Chiang Mai, Thailand - Frontier Myanmar launched its newsletter three years ago with zero subscribers. Now, with about 20,000 subscribers, its publisher Sonny Swe said the news organization is on the right track. While it is not yet sustainable, it is less dependent on donor funding.
“We are not sustainable yet but we are trying. I think we are on the right track, we launched the community building three years ago, I think momentum is gaining every month, we have more and more subscribers, and our revenue can cover 55 or 60 percent of our expenses,” Swe told Kiripost in an interview in Chiang Mai province, Thailand.
“It’s a good business plan I think because we can stay less reliant on donors,” he added.
Swe, who is also the CEO, said that if everything works out according to the business model, Frontier Myanmar should be okay in a year and a half. He added that the budget has been overspent and that marketing will need to be more aggressive.
“We want events every day, every night,” he said. “I hope we get more business in the future.”
Speaking inside a newly built Greenhouse, Swe said that among the community members of Frontier Myanmar of more than 20,000, 13 percent are paid subscribers.
Swe, 53, compared Frontier Myanmar's business model to the Robin Hood effect, which is the redistribution of wealth from the rich to the poor.
He said that Frontier has asked whoever can support it to do so to enable them to keep the independent media platform running with the financial support. This has allowed Frontier to still produce investigative pieces. In return, paid members receive five different newsletters and gain access to webinars.
“We have closed door webinars, once, twice every month because our country is in a chaotic condition, nobody is willing to talk. You call the government ministry, you don’t get the data, so in order to keep our members aware of what's happening, we will always invite the World Bank and IMF to come into the closed briefing to our subscribers.”
Special economic zones, the UN and the World Bank, will come and talk to Frontier on a monthly basis, Swe said.
“This is the information you can never get, it is very deep down, very restricted information that you can only hear in those closed calls.”
Swe shared his advice for people who are interested in starting a media business. He said that the most important thing is to have a clear mission, know your own strength and to surround yourself with people who share your vision.
“A lot of people think that the media is dying, it actually is not. It is now a golden era, a golden period for the media, why? There are platforms that can distribute content for free and you can always push your content right to the face of your readers.”
The technology available to media businesses today is more powerful and affordable than ever before. There are a number of free and low-cost software applications that can be used to create and distribute content. This makes it possible for even small media businesses to produce high-quality content and reach a wide audience.
Sell your journalism
“You have to tell your team that money is important. A lot of journalists, they don’t want to hear about money, they think it's about credibility, it's about honesty, forget the money, but the trend is changing. The money is very important,” he said.
“For my team, I told them I need to make money. I am going to sell your journalism and make money.”
He said that he re-packaged the news content into newsletters and sent them to end users. “You have to embrace technology, if you don’t use tech, you fail.”
The Greenhouse is a new project by Swe. It is a co-working space and cafe and is designed to be a place where people can come together to work, collaborate, and learn. The Greenhouse also sells coffee and food, and it offers a variety of events and workshops.
“The reason we do this is because of the challenge of media sustainability,” Swe said, adding that Frontier Myanmar, which was established eight years ago, has also been evolving slowly. Frontier 1.0 was launched in 2015 as a simple setup: print magazine, investigative reporting and news only.
In 2018, Frontier switched to Frontier 2.0, which is a news plus community building platform, due to the increasing difficulty of generating revenue from circulation and advertising in the face of the rise of digital technology. A membership program was launched in 2020.
The Covid-19 pandemic and the military coup in Myanmar forced Frontier to stop operations in Myanmar and relocate to Thailand. Frontier 3.0 is the new platform that focuses on news, community building, and expansion into Thailand.
“Frontier 3.0 is basically keeping the news department going and we are extending into community building, now we are extending into Thailand,” Swe said.
“It is basically an upgrade of all of our tech decks, which use Wordpress and now is shifting to Squarespace, which is the latest technology and perfect for this kind of business. It's all very tech savvy and it's very much appropriate for community building.”
He said occasionally, Greenhouse does a documentary outside to engage with community members on a personal level.
“It's an in-person engagement that we are looking for. We’re all very tired and sick of Zoom and online engagement so I think this space will help facilitate that sort of meeting of our community members,” Swe added.
Greenhouse is housed in a former warehouse that was in poor condition. The owner had planned to upgrade it to a hostel but the pandemic halted his plans. When Swe took over, the building comprised small rooms for college students, there were no windows and no air circulation, Swe said.
They knocked down all the walls, put windows in and made the main chamber open, he said, adding brainstorming for the opening took 11 months, including developing a business plan, funding, actual construction and the launch. Actual construction took a little over four months, he said.
The construction cost was about $55,000. In Thailand, it is a lot more expensive to renovate than to build a new house. “I am not going to renovate the old warehouse, I will start building from scratch, I think the amount is pretty much the same but I can get the new property for the budget.”
Greenhouse opened on January 30 to the public and reactions to it have been “pretty good”.
“The feedback since the launch is pretty cool, pretty nice, everybody is very supportive, they are all very welcome. We‘ve been busy so that’s quite good. We are taking one step at a time because we don’t have a lot of human resources,” he said, adding that the location in the Nimman area is nice as there is less traffic.
“So, we will have to do marketing for the next two months or so; both digital marketing and also in-person marketing, going around universities and talking to different students,” he remarked.
Swe also started to predict the trends he should be following because renting for training and renting the rooms are the main income, rather than selling the coffee or the desk space.
“These generate very very small amounts of money but I think training and the other exhibition rent are the money and the projects that we want to go after.”