21 August 2019
Next Media founder Jimmy Lai (left) and former Commercial Radio journalist Lee Wai-ling take to the online airwaves. Photo:
Next Media founder Jimmy Lai (left) and former Commercial Radio journalist Lee Wai-ling take to the online airwaves. Photo:

Next Media debut a bet on a digital future

It’s an anniversary for many and a new start for sacked Commercial Radio journalist Lee Wai-ling and Next Media boss Jimmy Lai. June 4 marks 25 years since the Tiananmen Square crackdown and the day that Lee and Lai chose to debut an online phone-in show.

Starting from today, they will host a live weekday program on the internet offering a critical take on current affairs. Its backers say the show will counter the mainstream media’s Beijing-pleasing self-censorship of the past decade. Its slogan “Lee and Lai occupy Central” reflects its support for the proposed Occupy Central civil disobedience campaign, which the central government strongly opposes.

Next Media’s latest move underscores the massive change in Hong Kong media as traditional outlets such as television, radio and newspapers lose market share to a wide range of online outlets. Smartphone users today would rather read news via an app than pick up a copy of a print newspaper — even if it’s free. That shift is putting pressure on traditional media owners to find a formula to retain existing readers and lure a new generation.

Lee could have the profile to do that. She hosted a program on Commercial Radio for almost a decade before she was sacked in controversial circumstances in February. Commercial Radio did not give a reason for her sacking, but Lee and more than a few members of the public put it down to pressure from senior officials unimpressed with Lee’s criticism of government policy. 

Radio certainly has had the power to set the agenda in the past. Back in the mid-1990s, the morning radio talk shows on Hong Kong’s three radio stations — the government-owned Radio Television Hong Kong, Commercial Radio and Hutchison Whampoa’s Metro Broadcasts – were the major force in monitoring government policy on the public’s behalf. 

But the administration of Leung Chun-ying is not as media friendly as its predecessors and senior government officials have only been willing to turn to pro-government media for interviews. That has led to shows like “On the Record”, which airs on TVB Jade on Saturday and Sunday mornings.

At the same time, the city’s print media, especially newspapers, are almost all under the control of businessmen with close links to Beijing. The exception is Next Media’s Apple Daily. Most of the newspapers in Hong Kong still have room to criticize government affairs, but they seldom go against Beijing’s general direction. And so a once-diverse media industry has started to all sound like one voice.

And that’s where online media have come in. Taking inspiration from The Huffington Post in the US, Businessman Tony Choi and his partners founded The House News. It’s emerged as one of the most popular online portals on current affairs that criticizes the authorities. D100, an online radio station founded by former Commercial Radio host Albert Cheng, is also one of the new fast-growing online media, reaching an average 500,000-plus people daily.

Apple Daily, too, is expanding its reach. Its print circulation has suffered with the rise of free sheets in Hong Kong but it has grown its readership in the virtual world with more than 30 million page views on average per day. That compares with around 1.5 million readers of its flagship print edition. 

The addition of Lee and Lai’s talk show on Next Media’s website should cement the group’s digital development and put it on the right track to lure more people to an alternative online platform.

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EJ Insight writer

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