I bumped into Hong Kong University of Science and Technology vice president for institutional advancement Eden Woon at a Lunar New Year gathering.
He told me in an elated tone about Western media reports that people are starting to invest again in the print media. This, of course, challenges the saying that newspapers are a sunset industry.
I did not have time to ask Woon for details. But after I returned to the office, I read reports that the New York Times and the Washington Post, newspapers that have frequently fought with US President Donald Trump recently, have successfully returned to profit. The latter is even planning to hire more reporters.
What then are the reasons for the revival of these two old-time newspapers?
Various theories have been put forward by the industry, but the most “realistic” one was related to Trump, who is not only unpopular but has been hitting out at the media, with the two newspapers among his key targets.
Trump also accused the media of “fabricating news”, and his team came up with the chic term “post true”. But it seemed that the fiercer were his attacks, the higher were the media’s viewership and readership.
The latest reports from the “war zone” was that the Washington Post was willing to spend money on advertisements to hit back at Trump, who, in turn, refused to take part in functions of journalists’ bodies, declaring that there was no need for him to deal with the media lot.
Keeping the Washington Post’s print edition
That major news events and controversies boost newspaper circulation is a commonly acknowledged phenomenon.
Yet, apart from the right conditions, it is also important that the industry itself makes an effort, and the revival of the Washington Post is an immediate example.
The paper had once been great. But its obsolete mode of operation has caused circulation and revenue to fall, so much so that it had to look for a buyer.
Undaunted by talk about the “death of the print media” and “online media is the future” as old newspapers went downhill, internet tycoon and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos bought the Washington Post.
But unlike those who take a dim view of the print media, he did not give up the newspaper’s print edition.
Clearly, he understands that the credibility of a newspaper comes from its print presence, and the print edition is the greatest symbol of status that differentiates a respectable newspaper from low-cost online publications.
As such, Bezos stated clearly from the start that he had no intention of killing the print edition but will continue to run it hand in hand with the online version.
The pasture on the other side is always greener. Bezos treasured the high-entrance barrier of print media and made good use of this unique advantage.
The Washington Post engaged itself in the US presidential election storm and won much support from US citizens. As a result, hit rates and circulation for its online and print editions rose simultaneously.
This proved that the online tycoon’s view on print newspaper is right on the money, at least preliminarily.
Information and credibility are valuable after all
Applying Bezos’ perspective to Hong Kong, we can see that the situation is rather similar. Many heads of organizations often regurgitated the comment “few people read newspapers now”.
Ironically, whenever a major news event happens, they would call up chief editors of newspapers to explain the intricacies of the events to them. Afterward, they would comment that “after all, it is traditional newspapers and magazines that have higher credibility”.
We can’t blame these organization chiefs for being self-contradictory.
After all, they aren’t media experts. As many newspaper operators are themselves doomsayers about the print media, how can we expect those outside the industry to ascertain the validity of such a belief?
But in urgent situations, intuition and common sense took over to tell them that it is right to trust traditional newspapers and television stations, whose credibility are established brick-by-brick over a long period of time.
The downturn of US print media started earlier than that of their counterparts in Hong Kong. Would the rebound they are now experiencing happen in Hong Kong?
The answer is likely but not necessarily. Different timing, location and operating strategy produce different results. When the US print media was down on its luck, their counterparts in many regions in other parts of the world remained robust. Likewise, while the online media is burgeoning in the US, few of those in Hong Kong are financially healthy.
What is certain is that information and credibility are always assets for any media. What is happening in the US is inspiring but we still have to rely on our own courage and efforts to face up to the stiff challenges of tomorrow.
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