A Newspaper War Looms in Hong Kong

Hong Kong’s publishers appear to be girding for what could be a disastrous circulation war, introducing Chinese-language free newspapers that are expected to deliver more copies daily than the entire working population of the territory.

Next Media, owned by tycoon Jimmy Lai, and Oriental Press Group are each expected to launch free newspapers over the coming weeks. Lai’s paper is expected to be called Sharp Daily, according to the marketing industry publication Marketing Daily HK.

Hong Kong is one of the most competitive newspaper cities on the planet, with at least 18 English and Chinese language papers, both international and domestic, being delivered daily, according to the website onlinenewspapers.com.

Three free Chinese-language dailies and one English-language daily, The Standard, have already been giving away more than 1.7 million copies daily over the last five years at subway entrances and on overpasses across the territory. That is expected to grow to as many as 4 million a day if all of the publishers follow through with their plans.

Hong Kong Economic Times started the current round with the announcement earlier this month that it would offer a free Chinese-language daily, Sky Post. The latest decisions, by two of Hong Kong’s most influential Chinese-language publishers, have ominous parallels to a circulation war fought out in London between Rupert Murdoch and Associated Newspapers, which along with General Trust publishes the Daily Mail.

Murdoch published The London Paper, the Daily Mail delivered London Lite. For two years, the two slugged it out, printing more than 400,000 copies apiece each weekday until 2009, when both folded with losses reckoned at £20 million pounds each annually. Both papers were criticized as an environmental disaster, since most readers glanced briefly at the contents and left their copies strewn about the city in vast numbers.

“Basically they were out to kill each other like it was no man’s land,” said a Hong Kong-based editor. “All sorts of dirty tricks were going on. It lasted for two years and cost a fortune and they both lost.”

There are questions over whether the free papers will cannibalize readers from the paid papers owned by each of the companies. Apple Daily, owned by Next Media, circulates nearly 294,000 paid copies daily, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulation. Oriental Daily News, though it does not appear in the ABC rankings, is thought to have a bigger circulation than Apple Daily.

Asked if the free papers might cut into paid circulation, Jennifer Ma, director of sales and marketing at AdmanGo, an ad monitoring company, said “It depends on how they do it. If they are able to provide other content, they could possibly expand the market.” AdmanGo estimates that the advertising market share for free newspapers has risen from 10 percent to 35 percent over the last five years as advertising agencies have grown more confident that readers of the free papers find them credible.

But, she said, “it definitely will be more competitive, with more players coming in. They are going against each other as well as against the paid papers.”

Apple Daily’s free paper is expected to be the biggest as it is believed to be readying a print run of 1 million copies a day, newspaper industry sources told Asia Sentinel. That compares to more than 800,000 already circulated by Headline Daily, owned by Sing Tao Newspaper Group Ltd., which has been publishing for five years. Am730 Media circulates 380,730 daily and Metro, published by the internationally-owned Metro International S.A. circulates 343,235.

Few of the papers provide much in-depth news, including The Standard. But advertisers love them. “The advertisers all want that reach,” an industry source said. “They want hundreds of thousands of readers.”

Shih Wing-ching, the chairman of am730 Media Limited, told Marketing Daily HK that it is likely the market will be forced to consolidate. "A live or die competitive is inevitable - our market is not big enough," Shih was quoted as saying.

The Sing Tao-owned Standard’s print run is 222,413 daily copies according to the Audit Bureau of Circulation, compared to perhaps 15,000 when the paper had a paid circulation. The Standard’s principal English-language competition is the South China Morning Post. Its circulation has been stagnating for several years against the onslaught of the free Standard. It is is credited with 93,488 paid sales daily by the ABC, against 102,102 copies sold five years ago. However, of that, only 36,366 are sold through news venders or by single copies. Single-copy sales have fallen from 38,831 in 2006. (The remainder is made up of sales of the Student Post, bulk sales and other promotional schemes.)