23 October 2016
Jimmy Lai, who was arrested in December at the end of the Occupy campaign, denies he will be taking Apple Daily (inset) wholly online any time soon. Photos: Reuters, Bloomberg
Jimmy Lai, who was arrested in December at the end of the Occupy campaign, denies he will be taking Apple Daily (inset) wholly online any time soon. Photos: Reuters, Bloomberg

When will Jimmy Lai stop printing his newspaper?

Imagine what Hong Kong will be like without Apple Daily.

Not because the popular newspaper will be shut down after the city legislates the anti-subversion provisions of Article 23 of the Basic Law — but because maverick media magnate Jimmy Lai Chee-ying’s company will no longer sell it on the newsstands or deliver it to your home.

That could happen, but not any time soon.

Apple Daily without the physical paper was the talk of the town during the holiday celebrating the anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to China as news emerged that its publisher had hinted the daily might go fully digital.

Lai’s listed flagship, Next Media, may be renamed Next Digital to reflect its new focus.

Even the paper’s own gossip column hinted that the daily, which is known for urging people to take to the streets to protest, may not publish its famous July 1 demonstration poster next year.

But all this speculation was quashed by Lai, who said “no” six times when asked whether Apple Daily will soon stop appearing in print.

“[Newspapers] won’t die so early,” Lai said during the march Wednesday.

He said it will take more than 10 years for his group to go paperless.

The question regarding Next Media going fully digital is not why, but when.

Next Media has led the industry in delivering online news, especially its trademark Apple Action News.

In its latest annual report, Next Media said the digital (mobile and web) version of Apple Daily maintained its dominant position as Hong Kong’s most visited interactive news destination, with more than 42 million views every day on all channels and devices, and an average of two million daily unique users.

Apple Action News tops the market in readership on mobile devices, with an average of 2.9 million monthly unique users, Next said, citing Google Analytics data from April 2014 to March 2015.

It is also the top media page on Facebook in Hong Kong and the No. 1 YouTube channel in the city.

I remember a story I heard about why Lai is so passionate about Apple Action News.

There was a great deal of media interest worldwide in 2009 when Tiger Woods fled his house in Florida and crashed his vehicle after his wife reportedly hit him for indulging in extramarital affairs.

One major US television network carried an animated video made by Apple Action News showing what might have happened during the couple’s fight and its aftermath.

Within a few months, Lai opened a New York office to explore potential business.

As Lai began to shift more resources to new media, he found the online business was eating up his core business.

People had already started using smartphones to access free news content online and given up the habit of buying papers from the newsstand.

In the past five years, the internet has taken its toll on Next Media, which has been fighting a two-front war against declining circulation and advertising sales while making more investments in online delivery.

Last month, the firm reported a 32 percent drop in earnings to HK$164 million (US$21.2 million) for the year to March 31 on a nearly 10 per cent drop in turnover to HK$2.95 billion.

The only bright spot was its digital business, which recorded a 77 per cent increase in revenue to HK$364 million and an operating profit of HK$37.4 million.

As with most media firms, the transformation from offline to online is a clear and indisputable trend.

Question is: how long and how much pain can it suffer?

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EJ Insight writer

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