%. Six media experienced a 50% growth in digital audience size, while three others saw their digital audience numbers jump by 60-90%.
The 36 media outlets surveyed had an average of 24% digital audience growth. The three largest national outlets (70-150 staff) saw the largest increases, with an average of 45% growth.
Nineteen of the survey respondents said they had been able to increase the quantity of their content from March through June, while 16 said the quantity decreased.
Four media started publishing on new digital platforms during the survey period.
- National outlets (ranging from large to small) were significantly more likely to increase the quantity of their content compared to others.
- No medium or large outlets decreased the quantity of their content, but 16 small media from the ethnic states and regions did.
According to the weekly ratings, our TV audience has steadily grown since the start of COVID-19. That puts us in the top 5.
1 media shut down its online TV
2 media launched new online TV programming
Twenty of the 36 survey respondents were doing some form of broadcasting from March through May, ranging from free-to-air digital TV to satellite or cable TV, and from online TV to podcasts or online radio. Online TV and radio denote regularly scheduled broadcasting on websites, Facebook and YouTube, as opposed to individual video or audio posts. In the chart below one of the media indicated that it stopped its online TV during the pandemic. This occurred after its founder was arrested on terrorism charges for publishing an interview with the Arakan Army ethnic armed organization.
Survey respondents with broadcast media platforms:
Online Radio or Podcasts:
Chinland Herald, Frontier Myanmar, Karen Information Center, Shan Herald Agency for News
7 Day, Chin World Media, Development Media Group, DVB Multimedia Group, Kachin News Group, The Kachin Times/The 74 Media, Kantarawaddy Times, Khonumthung Media Group, Mizzima News, Mon News Agency, Monywa Gazette, Myitkyina News Journal, The Hakha Post, The Voice Daily, The Voice Journal
Free to air digital TV:
DVB Multimedia Group, Mizzima News
Since Covid-19 started, our audience has been depending on us more than ever before, calling, sending messages, dropping by the office, checking the information they’ve heard about the pandemic and asking us to cover events that have happened in their communities.
27 media increased engagement with their audiences
32 media saw digital audience growth
2 media increased their television audiences
In common with media around the world, thirty-two out of thirty-six respondents saw their digital audiences grow. Two media also reported increased television audiences. The survey found that audiences were also engaging more with the media compared to before the pandemic: twenty-seven respondents noted greater engagement with their audiences. While this growth may be temporary, driven by demand for information about COVID-19 that will likely decline over time, for media ready to seize the opportunity it offers a chance to build relationships with their pre-existing audiences as well as with newcomers which can last long beyond the pandemic.
Covering COVID-19 has been particularly difficult in Rakhine State. We’ve had the same restrictions as everyone else linked to the pandemic. As well, we’ve had to deal with restrictions on movement that were already in place due to the ongoing conflict. And we’ve also had trouble communicating and getting information because of the official internet shut-down in the northern part of the state.
34 media published content primarily about COVID-19
23 media produced fewer local stories
22 media produced fewer original stories
The pandemic has had a big impact on the content that media have been producing. Thirty-four media said that COVID-19 dominated their coverage from March through May; 23 said they did fewer local and community stories, and 22 did fewer original stories. While not unexpected, it means that there were fewer resources devoted to other public interest topics. The role of media as watchdog in the COVID-19 context has also at times been compromised, as explained in the safety and security section below, through surveillance, threats, and lawsuits brought by local authorities and business people, which has also led to self-censorship regarding stories the media deemed to be sensitive.
- Local outlets from the ethnic states and regions were less likely than national outlets to do as many original or local community stories from March through May
- The four large national outlets continued to do as many original stories as before COVID-19.
Tosca Santoso: Business Coaching, COVID-19, and A Third Way
We had an appointment to meet in Mae Sot, Thailand, on 1 April. As part of MDIF’s business capacity building program, coaches meet with media partners at least four times a year, usually over two days. Meetings. Lunch. Sometimes afternoon walking. Relaxed yet intensive face-to-face conversations. Setting targets and designing the strategies to achieve them. Agreeing to a plan. Monitoring cash flow. Yet this time COVID-19 stopped us in our tracks.
COVID-19 is an unexpected disruptor of the media industry.
Although it was always difficult to get advertisements before COVID-19, especially for local media in the ethnic states and regions, through our program I witnessed media executives working to strengthen their financial independence, optimistic that through prudent financial management they could move forward. One outlet, for example, that was established with a strong NGO mindset and a history of donor funding, started thinking seriously about marketing. They worked to create revenues streams by selling their journal, and through advertising. For the first time, they created a rate card and approached advertisers. They improved distribution and established a payment collection system.
