Ads and editorial freedom: My time with the HKEJ

May 06, 2016 13:34
Lam Hang-chi founded the Hong Kong Economic Journal  in 1973. Photos: HKEJ, Bloomberg

For the first time in a century, American newspapers are making more money from street sales and subscriptions than from advertising.

It seems selling ad space to subsidize circulation belongs to an old era in the news industry, though how long the new trend can sustain remains to be seen; it's not easy to woo readers in this age of information explosion to foot the bill that advertisers used to pay.

After the handover, mainland clients, both private and state-owned, began to account for an increasing share of the local advertising market.

So for those media that want the business, they have to toe Beijing’s line.

Those that opt to trade editorial freedom for ads will surely rake it in. After all, state-owned enterprises and leading private firms from north of the border only choose Beijing-friendly newspapers to carry their ads.

Long-time readers of the Hong Kong Economic Journal may remember that before its ownership transfer in 2006, there used to be rather few ads in the newspaper.

Our advertising department wasn’t responsible for that. It was just that the newspaper's journalists and columnists, myself included, always reported and commented on issues that annoyed Beijing or strayed from the official line.

There were no ads from the “red capital”, and, time and again, local businesses would be told to boycott HKEJ or even pull down or cancel their ads at the last minute before going to print.

Not only Beijing, local tycoons and the moneyed class must not be offended either, since if you aimed to earn their money, you had to make sure that what you wrote was kept within bounds.

One can just imagine how many scandals had been buried or covered up for the sake of ads.

Surely news outlets in western democracies are no exception to this rule, but many newspapers are highly partisan themselves.

Since they belong to different camps or groups, their fault-finding and attacks at each other's side ensure the vital scrutiny that any free society needs.

Ming Pao’s sacking of its executive chief editor Keung Kwok-yuen, a respected veteran columnist and news professional better known for his pen name On Yu, has triggered yet another wave of outcry.

The newspaper blamed financial woes for the decision, but many say the sacking was a result of Keung’s outspokenness that antagonized the rich and powerful, like the newspaper's series on the Panama Papers.

More than 400 media employees from eight workers' unions rallied outside the newspaper’s office in Chai Wan last weekend and demanded the dismissal be revoked.

No one expected from the outset that the protest would bring any change, though.

Since Ming Pao is part of Media Chinese International Limited (00685.HK), we may find out from the listed company’s annual report how sacking Keung can boost its financial performance.

I had a discussion with my son about how we would deal with the challenge if we were in charge.

One thing for sure is we won’t get enough of such investigative reports, like more truths about the offshore entities owned by the city’s tycoons and those on the mainland. Nor will we fire any editor.

If there are columns or commentaries with a strikingly different view, rather than putting them down, we will choose to convey our editorial stance, like in an editor's note, for an open, fair debate, and let readers to have their own verdict.

When some contributors choose to leave their columns blank in protest, we will respect their decision but should that continue, we then have to suspend their columns as our readers pay money for ideas and insights, not blank columns.

HKEJ was faced with a sudden spike in employee resignations prior to 1997 as many thought the newspaper could not survive the post-handover environment.

As the founder I respected those who decided to leave the newsroom and I seldom fired anyone or forced people to resign.

The reason is plain: sacking a well-known, veteran senior editor and announcing the decision in the wee hours can only complicate the issue and destroy employees’ trust.

The management will be in an awful, isolated position.

As for Keung, perhaps he can consider setting up his own platform or publication when he commands a cult following among local readers.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on May 3.

Translation by Frank Chen

[Chinese version 中文版]

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A famous Hong Kong writer; founder of the Hong Kong Economic Journal