By Colette Davidson

 When WAN-IFRA set up the Brain Trust in 2012, it did so with the intention of tapping into the wealth knowledge found within it global membership base to support its media development programs. The recent Media Professionals Program event in Myanmar was an occasion for education and exchange between Brain Trust Members and the 20 senior executives from Cambodia, Myanmar and Vietnam who gathered onsite for a week of training. 

As the global media industry faces such challenges as the move towards digital, gender equality and press freedom, it’s increasingly essential to make sure no media organization gets left behind.

WAN-IFRA has dedicated itself to media advocacy for over six decades, providing assistance and expertise to professionals around the world. But it wasn’t until a few years ago that the organization officially launched its Brain Trust initiative – tapping into its global network of members to provide training and mentoring support to the media partners WAN-IFRA works with through its media freedom programs.

When the Brain Trust first launched in 2012, the group consisted of primarily Canadian journalists from theToronto Star. Now, four years later, there are more than 25 senior media executives who are dedicating their time and expertise to media in countries such as Botswana, Malawi, Egypt, South Africa, Tunisia and Myanmar.

This January, members of the Brain Trust headed to Myanmar, where 20 senior media professionals from Cambodia, Myanmar and Vietnam were meeting in Yangon for five days of workshops on revenue generation, digital strategy, and audience growth and retention as part of WAN-IFRA’s Media Professionals Program (MPP).

Jen Teo is the Director of the MPP from WAN-IFRA’s Singapore office, who has been running the program for the past two years. “The mission of MPP is to raise the quality of journalism in this digital world, where not just skill sets but also mindsets are changing,” says Teo.  “The main challenges for our media partners within MPP are similar to their peers in mature markets: generating revenue in a digital world, educating the digital team from an editorial perspective, and internal capacity building,” says Teo.

All issues that members of the Brain Trust have contended within their own newsrooms.

Educating their journalists was a top concern for participants, where many news organizations in the region don’t have the resources for training and development.

“Media professionals in Myanmar are facing a lack of professional training because we do not have proper schools,” says participant Myo Hlaing Aung, the General Manager of Information Matrix, which publishes Myanmar’s 7 Day Daily. “Although there are some schools now in Yangon and some scholarship programs from other organizations, we still need to develop professional journalism in Myanmar.”

Teo says many news organizations are also struggling with a decline in readership – putting more pressure to increase digital offerings. All of these challenges have crystallized why, says Teo, “the Brain Trust is a critical, valuable aspect of this program.”

Three Brain Trust members were chosen to travel to Yangon, including Kirk MacDonald, EVP Sales and Sales Development of Digital First Media, Michael Cooke, Editor-in-Chief of the Toronto Star, and Greg Barber, Director of Digital News Projects at The Washington Post. Barber says this first experience with the Brain Trust was tremendous.

“It was great getting to meet journalists from places I don’t usually meet them,” he says, “and to learn about the challenges they face on a daily basis – versus my experience of being a journalist who has spent his life in the US.”

Barber says he was surprised that the restrictions for journalists in the participating countries weren’t what he thought they would be, and that everyone was willing to explore all subject matters.

Participant Le Quoc Minh, Editor-in-chief of VietnamPlus, says that while listening to the dynamic Brain Trust speakers, he was aware that newsrooms in Vietnam or Myanmar often present different challenges from those in Toronto or Washington.

Still, cultural differences didn’t take away anything from his experience, he says. If anything, it enhanced it. “This initiative is really wonderful as it helps us to dig deep into our problems with the assistance and supervision of world-class experts,” says Le Quoc.

And the benefits for MPP participants don’t stop at the Yangon workshop. They will also receive 20 hours of onsite consulting from Brain Trust mentors between February and May. Five Norwegian media executives, including Helje Solberg, CEO of VG TV, and Hildegunn Soldal, Digital Editor of Dagbladet, will travel to Cambodia, Myanmar and Vietnam to conduct newsroom consultations with MPP Media Partners.

As the weeklong events in Yangon came to a close, Teo says Brain Trust members expressed having learned as much or more from participants as participants learned from them. Barber says this was definitely true for him.

“I’ve had experiences that they might not have had and vice versa,” he says. “This experience was mutually beneficial.”




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