Digital First or Print First ?

Translated by Joyce Ng

  Newspaper editors often have concerns about putting stories online before the print edition rolls off the press, fearing it would lower circulation the next day. But the time to stick to the print-first operation mode should is over, as two papers in Hong Kong are already riding the tide in different ways to keep, or even broaden, readership.

  A new wave of media reform was triggered when the international newspaper the Financial Times announced its “digital first” strategy in October. The FT said it would stop making incremental changes to multiple editions through the night. The print product would derive from the web offering. Effort would be made to enrich the print edition with data and graphics. Reporters would shift away from reactive news gathering to value-added“ news in context”and investigative journalism. The chief reporter called on editors and reporters to brace themselves for the changes.

  The press are also testing their digitalfirst strategies. Chow Chung-yan, chief news editor of the South China Morning Post, says his paper’s website does not always wait for the print edition to break stories. Notably, the scoop with U.S.intelligence leaker Edward Snowden was first published online, not in print, when Snowden came to Hong Kong in seek of refuge this year.

  “At that time we had two views in the newsroom,” Chow told The Journalist.“ One side was worried that putting all the stories online at night would affect circulation the next day and other newspapers would copy our materials immediately. The other side saw this as international news that would draw the largest audience in the United States. Reserving it for print the next daywould lower the stories’ impact,” he said.“After all, we don’t see the local Chinese press as our competitors.” Instead of hitting the circulation, the online-before-print decision raised it by 20 per cent the next day. Copies went out of stock. Chow found the Snowden stories online receiving a hitrate of 600 clicks per second.

  In view of the experience, Chow said the paper would continue to post some exclusive stories on the web before printing, especially China news, in order to draw more eyeballs from overseas. “Normally, most breaking news stories will go online first. We will reserve investigative works, especially those on local issues, for the print edition,” he said. The online desk has been given an editorial team independent of the print team.“ Online reporters are free to write fun stories, although those stories may not always go into print. For example, we had a colleague writing about a man in Guangzhou disguising his beloved turtle as a hamburger to try to smuggle it on the plane, which was very popular online.”

  Apple Daily has also set up a full team for online news. It has taken about 20 per cent of the staff from the Hong Kong desk,including the general news, court and crime teams, according to a reporter from that newspaper.“ Basically all the stories are put online first, except those interviews offered to a so-called selected‘ small group’ of newspapers,” he said. “In the case of scoops, the introduction of the stories are put online from 11pm.”

  The reporter points to the fact that a story usually receives a far higher hit-rate for the rougher online edition on the first day than the online edition the next day, which is what appeared in print and is developed with more details and analysis. There can be thousands, or tens of thousands, of clicks for the rougher version and just a few hundred clicks for the complete version the next day. “Even though the later version from the print edition is more in-depth,readers probably feel they already had a rough idea what happened the day before, and won’t bother to look again,” he said, adding that only the front page or major news enjoys a continuous high hit rate.

  A senior reporter from Apple says the hit rate has also affected editors’ decision in deciding which stories should be given more importance. “For instance, when you have five online briefs and you have
to choose three to be developed and put in print, we will pick those with a higher hit rate. When writing the stories, we’ll also take into account good online comments by our readers,” he said. But he stressed that
the hit rate is not necessarily the decisive factor. “Certain issues like human rights in rural China are always unpopular subjects that draw low rates. But colleagues report them all the same because, after all, these
are serious moral issues."