Why money still flows to HK’s sunset media industry

April 07, 2016 16:05
New entrants to the game, like (from left) HK01 weekly, Initium Media and ViuTV, prove that Hong Kong's media industry remains resilient despite the many challenges. Photos: HKEJ, Initium, ViuTV

While many news outlets are bidding farewell to their readers and audiences, it may be baffling to note that new entrants are still flocking to Hong Kong's seemingly bleak media sector.

When the debt-laden ATV finally signed off with the expiry of its free-to-air license at the stroke of midnight on April Fool’s Day, we hear that Oriental Press Group has also decided to cease the publication of its 17-year-old broadsheet The Sun, once the third best-selling newspaper in town. 

The group blames Hong Kong’s “worsening business environment” for the closure.

The Sun is but the latest addition to the territory’s long list of defunct publications amid eroding readership.

Next Media Ltd. (00282.HK) shut down its Face magazine in March. Hong Kong Daily News and Next Media’s paparazzo magazine Suddenly Weekly all bowed out last year.

It seems the bad news about the city’s news industry is far from over amid the capricious winds of politics and economic uncertainty.

Last week Sing Tao News Corp. Ltd. (01105.HK), parent of Sing Tao Daily, free newspaper Headline Daily and the English language tabloid The Standard, announced a pay freeze for its frontline employees and a downsizing of remuneration packages for its senior managers.

Some fear retrenchment may just be around the corner, though the group is still making a profit.

But while the incumbents are grappling with their own woes, the city’s media industry is seeing a legion of new entrants to the game.

PCCW Ltd.'s (00008.HK) ViuTV, Hong Kong’s newest free-to-air television service, is now on air with a pledge to invest HK$2.7 billion in the next decade.

And, had it not been for an obstinate rebuff from the Leung Chun-ying administration, Hongkongers would have had one more choice: Hong Kong Television Network (HKTV, 01137.HK), owned by pioneering tycoon Ricky Wong Wai-kay.

HK01 (香港01) launched its HK$20 broadsheet weekly last month with an eye-catching package featuring 200 full-color pages and two magazines.

So far four issues have come out, intent on setting the news agenda with headlines advocating universal HK$2 MTR rides and the delisting of Link REIT (00823.HK), which operates the Hong Kong Housing Authority’s retail property portfolio.

Its latest exposé of a flats-swap swindle by a high-ranking official has prompted the Independent Commission Against Corruption to launch an investigation.

Online news portal Initium Media (端傳媒), debuted in August 2015, pitches itself to the Chinese diaspora with rumored ample funding from a successful businessman.

Led by well-known mainland journalists, Initium’s free-to-read website comes with a mobile app and features glossy graphics and eye-soothing minimalist design.

Its in-depth commentaries and coverage of the Tianjin blasts, Bangkok terrorist attack and Mong Kok unrest have earned it initial recognition in the Greater China region.

So far its content is more than a notch above that of the city’s other, smaller online news outlets that are scraping by with limited resources.

Other magazines, like the E-weekly, a publication that models on Next Media’s Next Magazine, DuoWeiCN (多維月刊), a current affairs monthly, and Asia Fortune (亞洲財經) have hit the streets since last year.

So how does one explain the mushrooming of new publications and outlets against a dreary media landscape?

Some new entrants are meant to be serious business, like ViuTV, which is seen as the latest bid by Richard Li Tzar-kai to challenge TVB’s (00511.HK) monopoly when his paid service, Now TV, has long gained a strong footing.

Some are powered by the personal ambitions of their super-rich owners who are willing to splash cash to build their presence in the industry.

Before founding HK01, Yu Pun-hoi once outbid Rupert Murdoch to acquire the city’s venerable Ming Pao Daily from founder Louis Cha Leung-yung (Jin Yong) in the 1990s.

An editor-turned-entrepreneur, Yu owns a cinema chain in China and is now better known as the new boss of the American cosmetic franchise Crabtree & Evelyn.

Despite the profound skepticism that greeted his latest media foray, Yu has reportedly poached hundreds of reporters from other media organizations and housed the HK01 newsroom in a sleek office tower in Tsuen Wan.

His investment in the new media venture is rumored to be no less than HK$60 million.

The objective of other new media firms, however, appears dubious to some observers.

Apple Daily reported that one of the key investors of Initium Media, a hotshot in the legal profession surnamed Cai, once worked at the Supreme People's Court in Beijing and has close ties with Xi Jinping (習近平), though Cai categorically denied any links with the top party leader.

Communist cadres feel it behooves them to rein in Hong Kong, and controlling public discourse is a principal step to shatter the dominance of the pro-democracy media.

Since Beijing's three local mouthpieces - Ta Kung Pao, Wen Wei Po and Hong Kong Commercial Daily - have negligible readership, sponsoring new media outlets for soft propaganda serves their purpose well.

Phoenix Satellite Television (02008.HK), which just celebrated its 20th anniversary with guests including CY Leung and Beijing's Liaison Office Director Zhang Xiaoming (張曉明), has long been a model in this regard, reporting news from a veiled pro-Beijing viewpoint.

Phoenix has, on top of its broadcasts in China, launched with much fanfare a Cantonese channel for the local audience, suggesting, according to some observers, that Beijing wants its voice to be better heard in the city.

Owning a media organization in Hong Kong can also be a useful asset when the owner strives to develop or cement ties with the mainland.

Hong Kong Satellite TV, a Putonghua-speaking television network that is largely unknown to locals, was founded by a businessman from Zhejiang province in 2010 after he emigrated to the city.

Most of its programs, parroting Beijing's tone, are streamed from Shenzhen.

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EJ Insight writer