The Shih way of dominating the grassland

Phyllis Tsang - Editorial Board Member, The Journalist

[Apr 2013 - The Journalist] As the media bosses doled out pay hikes and bonuses early in the year the spotlight fell on am730 owner Shih Wing-ching. Showing unprecedented appreciation of his staff's contribution to the free tabloid's success, he apportioned the year's profits equally to shareholders, staff and further development of the company.

His sharing formula was 3-3-3 or in equal proportions of 30 percent of profits to shareholders, staff and company development.

This worked out to 15.6 months of salary for lower grades; 18 months for mi-level management and 22.6 months for senior management.

When it comes to wages and bonuses Shih has simply become legend.

Highly successful in property development before he ventured into the media world, Shih wants to prove that sharing profits with the staff is a winning proposition. He says: “Once you have shown that this is  better approach the competitors will follow.

“If a specie of grass is more dominant in the field eventually the whole place will be filled by this grass!”
As a result everyone in am730 benefits.  Not just the editors, columnists and reporters.  Right down to the “sisters” who hand out the paper at street corners.

“We have to make everyone – including those who hands out the newspapers – feel they are truly stakeholders of the company. You get what you have contributed, so you will make greater effort in the future,” said Shih.

Journalists can ask for better pay

The key to success for a free newspaper is its circulation volume. Shih said he gave red packets, worth $500 each, to the staff who hands out the newspapers – although they do not actually belong to his company, but actually worked for outsourced distributors.

“I go to barbeques with the distribution ladies and send them roses. They are very happy about it,” said Shih.
More importantly these occasions offer Shih a chance to spread his company messages, such as tips on distributing newspapers. “Before 9am, we should only hand out newspapers to those asking for a copy – they are the real readers. As the peak hour passes at 9 am, we should be more proactive in distributing the papers to the passersby,” said Shih. The company also seeks to boost morale by selecting “the best distributor” on a regular basis.

For the editorial staff, Shih recalled that juniors got around HK$10,000 and the pay rose to HK$30,000-plus for senior positions. But he admitted that the newspaper had once paid merely several thousands a month to newcomers.  “Around the minimum wage level or the salary of a messenger,” he says.
But he added that journalists can also fight for better salaries as long as “they are able to prove they have a unique style and value in the market”.

The media industry does not look rosy at least in terms of salary prospects. On the one hand, the number of journalism graduates from various local institutions has been on the rise, to …... this year. On the other hand, media organizations see business stagnating, impacted by the Internet and yet to find a new earning model. It is simply difficult for media practitioners to fight for higher wage increases.

But Shih believes capable journalists are capable of asking for a more decent pay, such as those who can master investigative reporting or specific editorial skills.

“[They can help] readers to view an issue from multiple, in-depth perspectives,” said Shih. “Instead of presenting stories in a simplistic and one-sided manner, or by magnifying sensational pictures of the corpses.”

Staffers on management board

Journalists' strong communication skills are desired by the society, in which the new generation is generally lacking because of the reliance on computers as the means of communication.

“Journalists are able to express views and explain issues, and then disseminate the information to the public. The society needs these skills,” said Shih.

But the media industry’s prospects have driven many of these people to private corporations to pursue a public relations career, which is “essentially different in nature” according to Shih. “As a reporter you seek to unmask the real face [of companies]. In private enterprises [as a public relations officer] you are the screw to put up the corporate packaging.”

However, Shih pointed out a cruel fact – the circulation of paid newspapers will keep sliding. “It makes paid newspapers less capable in paying more to the reporters,” said Shih.

Without growth in sales, the best the paid newspaper bosses can do is to maintain the status quo. Despite the meager rise, some bosses would even say: “Isn’t the rise pretty good? Just take a look at Sing Pao.”
As a boss, Shih recently discussed in his column the importance of sharing fruits with staff in releasing their power. He told The Journalist as members of the staff, reporters also have to fight for themselves – not only at the individual level but by forming trade unions.

His views deviate from the mainstream, in which bosses are scared of trade unions, and labour rights have a weak presence. Shih expressed support to giving a role to staff representative on the board of directors. He had made clear in Centaline Holdings, his property agency company, that the staff union – given a sufficiently large number of members – can send a delegate to sit on the board of directors. “Staff can also play a crucial role on the board, in terms of preventing monopoly of information and decision-making in development, of the senior management executives,” said Shih.