Private papers feel the heat

Published on Oct 25 2011 // Media Monitor
By Tandin Pem

Bhutan Today, a daily, has gone biweekly recently. Bhutan Times, the first private newspaper in the country, is laying off seven employees shortly after which it will have only 24 staff. At the height of its success three years ago, it had 97 staff.

The private newspapers in Bhutan are going through what the managers say a “sustainability struggle”.

The managing director of Bhutan Times, Kaka Tshering, said the company does not want to keep many employees in the face of dwindling revenue generation.

He describes the newspaper business in Bhutan as fragile. The major source of revenue is advertisements, more than 80 percent of which comes from the government. And with several new entrants, the business has become really competitive, he says.

The print media owners and managers say the industry is no longer sustainable. They say it is already “bloated”. There are nine newspapers for a small readership. And the government advertisements on which all the newspapers depend for revenue are distributed without any clear-cut policy, often equitably without any rhyme or reason.

With more newspapers, most with pure commercial motive, entering the already saturated market, sustainability question will linger until a workable policy intervention is made by the authority concerned, a manager says.

Some newspaper managers say the current practice of the government distributing advertisements irrespective of the newspapers’ reach and circulation is one of the main impediments to the industry’s growth.

Kaka Tshering says the government distributes its advertisements on rotation among nine newspapers.

The chief executive of Bhutan Observer, Phuntsho Wangmo, says in such a situation, established newspapers suffer more due to higher cost of operation.

She says the government should put in place a policy to encourage media houses that try to promote the role of the media. And stringent criteria should be in place to run a newspaper as a business.

According to the managing director of Bhutan Today, Tenzin Dorji, his paper had to go biweekly because the market is not expanding as much as the new players. He said the operation cost of running a daily newspaper is extremely high.

The editor and chief executive of Business Bhutan, Tashi Dorji, says the sustainability of newspapers in the country is a big issue.

He says when media houses struggle with sustainability, it will lead to compromise in the editorial policies.

Tashi Dorji says that everyone is talking about issues concerning the survival of newspapers, but no one is talking about the industry’s growth, which is a more important issue.

He says the ministry concerned should formulate a media policy that will ensure the industry’s growth in terms of competence and professionalism.

Tashi Dorji says that advertisement policy alone will not ensure the development and growth of the industry.

The draft policy on the government advertising drafted by Ministry of Information and Communications (MoIC) faced a stiff resistance from the young media houses. The policy seeks to find a professional system of placement of government advertisements and messages in the media.

According to the policy, the reach, circulation, and content of the papers will be considered for the placement of ads and messages. This, some newspapers said, would kill them. The policy was finally halted when a group of private newspapers approached the prime minister with their apprehensions about the policy. The prime minister said the policy would not come into force during his tenure. Therefore, the policy is still stuck with MoIC. However, the ministry is still trying to push the policy through.

Phuntsho Wangmo says given the current media situation, there is no place for the growth and development of good newspapers in the country. “I am in a dilemma whether to uphold the long-term vision of the newspaper or to focus on the issue of its survival,” she said.

Some of the media mangers said the current practices in the print media industry, especially those concerning advertisements, are pushing the media to the lowest common denominator. The practice not only wastes the public money, but also takes a toll on the media industry’s expected professionalism and credibility.

They say that it is high time for the authorities concerned to decide and act to create an environment in which the media can not only proliferates in number but also thrive and grow.

In the meantime, as much as the issue of sustainability, some private newspapers in the country are plagued by the lack of professionals.

From Bhutan Observer
Also see Business Bhutan