But when the Myanmar government announced the first COVID-19 cases, everything quickly became confusing. Meetings were cancelled, and business plans were thrown into disarray. Distributors were reluctant to sell newspapers. Physical distancing and working from home paralyzed distribution, as did rumours that COVID-19 could spread via printed publications. “Some distributors worried they could be infected, and so stopped selling our journal. Kiosks that usually sold our journals also closed,” said friends who managed local print media. Print numbers dropped drastically. Sadly, the drop due to COVID-19 is often greater than the increase in print numbers over the past three years.
Another blow came from advertising. As the MDIF survey results show, 32 of the 36 media surveyed have lost advertising revenue. Half of them say they lost as much as 75% of their revenue. That’s a huge loss that won’t be recovered in the near future. It’s also unclear how long advertisers and agencies will take to recover. The COVID-19 pandemic has changed priorities. Given the very uncertain business environment, companies that usually spend money on advertising are now hanging on to their money. To support its media partners, MDIF created a COVID-19 public service advertising (PSA) initiative that also incorporated a business capacity-building component. But the needs are enormous.
Like everywhere around the world, Myanmar media faced a major cash flow issue in March-May. As you would expect, coaches like me started talking to the media we are working with about cost cutting. But it’s not easy to implement, especially for media with small operational budgets. For those with print media, the two biggest costs are generally printing and staff salaries. Printing costs quickly decreased due to reduced circulation and, in some cases, temporary or permanent shutdowns of print publications. Cutting staff salaries was more challenging. Leaders of local media in the ethnic states and regions tend to see themselves as patrons for their staff, and their staff as family members. For some, cutting salaries was out of the question.
Yet it’s possible to adopt a creative approach when it comes to family. One of the local media CEOs located in a region offered staff the opportunity to contribute to the company. Their salaries wouldn’t be cut, but they could opt to give some of the money back to support the company during this difficult time. The size of the contribution was negotiable, and dependent on each staff member’s financial capability and their position in the company. Higher level managers were expected to contribute more. This family approach proved effective in reducing costs, and also fostered a sense of solidarity, belonging, and ownership.
The majority of survey respondents sent out proposals to donors to request emergency funding, and many succeeded in getting fresh money. At a time when revenue streams from advertisers had often stopped, selling journals had become more difficult, and other significant business initiatives such as events were halted, these grants from donors become the rescue boats, keeping media afloat.
The COVID-19 pandemic is like a paralyzing blitzkrieg. Yet even though a vaccine is still unavailable and the danger is still there, people have returned to their usual activities faster than expected. The anxiety and uncertainty are slowly being left behind. People are moving on. In the town of Dawei, in Tanintharyi Region, newspaper kiosks and restaurants have reopened. In other centers as well. The Dawei Watch staff went back to the office on 1 July. They hope their journal sales will also soon return to normal.
Many business models are reliant on advertisements, yet they will be the hardest to recover. Digital advertisements might provide some small hope. Income from YouTube channels, for example. Since the pandemic many media have started investing to improve their digital platforms. Yet the advertising sector is unpredictable and out of the media’s control. Like COVID-19, disruptions may happen again and again, shaking up revenue streams.
It’s time for media to secure a third revenue stream that isn’t dependent on advertisements and print sales. One that entails audience and community engagement and that monetises assets such as an independent media’s respected position in society and its longstanding networks. Income does not always need to come as cash. Instead, it can be goods and services that can be changed into money through bartering. For example, one media rents out an unused room for training to civil society organisations at a very competitive price as a relatively easy way to bring in revenue.
Third revenue streams are not necessarily directly related to media activities. Media offices attract a lot of visitors, such as news sources, readers, and distributors. Rather than spending limited budgets to serve them tea or coffee, it might be better to open a coffee shop. If managed by professionals, a cafe can earn income for the media outlet. I also heard that a media operation is considering providing tour guide services, including information about hotels and tourist destinations in their home state; hotels can then provide the media with vouchers that they sell to visitors. These are just a few creative ways to generate income.
The impact of COVID-19 will be felt for a long time and it will be hard to recover. Yet it also creates a space for new and creative revenue ideas to flourish. That’s what I call the third revenue stream.
Tosca Santoso is a business coach with MDIF’s Myanmar Media Program, and the founder and former CEO of Indonesia’s largest independent radio news agency, KBR.
Safety & Security
After I was arrested on terrorism charges on 31 March for publishing an interview with the ethnic armed organization Arakan Army, and our website was blocked as part of a government crack-down, we lost all our revenue. The media that used to buy content from us were hesitant to be associated with us.
