Freebies creating knowledge gap in society

Gillian Yau, Phyllis Tsang

[Nov 2011 - The Journalist] A war of the freebies has erupted. It came with the launch of Next Media's Sharp Daily in mid-September. There are now five Chinese and one English tabloids.

In 2002 there was only one free newspaper – Metro. In 2005 came HK Headline and am730. But the competition between them was not as serious as expected. It was not until three months ago, when Sky Post and Sharp Daily arrived, that the media industry began to see threats to paid newspapers.

Having six free newspapers in town is a record among cities. The circulation of free papers has reached 3 million while the paid newspaper’s combined circulation is 1 million. That means every two person in Hong Kong read one newspaper. It is a relatively high ratio compared with other countries. But does this mean the community benefits from this apparently stronger fourth estate?

Freebie readers do not have the same expectations as those who pay for their daily newspapers. Readers of paid newspapers generally look for content that fits in with their reading habits and interests. However, readers of free papers have no such expectations and do not complain much because they do not have to pay for anything. This has created a huge “readership” and a considerable amount of income from advertising.

Professor Clement So of the School of Journalism and Communication at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, has been following the development of the newspaper market over the past few years. He pointed out that some free newspapers were launched by paid newspaper enterprises merely for the sake of market share. He said Sing Tao Group's HK Headline, Hong Kong Economic Times' Sky Post and Next Media's Sharp Daily fell into this category.

Knowledge gap created

Thus free dailies like Metro and which have no back up of paid newspapers within their own stables are going to face more uncertainties in coming years, Prof So said. More changes within the newspaper industry can also be expected in coming years, Prof So added. But these changes will affect quantity rather than quality, though other changes were also in the offing.

While some media professionals are worried about the future of the industry, the influence of these freebies on society is generally ignored. Although the freebies circulate widely their role in societal change is not considered significant. It is not common for any of these freebies to run exclusive stories. Investigative reporting is totally unknown. These free newspapers solely provide basic information. There are some distinctive columns in several free newspapers, but they merely provide opinions. The front pages of these tabloids are usually taken up by advertisements.

The emergence of the free tabloid is usually understated. But a knowledge gap has formed inside our society because of their popularity, says Prof So. Those who did not read newspapers before have become readers of free newspapers which offer no insight other than simple reporting. Readers of paid newspapers, on the other hand, have reports with depth and analysis. The consequence is that the gap between readers of two different kinds of newspapers has widened. The number of newspaper readers has increased, but the understanding level of news and current affairs has become extremely divided.

The situation in other parts of the world is similar. Professor So said there might be differences in terms of style between free newspapers, but all of them are meant for the general population. It is the same in Europe. He expects there will be changes in the editorial position of some free newspapers in coming years, but they are not going to take over the market share of paid newspapers.

(Translated by Gillian Yau )