Why doomsday for Hong Kong newspapers is coming early

August 04, 2015 13:58
Japan is home to some of the world's biggest newspapers by circulation, which ensures traditional media continues to play an important role in the national discourse. Photo: Foreign Press Center  Japan

It seems Hong Kong's news industry has been getting mostly bad news these days.

It's not enough that they're grappling with perceived threats to press freedom. Incumbents are also facing a very visible enemy -- digital media.

Beijing officials and their Hong Kong loyalists are watching these developments with more than a passing interest.

Some of these media players have been a thorn on their side.

Hong Kong Daily News suddenly ceased publication on July 12 amid dwindling circulation and falling advertising revenue.

Then came debt-strapped Sing Pao Daily News, a 76-year-old flagship which was forced to suspend its print edition last month after failing to pay its printers with its bank account frozen by provisional liquidators.

A mass surrender to digital or new media may be only a matter of time.

Next Media Ltd. (00282.HK), founded by pro-democracy activist and long-time Beijing critic Jimmy Lai, has changed its name to Next Digital to reflect a new strategy.

The revamp comes at a price for its staff, many of whom have been made redundant, but it said the downsizing will produce a more cohesive Next Magazine, earlier rumored to be on the brink of collapse.

Apple Daily, the media empire's crown jewel and one of Hong Kong’s most read newspapers, has been losing ground.

Average daily circulation was about 136,300 in July, a third of what it was during the 1997 peak.

In June, it reported that revenue slumped 9.5 percent and net profit tumbled 31.6 percent.

The newspaper's woes are not so much a sign of eroding readership as a warning that the digital wave is about to swamp traditional media.

The problem is not unique to Hong Kong.

Philip Meyer, a professor of journalism in the University of North Carolina, famously predicted the doomsday of American newspapers in his book The Vanishing Newspaper.

The last newspaper reader in the United States will abandon the broadsheet sometime in October 2044, Meyer writes.

Japan is an interesting exception.

When Hong Kong commuters tap and swipe on smartphone screens, their Japanese counterparts bury themselves in newspapers.

Some attribute this phenomenon to the fact that the Japanese love tradition and reading newspapers is part of it.

Which is why Japan is home to some of the world's biggest newspapers by circulation, which ensures traditional media continues to play an important role in the national discourse.

Yomiuri Shimbun, a 140-year-old institution, is the only newspaper on the planet with a daily circulation above nine million copies.

At that size, the circulation looks formidable even if it's smaller than its peak by one million copies.

Asahi Shimbun is a respectable runner-up at more than seven million copies.

Mainichi Shimbun, The Nikkei (the new owner of the Financial Times) and Sankei Shimbun have a circulation in the three-million range.

In all, 30 million copies are sold in Japan each day, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations.

Yomiuri and Asahi are also sold in Hong Kong thanks to 25,000 Japanese residents.

A mainland graduate student in Waseda University in Tokyo tells me that virtually every family in Japan subscribes to one or two newspapers. Breakfast is family reading time, he says.

Japan's slower uptake of digital media for news and views means Japanese newspapers will continue to flourish for generations to come.

The trend has implications for advertisers and other users of traditional media, as well as newspaper editors and journalists.

By contrast, Hong Kong newspapers are being increasingly marginalized by digital players, already winning by default as costs overtake traditional media.

While Japanese newspapers occupy gleaming towers in downtown Tokyo or Osaka, their Hong Kong counterparts are pushed out of prime commercial areas by exorbitant rent and driven to rundown buildings.

And while Japan has a print media-friendly policy that includes certain anti-monopoly waivers, Hong Kong has a more politically geared regime on print media ownership.

No wonder our newspapers are dying.

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Japanese love tradition and reading newspapers is part of it, no matter where they are. Photo: Japan Times
Dropping newspaper sales are forcing newsstands in Hong Kong to rely on other items such as bottled water and snacks to compensate lost income. Photo: Internet

EJ Insight writer