Embattled print media group Next Media decided on Monday to stop publishing its entertainment title Sudden Weekly next month.
It is one of the moves the media group has taken to address its falling advertising revenue and tumbling circulation amid the fast-changing reading habits in the city.
However, its move has failed to answer the question: Why do readers need to buy its magazines?
Next Media’s management appears to be putting too much focus on transforming its flagship newspaper Apple Daily from a print medium to an online news portal.
Among local newspapers, Apple Daily seems to have been successful in undertaking such as transformation.
Action News, its video news service, is the most popular among online video platforms in Hong Kong. In fact, it has become a small-scale news channel on the internet.
But Next Media management doesn’t appear to have prepared well on how to transform the group’s weekly titles. It seems the plan is simply to shut down the print product and focus on the digital edition.
But the fact remains that readers won’t patronize the magazine’s online edition if they don’t like the content — whether in print or digital form — in the first place.
That’s the core of the problem of Next Magazine: how to differentiate its content from its online and print competitors so that it could stand out with a unique market position.
Since its debut in 1990, Next Magazine has established an image of a fearless and outspoken advocate of truth and democracy to its readers.
But this shining reputation was somehow dimmed by other facets of its news gathering operations, including its paparazzi teams who target celebrities as well as its focus on triad, erotic and crime news.
This has prevented Next from expanding its readership from the mass market to the middle class, despite the fact that readers recognize Next for its watchdog role.
In 2003, the Chinese government tagged Next Magazine and Apple Daily, along with radio talk show hosts Albert Cheng Jing-han and Raymond Wong Yuk-man, as the principal agitators who mobilized half a million Hongkongers in a rally against the legislation of Article 23 of the Basic Law, which people fear would restrict their freedoms.
Beijing’s reaction indicated that Next Magazine has a strong capability to play a key role in monitoring the wrongdoings of both Hong Kong and Chinese authorities.
But such an outspoken stance cost Next Magazine dearly; it lost hundreds of millions of dollars in advertising revenue from tycoons and their large corporations.
Hong Kong’s media landscape has undergone massive changes since Leung Chun-Ying became chief executive.
Most print media have become virtual mouthpieces of Beijing, but Next Magazine remains an exception.
Next Media’s management should not blame the rise of free online news for the decline of Next Magazine.
It should seize the opportunity to take a proactive response to the market by repositioning Next as the city’s only outspoken newsweekly, rather than just selling the magazine with other entertainment and leisure titles for a combo price of HK$20.
Some industry observers commented that Next Magazine should condense its content offering by focusing on investigative reporting, business stories and quality columns and dropping its costly paparazzi stories to retain its loyal readers.
Next readers do not mind paying a premium for unique content. Next Media management could even raise the cover price of Next Magazine to HK$30 or HK$40 a copy in order to maximize its revenue from a group of loyal readers.
Next Media said the Sudden Weekly bundle — Sudden Weekly, Me, a fashion title, and Eat and Travel Weekly, a leisure title — will no longer exist after the bundle releases its last issue on Aug. 13.
The 70-member staff of Sudden Weekly will be laid off. The remaining two titles of the bundle, Me and Eat and Travel, will be part of the Next Magazine bundle from August. Face Magazine, which targets young readers, will not be affected.
The decision indicates that the company management will continue to support Next Magazine while dismantling the Sudden Weekly titles.
But whether the new combo will attract enough readers to pay for the titles remains a big question market. That could be a risk as current Sudden readers may not want to pay HK$5 more to continue reading Me and Eat and Travel from the new Next combo.
Some market observers believe the new combo will help stabilize Next Magazine’s circulation and prevent it from further decline. But whether the title will report a growth in circulation is still too early to say.
No doubt print media is entering an ice age, but media executives and editors should not solely blame online competitors for their poor performance.
Readers will always consider the quality of content in choosing titles.
The success stories of the New York Times and the Financial Times in the western world have proven that the paid subscription model for traditional media is still viable in the digital era.
It’s time for Next Magazine to get rid of its sensational journalism and return to its original mission of bringing the truth to its readers.
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