By Jose Galang
MANILA, Nov 6:—Manila, Nov 7: Hounded by declining circulation and rising costs, Philippine media entities are turning to the Internet for new sources of growth in revenue and readership.
“We’re reaching a wider audience now that we’re on the Web and we operate on less funds,” says Marites Dañguilan Vitug, editor-in-chief of ‘Newsbreak’, which in February 2007 dropped its hard-copy fortnightly magazine format it had been putting out for the previous six years and transformed itself into a mainly online news and current affairs publication (Newsbreak.com.ph).
A community newspaper, ‘Sunday Punch’, published out of Dagupan City in the country’s northern province of Pangasinan, is counting on its website, www.punch.dagupan.com, for more meaningful growth that will complement its print version.
Ermin F. Garcia Jr., the weekly’s publisher-editor, says that most of the ‘Punch’s’ online readers are Pangasinan folks who live overseas, who also encourage their relatives back home to subscribe to the print version. Subscribers of the print edition also ask their relatives abroad to log on to the website for updates.
“I am seeing a complementing role for each [of the print and online versions],” Garcia told the Asia Media Forum.
Meanwhile, industry chatter has it that one of the country’s broadsheets is finalising moves to launch an e-paper that will be highly interactive accessible only to paying subscribers.
Internet usage in this country of 90 million people has surged over the past three years. From 21 percent in 2006, the percentage of the Philippine population who access the Internet has grown to 28.3 percent towards the end of 2008, according to studies made by market research firm Nielsen Media and Internet search engine Yahoo! conducted over October-November 2008.
The growth — noted both in Internet access from home computers and from Internet cafes — was observed not just in Metro Manila but also in all major cities around the country, and in all economic classes and age groups as well.
This surge in Internet usage came as readership of newspapers and magazines declined (from 20 percent to 15 percent, and from 18 percent to 7 percent, respectively, over the same period), along with television viewership (from 97 percent to 92 percent), the same survey said. Only radio registered a higher performance — from 69 percent in 2006 to 80 percent in 2008.
Increased competition among telecoms providers has resulted in improved connectivity and affordable rates, and Internet usage can only be expected to grow further. For instance, Philippine Long Distance Telephone (PLDT), the country’s leading telecommunications provider, reported broadband subscribers of 1.2 million as of mid-2009, up 22 percent from the level the year before. This was on top of a 16 percent increase in its affiliate Smart Telecommunications’ cellular phone subscriber base to 38.5 million over the same period, PLDT has reported.
Other service providers — Globe Telecom, Sky Broadband, Sun Cellular and Bayan Telecommunications — account for smaller market shares but are offering competitive rates, enabling more and more Filipinos to gain access to the Internet from their computers at home.
Media companies have yet to fully cash in on this phenomenon, however. Alexa Internet, which tracks usage of websites around the globe, lists only four news providers among the Philippines’ top 100 websites: the two leading broadsheets ‘Philippine Daily Inquirer’ (www.inquirer.net) and ‘Philippine Star’ (www.philstar.com), and the two leading broadcast networks GMA Network (www.gmanews.tv) and ABS-CBN (www.abs-cbnnews.com). Philippine Entertainment Portal (www.pep.ph), which offers entertainment news, is also on the list.
These news providers have succeeded in embracing technology. For instance, GMANews.TV made its presence felt during the critical hours when two major typhoons whipped large parts of the country in September and October this year. It did not only report the news but also aggregated storm-related information from various sources. Its interactive ‘disaster maps’, which detailed the extent of damage and the conditions of people stranded in certain areas, proved useful to both ordinary viewers and people involved in rescue and relief operations.
“Soon after typhoon Ondoy hit (in late September),” GMANews.TV editor-in-chief Howie Severino recalls, “we were publishing raw data about people needing rescue as we were receiving it. Some enterprising and Web-savvy good Samaritans started plotting our data on a Google map, which I found out about on Twitter. I quickly decided to embed the map on our site [and] pretty soon we were developing our own interactive maps with the help of volunteers, both online and those who went to our office.”
Severino says it was an “exhilarating experience” to be at the centre of that “rapid interaction using cutting-edge social media in the service of the public”.
Indeed, technology is changing the way news organisations perform their tasks. “In addition to retaining some of the old media’s traditions, such as being an authoritative source for news, Severino says, “new media is performing the role of facilitator for disparate sources of online information as well as collaborator with Web users at large.”
In the case of ‘Newsbreak’, the shift from print to mainly online operations has meant thinking “in terms of being interactive, more visual,” Vitug says. She notes that while the publication’s older readers miss the hard copy and have not switched to the Web, the younger ones are “comfortable with our transfer to cyberspace”.
“A major challenge,” Vitug says, “is finding the business model that will allow us to earn from content and be able to operate a newsroom — without losing our audience. We have subscribers who pay an annual feel but that’s measly. We need advertising to flourish.”
‘Newsbreak’, which specialises in in-depth, investigative reports, funds much of its operations from grants. Revenue from its tie-ups with ABS-CBN and the ‘Philippine Star’ as a content provider also helps, but that now forces the group to ensure that Newsbreak.com.ph still carries content that is unique to it. Newsbreak also still prints occasional special reports in magazine form.
Even GMANews.TV, despite the enormous resources of the network that supports it, is still in search of a “clear business or revenue model.” The website is “coping”, says Severino, “simply because we are subsidised by our network’s TV operations. Our network has made the right decision in making a large investment in our backend; we have a strong technical infrastructure that enables us to be fast and robust.”
When will it start turning in profits? “We are sure it will come and we need to be ready when the media revenues migrate online,” Severino says.
Vitug sees more Web-only publications and possibly more partnerships among media organisations (TV, radio, print, and online). “But I don’t see the demise of the newspaper, like what’s happening in the US. That’s going to take a long time, with the affinity for print here, and the limited reach of the Internet in the country.”
‘Sunday Punch’s’ Garcia also believes the print media will survive. However, “its reach will be limited, if not obscured by others,” Garcia says. “Online is definitely the way to go.”
The Dagupan weekly, recently named by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as “one of the 10 most successful newspapers in Asia”, is actually one of the first provincial publications to go online. In 1997, ‘Sunday Punch’ set up a website and actively invited other community newspapers to follow suit, with the objective of eventually setting up their own portal.
Daily broadsheet ‘BusinessWorld’ was one of the first major Philippine broadsheets to go online, launching its website, http://beta.bworldonline.com/, in 1994. Back then, recalls BusinessWorld Online COO and editor Mike Marasigan, the cost of getting connected was exorbitant — about 10,000 U.S. dollars a month for a 64kbps line and about 100,000 dollars a month for a 2Mbps bandwidth, which now are available only for a few thousand pesos. BusinessWorld Online tried to keep its expenses down by also being an Internet service provider (ISP) for the paper’s subscribers.
But “challenges on the revenue side, the conflicts in culture within the company, as well as the marketing side”, says Marasigan, were too much to handle. BusinessWorld Online has recently been folded back into the main BusinessWorld Publishing Corp. as a department. Marasigan had by then left the company.
The Philippine media industry is adopting a wait-and-see attitude it seems, as it still does not see clear, sustainable opportunities online. It is clearly a ‘developing story’ as shown by the state of influx on said issue ( *From Asia Media Forum).