Has Spring Arrives for Journalists?

Mak Yin-ting - Chief Editor of The Journalist

2009 was winter for our journalists. But there are signs that the spring is on the way.

Affected by the financial turmoil sweeping across the world since the fall of 2008, advertising revenue for the media industry dropped dramatically, leading to cost cuts throughout the industry. The impact was first felt in Asia Television (ATV) which cut a dozen journalistic staff at the end of 2008. From there the layoff spread like the plague. Television Broadcast Ltd (TVB), Hong Kong Economic Times (HKET), South China Morning Post (SCMP) and Sing Pao cut staff ranging from several dozens to over four hundred. (See table 1).

Some media outlets did not lay off in significant numbers at one go; they did it bit by bit. Some took the so-called “natural drop out” way, which meant no replacement for those who left. A rough calculation by The Journalist shows that more than 1,000 media staffers were dispensed with last year. Naturally, those left behind have had to share the workload. 

Some media outlets imposed pay cuts to stand up to the challenges of the tsunami. Among them, HKET, Apple Daily, SCMP and Sing Tao Daily News had across- the-board cuts of between 3% and 5%.

HKET and SCMP were the hardest hit. Journalists in the two companies have to carry the extra workloads left behind by staff cuts and burdened with lower salaries.

Under these circumstances, the work burden on journalists increased dramatically and the quality of news was compromised. The most obvious sign was the decrease in investigative reporting.

It is good that the “winter” is leaving before any media outlet gets closed. Since last fall, there have been signs that Winter is subsiding. After a request by the Next Union, Apple Daily last October restored the salaries to the level of last Spring. Both SCMP and Sing Tao promised to resume the old salaries this month. In terms of recruitment, individual media recruited staff gradually, but the replacement is much less than the numbers laid off.  

Expert: Pay Rise Expected

As a matter of fact, with the improving economic situation, the media outlets should have bigger room to manoeuvre in terms of pay rises and staff recruitments. The employees deserve to share the fruits if and when the economy bounces back. And this can help to ease the work pressure on the frontline journalists and news quality will benefit, too.

The Journalist studies show that the half year report of some media outlets that are listed on the stock market show none of them got stained by red ink on their balance sheets, unlike those which half year report ending in June. Despite a drop in net income, profits of $400 million to $1,190-million are recorded (See table 2). It is shown that the situation of the media is not as bad as envisaged by the media. As Tsang Kam-keung pointed out while being interviewed by The Journalist, the pay cuts and layoffs were “excessive”.  

He predicted that there would be a jump in advertising revenue in Q4 of 2009. However, since the big drop of advertising revenue in early 2009 was so sharp the whole year’s revenue would still be 15% down in comparison with 2008. He also noted that 2008 was exceptionally good, benefiting especially from the Olympic Games, and thus not a good year for comparison. 

Mr. Tsang predicted that the economy will bounce back and advertising revenue will surge 5% to 10% compared to 2009. He concluded that employers have to have pay rise to get competitive staff or put the company’s competition at risk.

As far as The Journalist is concerned, a Chinese media outlet that cut staff and pay last year had suffered more because their journalists quit for a better pay elsewhere. For those who observe closely the quality of the newspapers has definitely changed.

As a smart management, will you propose a pay rise to reserve or recruit talents to be more competitive or wait until there are drops in quality and circulation and then go about mending the fence? Do I need to tell you what to do?