Dispatches from Hong Kong, Part 1: The Page One Challenge

Front page of today’s South China Morning Post for Wednesday, July 21

Perhaps no Hong Kong newspaper faces a greater daily challenge than the South China Morning Post, which has been bringing news of Hong Kong and China to its readers, in English, since 1903. During its history, the SCMP has been owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation and is now owned by Malaysian tycoon Robert Kuok’s Kerry Media.

The SCMP is one of two English language dailies here. The other one is The Standard, which has free distribution. The locals tell me that the South China Morning Post was always perceived as being independent during colonial times, while The Standard was seen as pro-Beijing. Whether those notions still matter is a question for the marketing guys to study.

What makes it challenging for editors here, however, is to decide what mix of stories lands on the newspaper, and, specifically on Page One. “Hong Kong readers are very much interested only in what happens in Hong Kong. And there are plenty of good local stories to keep them satisfied,“ says Reg Chua, editor of the SCMP. “At the South China Morning Post we see our role as a dual one, to provide all the Hong Kong stories we can, but also to offer the larger view of China, while providing a good mix of international news of interest to our ex pat readership.“

Press kiosks here do not display the newspapers very prominently. In fact, as I pass newspaper stands, I see plastic covers over the newspapers, not allowing for sampling of headlines. Yet, a lot of the newspaper sales happen on the street.

For the SCMP, with its classic, elegant design and smallish headlines, the job of selling much above the fold is difficult. Today’s front page, however, shows a variety of topics and images. The style is that of any English-language westernized newspaper, and the visual competition of the Chinese-language newspapers around it, is tough.

Front page of the South China Morning Post, the leading English-language daily in Hong Kong

The Standard’s front page: the other English-language daily of Hong Kong, and distributed free

Readers line up at 7 am to get a copy of the free, English-language The Standard

The view outside my window Monday morning in Hong Kong

Hong Kong’s colorful broadsheet: Apple Daily

The Hong Kong newspaper scene is definitely a crowded one—so are the streets and highways of this exciting place with the breathtaking views. And finding a parking spot here is, well, mostly out of the question.

With 17 newspapers out in the streets each day, the Hong Kong story has plenty of journalists echoing it. Like the city itself, these newspapers represent a large variety of styles, but perhaps none as colorful as the Apple Daily , a broadsheet that sings the high notes of a happy tabloid, reminiscent of Germany’s Bild Zeitung.

The way newspapers are consumed here could be the envy of editors and publishers in many parts of the world.

Newspaper facts in Hong Kong

Hong Kong population: 7 million
Number of copies of newspapers printed daily: 2.7 million and, as one circulation manager put it to me today, “still growing”.
Free newspapers: 3, with a total of 1.1 million copies printed and distributed
Average time readers spend on their daily newspaper: 40 minutes Monday-Friday (high by global standards)
Language: 88% of the newspapers are published in Chinese, 12% in English

The freely distributed newspapers are along bus and train routes, as well as in the entrances to the heavily populated ferries. See my photo above of potential readers lining up to get their copy of The Standard. However, as one local editor put it to me, “many of them simply wish to get a copy to recycle it and get money for it. It is big business here.“

Some curious observations:

Comic book style: Editors of some of the dailies here, especially the Chinese language ones, are not intimidated by lack of photography to accompany their stories. When photos are not there, they turn to illustrations for any story, using what I would describe as comic book style for illustrations.

It’s all about Hong Kong: With few exceptions, the newspapers here are totally concerned with Hong Kong news, especially murder, violence, and mayhem, and have much less interest in what happens in China or the rest of the world.

Luxury in the midst of chaos: While the look of many of the Chinese language dailies is what one would call downmarket, that does not keep the advertising departments from selling to luxury brands that would never be associated with such publications elsewhere.

As my work brings me here, I’ll continue to report on my observations and findings through next week.

**Mario’s posts courtesy of TheMarioBlog.

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