Hong Kong's Second Newspaper Gets a Second Wind

Hong Kong's perennially ailing Standard newspaper appears to have dug itself out of the grave and undergone another transformation. The newspaper is said by credible observers to be circulating 250,000 copies a day as Asia's biggest free English-language publication and, according to Irene Chan, the Standard's manager of business Development, is paying for itself.

Each morning, orange-jacketed elderly women stand on sidewalks downtown and on busy pedestrian overpasses, handing out hundreds of copies of the bright, splashy paper, which ranges from 40 up to 64 pages of general news, business and sports. It isn't quite up to the rip-roaring philosophy of a true tabloid yet ("Headless Body Found in Topless Bar") but it is a lot livelier than it used to be, with lots of red, orange and maroon on its pages and bearing headlines like "Lawmaker's Marriage Hits Rocky Road," the story of a local legislator whose wife is purportedly having an affair with a taxi driver, and "Designer Labels Lure Young Girls Into Prostitution," which hardly needs more than a headline to be understood.

For the first time since 2001, the newspaper paid a full one-month bonus to its employees in advance of the Lunar New Year. And, says a top executive for another major Hong Kong newspaper corporation, it appears to be making circulation inroads into the previously unassailable South China Morning Post, particularly the Post's street sales. The Post claims circulation of 100,000. The Standard is currently being audited by an independent agency to verify its circulation and a readership survey is being performed and is expected to be completed in March. Because the paper is being given away in business districts, says Standard executive editor Steve Shellum, its reader demographics are rising, a lure to advertisers.

Given the increasingly perilous situation for journalism both as a business and a profession, the question is what it means for Asia. Although across the region the newspaper business has remained relatively healthy, in Hong Kong television and newspapers lost a significant share of advertising spending to outdoor and interactive media in 2007, despite a 11.7 percent annual increase across the industry, according to AdManGo, the online library of advertising materials.

Hong Kong is one of the world's busiest places for newspapers, with 16 Chinese-language dailies and at least three major international English-language regional dailies competing against the South China Morning Post and The Standard. Along with several other cities across the region, Hong Kong already has several free mass-market dailies. There are four free Chinese-language tabloid dailies competing feverishly with each other for advertising and readers. They are Headline Daily, also owned by Sing Tao News Group, the parent of the Standard, as well as Metropolitan Daily, the Express Post, am730 and Epoch Times, the latter a house organ for the Falun Gong movement. The Standard is the first free English daily in Hong Kong, and one of the few anywhere in Asia.

Women clad in distinctive jackets bearing logos of the papers stand outside light-rail stations thrusting the papers at pedestrians to the point where some building staff have demanded that they take their papers elsewhere. (In Seoul, similar papers are given away with the morning commute and a small industry has grown up to collect and recycle the paper from the subways each morning.)

"Taking the free daily as a model, nobody is making any money," says a top executive of a newspaper group that doesn't have a free paper. "I know a couple of guys who are out of Metro (Metropolitan Daily) and they are glad to be out. The day you start doing okay, somebody else comes in. Advertising page rates are going down and down and down."

That The Standard still exists at all is surprising. It has been the bastard stepchild of the Sing Tao Newspaper Group for decades and its position as the second English-language paper in town has doomed it to go without classified advertising almost completely, and display advertising to a large measure. Born in 1949, the Hong Kong Tiger Standard was the English-language mouthpiece for Aw Boon Haw, the tycoon who built his fortune on Tiger Balm. It started life as a broadsheet, and has veered from identity to identity and management upheaval to management upheaval, often near death. In the late 19990s, Sally Aw, the daughter of the Tiger Balm tycoon, came perilously close to being arrested and charged for inflating circulation figures in order to attract advertisers.

In 2000, the paper was renamed the Hong Kong iMail, a name that only created confusion since it sounded like an technology organ but was really just a general news tabloid, before once again becoming The Standard after Sing Tao was sold to tobacco tycoon Charles Ho in 2002. That incarnation was billed as "Hong Kong's Business Newspaper," although it continued to print general news, with a heavy larding of business news. Its bread and butter advertising for decades was legal announcements required of companies by the Hong Kong Stock Exchange, which in the earlier part of this decade accounted for 90 percent of the newspaper's revenue. When the Hong Kong Stock Exchange removed the requirement in 2006 that notices be published by print publications and said they could be posted on the Internet, many observers thought it was doomed.

That turned out not to be true. "My understanding is that surprisingly they have held up enough of the tombstones, (the nickname for the company notices), so it's not the money drain they thought it would be," says the rival executive. Other ads make up a far bigger percentage of the paper than they used to. They aren't for Chopard and Rolex, but nonetheless, there are a healthy number of ads for financial services to go with local businesses.

The Standard went free in September as a stripped-down daily, to be distributed in Central and other commercial districts. The staff was reduced from 86 to fewer than 50, and lots of staffers decamped for the South China Morning Post, an exodus that began early in 2006 after one of the paper's perennial management shakeups. Gavin Coates, the cartoonist, was cashiered although "The World of Lily Wong," a popular local cartoon strip by Larry Feign, has reappeared. The acclaimed but expensive Weekend Standard magazine was abolished although the same cadre of hard-bitten Australian and English sub-editors who form the nucleus of the editing staff largely remains. Its sports section, always a draw, remains strong.

Says Lo Wing Hung, the Chief Executive Officer of Sing Tao News Group, the Standard's parent company, "We have changed the landscape. We have extended the market. There is lots of overlap, but actually we are getting a lot of new readers." Lo believes that going free has extended the English-language reading public in Hong Kong from about 150,000 readers to 250,000. "We do take a lot from the Morning Post, but that is not the true story." he says.

In the best of times prior to being a free paper, the Standard said it was circulating 40,000 copies daily but the real figure was a closely guarded figure. It included complimentary copies, copies of the Student Standard and copies sold at a bulk rate.

"Frankly, we are not yet to the break-even point," Lo said. "But the readership base has increased. At this point, it is very encouraging."

Disclaimer: The author was the Managing Editor of the The Standard from 2004 to 2006.