Why print media in Hong Kong is entering an ice age

July 17, 2015 18:04
Sing Pao and Hong Kong Daily News suspended their newspaper operations while Next Magazine has cuts its headcount, in moves that reflect the woes of Hong Kong's print media. Photo: Bloomberg

The widespread use of smartphones and tablet devices has changed the habits of newspaper and magazine readers.

Many of them have access to massive amounts of news and information from the internet and social media for free and are no longer interested in paying for a daily newspaper or weekly magazine.

Local print media is facing a countdown to oblivion.

But the pace with which it is entering an ice age is picking up a bit faster than expected.

Next Media, the print media giant with operations in Hong Kong and Taiwan, plans to cease publishing the print version of its flagship Next Magazine in September.

The group has launched a voluntary severance program to reduce its headcount by half.

Meanwhile, Sing Pao Daily, the city's oldest newspaper, suspended its print edition Friday.

The financially troubled company that publishes Sing Pao said it was unable to pay the printing fees because its bank account was frozen by provisional liquidators.

There was no word whether or when the newspaper would resume normal publishing once its bank account returns to normal.

The decisions by the two established media groups came after the 56-year-old Hong Kong Daily News shut down on Saturday last week, citing keen competition from free newspapers that resulted in huge losses in recent years.

There is no doubt that there has been fierce competition among Hong Kong's print media in the past few decades.

More than a dozen Chinese-language newspapers used to hit the street every day.

But in the 2000s, when free newspapers appeared in the market, paid newspapers suffered greatly in circulation revenue and advertising dollars.

Readers prefer to take the free sheets instead of paying for a print newspaper, while advertisers have also diverted part of their budget to free newspapers, which reach more readers than paid ones.

For paid newspapers, the writing has been on the wall for years.

Hong Kong Daily News and Sing Pao Daily have been around for more than half a century.

Sing Pao Daily was the most widely read newspaper in Hong Kong before the debut of Oriental Daily in the early 1970s, and Hong Kong Daily News was once the third-best-selling daily in the city.

But as the market has shifted to the free newspapers, smaller-circulation paid titles need to differentiate themselves by finding a unique niche in the market, so as to convince readers to pay HK$7 (90 US cents) for a copy.

Failing that, they will have to shut down.

Pro-Beijing tycoons invested in both these troubled newspapers.

Sing Pao is controlled by mainland businessman Gu Zheoheng, while Hong Kong Daily News was owned by Emperor Group chairman Albert Yeung Sau-shing.

Their bosses had ample sources of funding if they wished to support the relatively small newspaper operations.

The decision to shut each newspaper could suggest that the tycoons no longer need a media platform for their views or to show their loyalty to the Beijing authorities.

In any case, the two titles failed to gain enough market share to build up their influence.

The folding of Next Magazine's print version could certainly be a business decision, but one partly prompted by developments beyond the world of business.

Next Media has been under pressure in recent years after the central government ordered big enterprises not to place advertisements in its publications.

Subsequently, HSBC Holdings plc (00005.HK), Standard Chartered plc (02888.HK), PCCW (00008.HK) and leading property developers stopped advertising with Next Media.

Since advertising accounted for more than half the group's revenue, that has caused significant damage to its business.

Meanwhile, Next Magazine failed to differentiate its offerings from free content available on the internet, so its circulation fell sharply in the past few years.

The magazine's average circulation per issue is about 60,000 copies, down 15 percent from a year earlier.

Next Media's management revealed that all the firm's magazine titles are losing money while its flagship newspaper, Apple Daily, still manages to make a profit.

That may imply that Apple Daily, along with its popular website, is cannibalizing its sister publications' readership.

Readers have no reason to buy a weekly title for the same content available in a daily newspaper.

The multiple-title strategy used to be successful in the non-internet era, as it could offer different types of information to different readers.

It no longer works in the multiple-source internet era, as readers don't select content based on the title but read only content they are interested in.

Next Media may need to think about how to transform its title-oriented model into a content-oriented one and then publish the content on a distribution platform, say Apple Daily's online edition.

How to then split the online advertising revenue is another question Next Media needs to think about.

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EJ Insight writer