True state of our fourth estate

At a meeting of media officials yesterday, funding newspapers to cover the up coming local government elections sounded a priority in the next few months. It is a nice gesture. Elections are important, local or parliamentary, and reporters have to be in the field.

Come to think of it, it presents a dire situation for the media that we need sponsors to get out of Thimphu and write stories. But it is a fact. Our media, especially newspapers, are struggling. An encouragement is that there are reporters who want to go beyond Thimphu and explore stories. This is evident from the coverage private papers did recently with support from the information and media department. There are stories out there, may not be sensational stories about politics, but real stories – that of people.

Media impact studies, every time one is done, point out that coverage is Thimphu-centric. There is not much media can do. It costs to send a reporter or base one in a dzongkhag. Newspapers are struggling to make ends meet and journalists are paid in IOUs.

The state of the fourth estate in not encouraging when we reflect on a decade after media was liberalised. Unfortunately, it is also a fact that not many newspaper companies are owned by those whose main business is journalism. There is always the demand for higher profits by owners, shareholders or boards of directors.

Therein lies the conflict. Although Bhutanese media is still considered at a nascent stage, the future is bleak. Newspapers have not folded not because there is money in it, but because they have loans to clear. They will hang on it. In the meantime quality is suffering because there is no investment in journalism.

Advertisement is dropping, and so is circulation. The chances of upholding the standard of journalism can be compromised when financial goals takes priority over journalism. In Bhutan, all the newspapers depend on government advertisement like public notifications and announcements. This dependency is hampering coverage. An official can withhold advertisements if he is not happy with the last coverage. Many newspapers have experienced it.

Sometimes, the so-called “negative story,” not to the liking of a company or an agency can spell the end of the revenue source. The bigger the company, the bigger the loss. Missing an event of an agency sometimes results in seeing the advertisement in the paper that covered it.

If newspapers are becoming hostage to advertisers, there is growing conflict between marketing and editorial staff as pressure for profits increase. Quite often requests are made to editors to drop stories that could anger a rich client.

Newspapers are worried that with the government working on an e-procurement system, advertisement revenue will drop further, spelling the end of newspapers or driving them to downsize.

There is recognition for media from the highest authority and our Constitution guarantees the freedom of press. Public trust has not waned still. But the value for news, the concept of public trust and the obligation and role in a democracy could be severely compromised if the right balance is not found.

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