Hong Kong’s newspaper market is already awash in ink. More than two million free copies are given out each weekday, more than making up for a fall in paid circulation.
If you count the hordes of readers who are increasingly taking to smartphones and tablets to read the news free, you’d be hard pressed to understand why people should pay for it.
And if you’re like me, you’d wonder why Hong Kong Morning News is joining the fray.
But it does not bother its backers that many people think their investment makes little sense.
The Chinese-language daily is in the game for political and other reasons, certainly not to make money, commentators say.
Some Hong Kong tycoons, for instance, operate media outlets to promote the wider interests of their businesses or set a political agenda.
In the case of Hong Kong Morning News, its principal backers, nameless and faceless until now, are said to have close ties to Beijing, but exactly how these will help them run the newspaper as an ongoing proposition is not clear.
Early signs of trouble came when it emerged that its 200-strong pre-launch staff have yet to receive their April salaries nearly two weeks into the new month. Hiring has been suspended and some key investors have reportedly bailed, forcing senior management to scrounge for cash.
Many of these top executives have worked for Oriental Daily News, Hong Kong’s best-selling paid newspaper. Before freezing new hires, the company had planned to sign about 700 including a sizable editorial team which it had been building since the beginning of the year.
Initial plans call for trials in June and a formal launch in July.
The newspaper is promising a balanced approach to its editorial direction and aiming to be the voice of Hong Kong people.
But whether that policy will set it apart from Hong Kong’s crowded newspaper market remains to be seen. To begin with, there’s no shortage of players — or factors — that can preempt that vision.
The most obvious is the fact that the print media has been shifting toward free newspapers, with five dominating the market — Sing Tao News Corp.’s (01105.HK) Headline Daily and The Standard, Hong Kong Economic Time Group’s (00423.HK) Sky Post, property agent boss Shih Wing-ching’s am730 and Metro Publishing’s Metro Daily.
They command 40 percent of advertising revenue while the remaining 60 percent is shared among paid newspapers such as Oriental Press’ (00018.HK) Oriental Daily News and The Sun, and Next Media’s (00282.HK) Apple Daily.
Already, paid newspapers have taken a hit from their free counterparts. Apple Daily has seen its daily circulation fall below 200,000 copies from more than 400,000 in the late 1990s. By comparison, its online edition generates 35 million hits and unique users a day.
Much of that internet traffic is driven by Action News, an animated news video, which draws a daily average of 200,000 views.
However, as all online content is free, Next Media relies on advertising revenue from its website to compensate for its falling print business.
Smaller online media players such as The Housenews and Post 852, both founded by media veterans, are getting by with limited advertising support.
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