4 media had websites blocked or slowed down
4 media had staff arrested
10 media experienced online surveillance
14 media said that movement control due to Covid-19 impacted on their coverage
Fourteen of the 36 survey respondents say they did not experience any safety or security issues from March through May, while fourteen others did. One explanation for this could be that the national media based in Yangon could not send reporters to other parts of the country to cover stories, whereas the local media outlets in the ethnic states and regions were already based in the areas they cover so did not feel as hampered by the restrictions. National outlets with stringers around the country felt the impact less acutely. Access to some of Yangon’s townships was also restricted in April and May, creating more barriers to coverage for the national media based there. A small number of outlets based in the ethnic states and regions also highlighted difficulties accessing areas controlled by the military and ethnic armed organizations, particularly if they had previously done critical coverage.
Four of the respondents stated that their websites had been blocked or slowed down. In late March Myanmar’s Ministry of Communications and Transport ordered local mobile internet service providers to block 221 websites, including sites that it claimed published so-called “fake news”. COVID-19 was cited as justification for the action. The country’s four telecom operators implemented the orders to varying degrees, with some websites available on certain networks and blocked on others. There is currently no information available about if or when these sites will be unblocked.
There was widespread dissemination online of misinformation about COVID-19 from March through May. One of the survey respondents stated, for example, that mirror sites had been set up using their media name to spread misinformation and discredit their media business.
Ten respondents noted online and offline surveillance of their COVID-19 coverage. For example, media stated that their content was closely monitored by local authorities, as well as by business owners operating, for example, entertainment venues, who demanded that any critical coverage of them be removed, accompanied by threats of arrests or lawsuits. This created pressure to self-censor about sensitive topics of public interest.
- Local outlets from the ethnic states and regions were much more likely than national outlets to have experienced online and offline surveillance and harassment of staff from March-May.
- National outlets experienced more restrictions on their media coverage due to movement control compared to their peers.
Since the start of the pandemic we’ve been working on our YouTube channel. Now we have enough subscribers and watchhours to start earning revenue from it.
20 media explored new forms of revenue generation
21 media obtained emergency funding
20 media worked to strengthen their brands
15 media created new business and editorial collaborations
27 media increased investment in, and/or capacity of, their digital platforms
30 media increased their digital knowledge and skills
The chart below shows that 30 media have strengthened their digitial knowledge and skills, and 27 have increased their investment in, and/or the capacity of, their digital platforms.
- Outlets from the ethnic states and regions were more likely than national outlets to have increased digital investment, knowledge, and skills.
- Outlets from the ethnic states were more likely to have taken steps to strengthen their brand and to create new collaborations.
Even during March through May, 20 of the 36 survey respondents said they had already identified new potential revenue sources. Seven out of 20 media said they had started to look at YouTube as a potential new source of revenue. Four said they were considering content sales as a possible new revenue source and four were assessing the potential of Facebook Instant Articles. Other ideas that the media cited are listed in the chart below.
No one referenced exploring new audience revenue opportunities, such as memberships, subscriptions or crowdfunding. Although at least two of the national media and one of the ethnic media had already successfully implemented similar initiatives, these remain relatively new concepts for Myanmar media.
- Outlets from the ethnic states and regions were more likely than national outlets to have sought emergency or new funding as a result of COVID-19.
- All large outlets which sought emergency or new funding as a result of COVID-19 were successful, compared to just a third of small to medium outlets.
Twenty-one of the 36 survey respondents received emergency funding linked to COVID-19. For five media operations – one national and four local media from the ethnic states and regions - this was their first ever grant. The main sources of emergency funding from international NGOs cited by survey respondents were MDIF, Internews, FHI360 and Fondation Hirondelle. These organisations are funded by Sida, USAID and the Netherlands Embassy. The local sources of emergency funding cited included Yangon Journalism School, Myanmar Journalism School, and Paung Ku (a Myanmar NGO that supports civil society, including media). The Norwegian government provided emergency support to one survey recipient. Google also provided emergency funding to 12 media respondents, and Splice Beta/Facebook to two of them. In the chart below Google is listed as an international donor, along with the Norwegian government.
Twenty-three of the 36 survey respondents were also operating from March through May with the help of grants that they had received before the pandemic.
If both emergency and regular funding are considered, 30 out of 36 survey respondents had access to some kind of financial support between March and May that was not self-generated through commercial activities. Only six did not have any grant funding.
