More Cuts at Hong Kong's Premier Paper

The South China Morning Post, one of Asia's biggest English-language dailies, laid off its award-winning multimedia team Thursday, hardly two weeks after it laid off more than 30 staff members as the newspaper's restructuring exercise continues, sources inside the paper said.

The multimedia team, which uploads video content, podcasts and other multimedia onto the Internet, appears to represent a significant turning away from a memo put out by Editor-in-Chief Reginald Chua at the time of the last round of layoffs, in which he said the paper must embrace new ways of doing things. Chua wasn't available for comment Thursday night although on Wednesday he told Asia Sentinel that he wasn't aware of further cuts.

At the time of its Dec. 29 cutbacks, the paper also laid off its entire Bangkok-based satellite editing team, which operated on a considerably cheaper basis than the main Hong Kong editing desk. However, sources inside the paper said, the move was made to bring all of its sub-editors into a single unit in Hong Kong.

The multimedia team was said to be a favorite of Group Managing Director and Chief Executive Kuok Hui Kwong. In last year's Society of Publishers in Asia prize competition, the team was cited for a story described as a "vivid example of how an Asian society such as Hong Kong's is often still torn between commercial modernity and political/cultural underdevelopment with regards to human and civil rights. At the same time, it is indeed an innovative form of news reporting for print media seeking a new business model."

But, said an executive with another newspaper in Hong Kong, "They weren't making any money." He described some of the cuts, such as ending the paper's Saturday education section, as a mistake. "Parents read that, it's where you get the stuff on the English Schools Foundation," he said.

It is questionable whether more layoffs are in the offing as the paper struggles to right itself under Chua, a former Asian Wall Street Journal editor who was appointed editor in chief of the paper last July.

"The bullets are still flying," said a well-placed Post sub-editor. The paper, which circulates about 100,000 copies daily – an estimated 35,000 of them in effect free -- is notoriously overstaffed even with the current cuts, the sub-editor said. Another local journalist described the layoffs as "death by a thousand cuts."

"The real problem is that there are too many people there who are doing nothing. Reporters are filing one story a week," one staffer said. "There are subs who handle one story a day. There are heads of departments who can't run their desks. There are editors who literally can't read or write."

For years, the paper, which in the 1990s was the richest in the world, had reached out to hire promising subs and reporters from The Standard, its cross-town rival, as a defensive measure just to keep The Standard in line. But nobody ever left the Post. The result, an editor inside the paper said, was that the Post was vastly bloated.

"At the Standard, there were 10 down-table sub-editors – five or ten to come out with a paper with the same size and quantity at the Post," said a source who has worked at both papers. " At the Post, there are 76 subs there. You could get rid of 40 of those supersubs. We have people going to business lunches, we have editors going on freebies, people going to Phuket, people who just get up and leave when their shift is over."

The top of the paper, Hong Kong's main English-language paper and one of the most influential in the region, has been beset by management chaos for years, with top editors rarely lasting more than two years. One former top-level editor who has since left the paper said that in his eight years there, he had served under six different editorial regimes involving nine different people who considered themselves in charge. The latest before Chua was CK Lau, who took over in mid-2007 and whose reign was viewed by newspaper-watchers as unnecessarily circumspect on political coverage. Its business coverage has also come under criticism for not being aggressive.

The SCMP's owners, the Kuok Group, which acquired it from Rupert Murdoch 17 years ago, have been regarded as wanting to improve it as a paper but at the same time determined to do what the local establishment and the Chinese government in Beijing have wanted. The result: repeated dissatisfaction with the newest appointment and an almost-immediate hunt for a replacement.

The Kuok family member driving decisions now is Kuok Hui Kwong, the sixth of Robert Kuok's eight children,* who took over from an older offspring, Kuok Koon Ean, 59. She was briefly an investment banker after graduating from Harvard. Kuok Koon Ean was viewed as intelligent but indecisive and more at home with the Kuoks' hotel and property businesses (mainly Shangri-la Hotels and Kerry Properties) than this awkward but rather public media outlet.

In the meantime, The Standard, which until recently has been an unwanted stepchild of the Sing Tao Group of Chinese-language publications, has ridden out the economic downturn surprisingly well. The paper, which went free, is given away by the thousands in the city, usually next to newspaper kiosks where the South China Morning Post is sold for HK$7 per copy, with the result that could be expected. An executive at the paper told Asia Sentinel that the next Audit Bureau report on the paper would show it is circulating 220,000 papers a day, with advertising providing the revenue to keep Sing Tao from eyeing it with the axe.

The Post, said the executive with another paper, "is frustrated. They are trying to cut costs, basically they are not sure what will happen. They have basically lost their mojo."

*Her place in the order of the Kuok children was misstated earlier. So was the rank of the SCMP among Asian dailies.

Disclaimer: John Berthelsen was once managing editor of The Standard.