Change the key to survival in tough environment

Jackie Chan - Reporter 

[Apr 2013 - The Journalist] The circulation of this city’s free newspapers is truly massive. According to the Hong Kong Audit Bureau of Circulation (HKABC), five free Chinese newspapers -- Metro Daily, Headline Daily, am730, Sharp Daily and Sky Post – account for nearly three million copies each day.

This figure does not even take into account the circulation of Good News, the new Oriental Daily publication distributed every Friday, and The New Evening Post which hit the streets last August.

How does this leave the paid-for dailies? Is the cake large enough to be shared?

Jeff Lee Wing-hong, editor-in-chief of Metro Daily, says his foreign counterparts find it incredible when told about the total circulation of freebies in Hong Kong.

How do they survive?

The short answer: Innovate.

At Metro Daily, since about half a year ago, the front page has been revamped to give it poster-style look, with emphasis on info-graphics and figures. Few words go into this most important story on Page One.

Lee said the graphic-heavy design was meant to make the newspaper stand out among its peers. “It is difficult for readers to distinguish between different freebies when they walk by. Other than being unique and exclusive, this design can also catch eyeballs and tell the difference between us and our peers.”

The biggest impact of the re-design was seen on the Internet. The Metro Daily updates its latest front page every night on the social networking site Facebook, in which Lee observed success in attracting “likes” from the readers.

They have yet to bottom out

For example, the headline on January 3, about failed chief executive candidate Henry Tang Ying-yen making his first-ever public response to the illegal structures scandal surrounding Leung Chun-ying, attracted almost 200 “likes”.

Shih Wing-ching, am730 founder, agrees that change is the only way forward. Pointing out the growth in advertisement in free newspapers, indicating profitability ahead, he said the next step is to improve content and continue to eat away the market share of traditional paid-for newspapers.
“For the Oriental Daily and the Apple Daily, free newspapers amount to killing their own business. They are not earning much, if they are not already suffering losses. The pressure on them will only increase over time.”

Summing up, Shih said: “They have yet to bottom out.”

But it is not all song and dance for the freebies either.

“The market is saturated. It cannot go on feeding new players. When somebody new comes in, some current player has to be squeezed out,” says Shih.

But it does not necessarily imply the closure of some free dailies. Shih explains: “Some will reluctantly carry on, even at a loss.”