The unusual level of emergency funding available to Myanmar media, most commonly for ethnic media, as well as the prevalence of donor funding for them prior to the pandemic, has been very important in cushioning the blow of COVID-19 to their operations. It also helps to explain why 15 survey respondents stated they were not planning to make additional cuts over the next three months (see Chart 5b): 13 of them have either emergency or regular donor funding.
- Outlets from the ethnic states were comparatively more successful at securing funds from international NGOs with whom they were already familiar, while small outlets from the ethnic states and regions had a comparatively greater level of success in securing funds from national NGOs.
Wahyu Dhyatmika: A New Digital Future
Last week, a friend of mine, a respected journalist with many years’ experience working in South East Asia, told me that the COVID-19 pandemic reminded him of the Indonesian authoritarian regime back in the 1990s.
“This crisis will force many media to close down simply because they can't survive,” he said. “It's like the blanket censorship during the Soeharto era, but this time it’s the economy,” he added.
He might have a point. Six months after it hit the region, the pandemic is still raging on with damaging and long-lasting impact on our societies. Thousands of people have lost their lives and even more have been infected by the coronavirus. Slowly, the hard reality is starting to sink in: this existential threat to our lives will lead to a permanent change in the media as we know it today. It is unavoidable. If we don’t change, we don't stand a chance.
Of course, we have known for a while that the traditional media business model is crumbling. Digital disruption has changed how news is produced and consumed. Advertising revenue and newspaper and magazine circulation have been declining for a while. This pandemic has only sped up the process.
I am sure every media organization is now looking at its own structure, head counts, production line and product differentiation, gathering together strategic teams to reflect on the crisis and to find a way out. Not only in Myanmar, as this survey shows, but all over the world: every media is now forced to make a great leap into the digital landscape.
I believe success will be determined by three things: differentiation, engagement, and data. Differentiation means each media has to find its own strength and uniqueness in this free flow of information era. It also has to identify how it can be meaningful to its targeted audience.
The era where all media cover the same subject, interview the same source, and publish the same angle, is over. If your journalism doesn’t stand out in the crowd, no one will notice you. That is why local media with strong ties to their communities have a very good chance of survival.
Engagement means it is no longer enough for the media to just publish news. Newsrooms need to interact with their audiences, and actively create conversations. Building a lasting relationship between reporters and readers requires transparency and inclusivity.
Last but not least: data. People say it’s the new gold in the digital world. Without data about audiences, their reading habits and their interests, for example, it will be really difficult for a media to create a revenue stream. The business team will need that data to start a digital subscription model or to market an online brand activation package. Every media has to equip itself with the proper analytical tools to measure different metrics.
I might be overly optimistic, but I think this pandemic provides an opportunity to re-create a better media for our society. We can all start the rediscovery process by asking ourselves: how can we better serve our audience and provide what they need the most to survive? By helping their communities, the media can also help themselves.
Wahyu Dhyatmika is the Editor-in-chief of Tempo.co and a coach with MDIF’s Myanmar Media Program
We faced so many problems due to COVID-19. We had to stop our print version. We had to reduce staff salaries. We lost revenues. But our staff really stepped up and became even more productive than usual. So though we may be weaker in the short term, we will definitely survive and end up stronger thanks to the people who work here.
We asked the 36 survey respondents what they predicted their media operations would look like at the end of 2020. All predicted they would survive, although 24 out of 36 respondents said they would not look the same. Fourteen of the 36 media predicted their operations would be smaller than they are now, although three of those said the change would be temporary. Five predicted they would transform from multi-platform to digital-only by the end of the year. Two said their media products would change. One, surprisingly, predicted it would be a larger operation. Another predicted it would be stronger. One said it was too soon to say. And 12 out of 36 predicted no change. Local media from the ethnic states and regions were comparatively more likely than large national media to predict they would end up as all-digital operations by the end of the year.
Some of these findings are unexpected - especially that some media predict there will be no change to their outlets by the end of 2020. In certain cases, this is due to their receipt of donor funding, which provides a financial cushion against commercial revenue fluctuations, although also risks creating a dependence on grants. For others, it is because they believe they have already cut back as much as they are able and that additional cuts would therefore mean they would need to shut down. Yet others may have access to other business or personal revenue sources, as well as investments and/or donations. It could, though, also indicate that in some cases they have not yet adjusted to – or accepted – the ‘new normal’ that has resulted from the pandemic, or may not be prepared to make the changes they need to make in order to survive.
MDIF is planning to conduct a follow up survey in order to gather data on how the Myanmar media responds to the continuing impact of COVID-19 in the weeks and months ahead. The results will be published before the end of 2020.