The acquisition of the South China Morning Post has transformed the Hong Kong media landscape dramatically.
Once The Post represented the port city’s status as a place where West meets East. Today, the largest and most influential English-language publication in the Special Administrative Region is charting new territories.
Things now are running in a new direction for the South China Morning Post. The paper was founded by a veteran journalist and the son of an immigrant from Guangdong more than a century ago.
Its new owner since 2016 is called Alibaba, the Chinese e-commerce giant who set about transforming the struggling newspaper. They instituted sweeping reforms, dragging the paper into the digital era with new online editors and multi-media experts. The Post now operates out of a swanky new open-plan office complete with a company-branded craft beer in Hong Kong’s fashionable Times Square.
Executive vice chairman of the Alibaba Group Joseph Tai said the company would “use our technological expertise and our digital assets to distribute news in a way that has never been done before.”
As a graduate of a local journalism program and a long-time economics reporter, I have witnessed these changes at close hand. Here are three trends to watch for anyone dealing with the Hong Kong media, whether based in Kowloon or Kent.
1. Paywalls are slowly coming down
The Post was emblematic of local media in erecting a rather strict paywall 15 years ago. The company was reliant on newsstand sales and subscriptions to generate revenue, similar to many western news publications.
Alibaba had different plans. Shortly after buying the newspaper, the paywall came down and the website is now completely free to users on mobile and online. Readership trebled in a year. International readerships soared – there are now more Post readers in the United States than in Hong Kong.
But the shift towards free content is not yet universal. Two major Chinese-language newspapers, the Hong Kong Economic Journal and the Hong Kong Economic Times, maintain paywalls. Editors for these and other publications said they are exploring other revenue models and would consider partially or fully removing the paywall in the future.
Times editors have expanded online and social content and claimed last year that “investment in free daily and digital platforms was beginning to reap harvest.” These Chinese-language business papers often are less salient to international communicators, but critical in reaching parts of the local business audience – particularly high-net worth individuals in areas like real estate, shipping and logistics.
While reporters on these titles generally speak English, make sure to give plenty of preparation on both sides about the subject and content of the interview.
2. Taking a mainland approach
In a handover agreement with the British government, Hong Kong was promised a high degree of autonomy. More than two decades after the handover, the lines are starting to blur.
Local advocates and reporters have started to complain about increasing self-censorship around sensitive issues. The Post itself removed a critical column from a long-time contributor due to pressure nearly a day after it posted.
When dealing with the Hong Kong media, companies need to increasingly take into account the preferences and rules of greater China. Differences remain, however. The Post still does investigative journalism and runs opinion pieces that would not be tolerated on the mainland.
Mandarin fluency, both in the local population and with the increasing numbers of visitors over the border in Lo Wu, is on the rise. Hong Kong is increasingly home to mainland correspondents and Chinese newspapers. While Cantonese is still widely spoken, both languages and English are now commonly heard on the streets.
3. A million pieces
Hong Kong’s media market has long been caught in a cycle of consolidation and fragmentation.
When the Post started, it was just one of a half dozen English-language newspapers fighting for an audience in the low thousands. Now “traditional” media in print and online has to compete with blogs, social media and other outlets for news. Marketing and communications leaders must arm themselves with a deep understanding of every publication or outlet that matters to their audience.
Questions about journalist relationships in Hong Kong go far beyond circulation and language. In a place where global and local voices merge, speaking to a particular audience matters more here than nearly everywhere else.
This is a time of change in the Hong Kong media world. Alibaba’s desire to use The Post to build the first world-class English-language Chinese newsbrand has been a catalyst for many others to reconsider and realign their coverage models. Local residents and visitors alike would be advised to pay close attention to how things shake out.
Michelle Kwok is a Senior Account Manager at Cognito in Hong Kong