26 October 2016
Copies of Apple Daily sit stacked at the Next Media's printing plant. The newspaper's daily sales have been dropping from the 1997 peak of 400,000 to about 160,000 this year. Photo: Bloomberg
Copies of Apple Daily sit stacked at the Next Media's printing plant. The newspaper's daily sales have been dropping from the 1997 peak of 400,000 to about 160,000 this year. Photo: Bloomberg

One Apple is firing reporters, another is recruiting them

The traditional news industry is still in the doldrums, and the only news we have is bad news.

Apple Daily’s parent, Next Media Ltd. (00282.HK), for instance, is always rumored to be streamlining its business, including cuts in employee headcount to trim costs.

But we do have good news from another Apple: the US tech giant advertised earlier this week to recruit editors and journalists for its newly launched news service.

That said, after taking an investigative, journalistic look, we have reached the conclusion that the hiring by Apple Inc. is in fact bad news.

Next Media released its annual results Monday, and its report card is a lively account of a media firm’s struggle to stay afloat as the digital wave constantly intrudes on its traditional business.

The group’s revenue from sales of newspapers (mainly Apple Daily) slumped 18.4 percent to HK$496 million (US$64 million), and newspaper advertising revenue fell more than a quarter to HK$987 million.

Its books and magazines business (mainly Next Magazine) is sagging too, with sales dropping 16.6 percent to HK$134 million and advertising revenue sliding 18.1 percent to HK$513 million.

However, Next Media’s digital business (including advertising, internet subscriptions, content provision and development of mobile games and apps) is gaining momentum.

Overall revenue from this division surged 78 percent to HK$647 million.

Another morale booster is that for the first time, the group realized positive cash flow from the digital business, which made a net profit of HK$37.43 million.

But while Next Media has rapidly been going digital, that has failed to offset the pace of the overall contraction of its traditional businesses.

The group’s total revenue fell 9.5 percent, and net profit plunged 31.6 percent.

The local media conglomerate’s employees, in particular, may have something to worry about.

The results show the group slashed staff costs during the reporting period by 1.3 percent to HK$1.4 billion, despite a broadly inflationary environment.

Next Media reduced its headcount by 122 to 3,922 as at the end of March.

This kind of austerity and layoffs can’t be good news to those working in the media.

Now, here comes the seemingly good news from the other Apple.

Editing jobs are being offered by the iPhone maker at its Apple News service.

The ad says the ideal candidate should have more than five years of newsroom experience and a degree in journalism, communication or a related field, and a master’s degree is preferred.

Emphasis is attached to the ability to “recognize original, compelling stories unlikely to be identified by algorithms”.

The real focus is thus laid bare.

The job of journalists and editors is surely to recognize original, compelling stories, but if they would like to work at Apple, it appears their expertise is called upon only when the algorithms cannot do the job on their own.

So the key thing to note is that it is the mathematical mechanisms that discover and compile the news, and what editors are expected to do is merely some remedial work in case there is any news the automated procedures fail to identify.

Apple also wants its editors to “help manage a dynamic news content stream and surface great content from a range of high-quality publishers”.

The principal-subordinate relationship between algorithms and editors is what can be read between the lines.

As a matter of fact, Apple is not alone on this new frontier.

Other heavyweights in the tech world, including Google Inc., Facebook Inc., Twitter Inc. and Tencent Holdings Ltd. (00700.HK) have also been teaming up with traditional media organizations for access to news sources.

Their various software programs select the stories that appeal most to readers and send them to their subscribers.

Don’t fool yourself into believing that editors will play a vital role in “correcting”, “complementing” and “optimizing” the work of algorithms.

Prepare to work under an IT specialist if you’d like to work in Apple’s newsroom.

The traditional workflow that centers upon the editor-in-chief, and the principles of journalistic ethics and professionalism may have to be rewritten.

As for the traditional media industry, it has little bargaining power, and IT firms can easily dominate their collaborations with the media — all sorts of news is available in abundance, easily within reach at trivial cost.

Dispatching news on the strength of these firms’ platforms, market penetration and user base almost guarantees decent advertisement revenues.

To many, breaking news produced by front-line journalists is something like a free lunch.

The perception is now so ingrained that many veterans in the industry wonder whether the media may no longer matter to the public, as we are all passive recipients of “trash news” and no one really cares about that sort of information.

The Associated Press has been deploying an automated system well-versed in the AP Style Guide for instant, batch production of financial news.

It is said that the quality isn’t inferior to that of the work of a veteran reporter with 30 years of experience.

I wonder whether, before long, we may only need to send drones to the scene of breaking news, and automated word-processing software will do the rest.

This article first appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on June 17.

Translated by Frank Chen

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Apple is looking for editors and journalists for its own news service. Photo: Apple

Hong Kong Economic Journal columnist

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