Tabloid Journalism Trumps Politics in Taiwan

Recently at the EastSouthWestNorth blog, I wrote: "On a slow news day, there is always the Apple Daily (Taiwan) front page story that can be counted to give a rise."  No truer words that those, for it is those front page headline news with colorful (especially bloody) photos that has catapulted Appled Daily in the leadership position among all Taiwan newspapers.  Here is the example that I used:

On this day, the headline said "Father tortures 10-year-old daughter; taken around with a dog leash."

 
The following illustrations and photographs make it unnecessary to offer too many words.
  

In the following, I have translated an article about the newspaper industry in Taiwan.  The article states that the strengths of Apple Daily is in fact lined up against the weaknesses of the competition.  Whereas Apple Daily practice a tabloid journalism that highlights scandals and celebrities, the traditional newspapers are often reticent about naming names (unless they are political opponents).  Whereas Apple Daily refuse to hold a fixed set of political positions, the traditional newspapers are often still beholden to party-government-corporate political machines.  Apple Daily has seized the initiative and shown the way.  Their strength is in the youth segment, which is interested in scandals and celebrities but no politics.  What can the competition do?  What else but even more outrageous tabloid journalism?

There is an interesting question about Apple Daily, because its success was clearly not guaranteed.  Apple Daily began in Hong Kong, and similarly rose from nowhere to near the top.  But it is not the top, and the traditional newspapers are doing fine.  In the previous post Newspaper Competition in Hong Kong, the following circulation figures were given for the top Hong Kong Chinese-language newspapers:

Newspaper group Flagship newspaper (circulation)
Oriental  Oriental Daily (~400,000)
The Sun (~75,000)
Next Media Apple Daily (340,000)
Sing Tao Sing Tao (40,000)
Ming Pao Enterprises Ming Pao (94,000)

Sing Tao and Ming Pao own the high-brow segment of the newpaper market.  For one, Sing Tao has built up an editorial product that dominates the real estate sector and therefore gets much more real estate advertisements than its circulation might suggest.  Apple Daily may have the larger circulation than Ming Pao and Sing Tao, but the latter two have more desirable demographics for certain types of advertisers.  Meanwhile, Oriental Daily re-positioned itself by running a form of tabloid journalism that is slightly higher than Apple Daily; meanwhile, it launched The Sun which positioned itself slightly below Apple Daily.  Trapped between the two, tabloid journalism would not be the basis for Apple Daily to seize a commanding position.  The other important difference of Hong Kong vs. Taiwan was that Oriental Daily, Sing Tao and Ming Pao did not have the political baggage like China Times, United Daily News and Liberty Times in Taiwan.  (Note: There are a couple of strongly political newspapers in Hong Kong, but nobody reads them except the diatribes for amusement or the occasional hatchet job on specific individuals or organizations)

The following is a translation of an article in the magazine New Taiwan (via Yahoo! News):

After the storm over the government evaluation of the cable television channels shook up the media industry in Taiwan, the reshuffling of media in Taiwan has taken yet another step.  Apart from the debate over the cable television channel licensing, the print media environment has also been changing without fanfare.  On July 29, Apple Daily quoted from a survey report by A.C. Nielsen in a large ad to proclaim that it has the highest readership in Taiwan, displacing former leader Liberty Times.

 

This is the first time that Apple Daily has beaten Liberty Times over the past few years.  Although the newspaper industry may still have some reservations about the reliability of the A.C. Nielsen study, the undeniable fact was that Apple Daily has shaken up the newspaper industry in Taiwan ever since it debuted in May 2003, especially with respect to the Hong Kong management style and the breaking news with the tendency towards "tabloid journalism, entertainment and nihilism."  These are precisely the attributes that have upset the Taiwan audience for the cable news channels and threw Taiwan media into chaos.

Although Apple Daily has landed in Taiwan for more than two years, it still spends a tremendous amount of human resources, editorial effort and money to publish the newspaper and it remains in the red almost every month.  There had even been rumors that the Apple Daily group was assessing the market conditions in Taiwan to see if it needed to halt operations because the financial conditions were so unfavorable.  These rumors went away soon.  According to the senior staff in Apple Daily, the losses have been stemmed and the newspaper has become profitable since June.  Although the profits are still smaller than the accumulated losses, at least the downward curve has been reversed.

Using "profitability" as the ultimate goal for running a newspaper is the most important reason why Apple Daily has become the most popular newspaper in Taiwan.  According to the A.C. Nielsen survey, Apple Daily led Taiwan in readership at 28% during the week of July 22 to July 29 and ahead of Liberty times.  During the same period, Liberty Times even went down by 0.2%.  These survey results have caused shock among the senior executives at Liberty Times and making them reflect.

A detailed analysis of the Apple Daily-versus-Liberty Times consumer markets showed that the differences occurred in certain age groups and between urban-rural areas.  Within the 30 to 34 age group, Apple Daily has 21.8% versus Liberty Times at 18%; within the 40 to 60 age group, Liberty Times is ahead.  In the metropolitan areas, Apple Daily leads at 21.2% and Liberty Times only leads in the smaller towns and villages.  Overall, the readership of Apple Daily is concentrated in the 12 to 39 age group, and that was the first time that Liberty Times got defeated in this group.

According to industry analysts, the traditional ecology of Taiwan newspapers has been thoroughly disrupted after Apple Daily entered the market two years ago.  The two traditional large newspapers -- United Daily News and China Times -- were completely beaten by Apple Daily and Liberty Times in this survey.  The "excellent tradition" of those two newspapers are slowly fading.  The measures taken by the two newspapers in terms of editorial improvements have proven to be totally effective, so that the youth advantage of Apple Daily will continue to hold in the future.

Since the investment from China for China Times has been controversial, the United Daily News group has shelved its plan to merge with Hong Kong's Oriental Daily in 2004.  This was quite a blow to the United Daily News group, whose profitability prospects are unclear.  With a huge staff, the United Daily News group will face a tremendous challenge from Apple Daily in the future.

Among the newspapers with local favor, Liberty Times is managed by a professional staff and has good financial backers and therefore it can be said to be steady.  Its English-language Taipei Times is also rumored to be profitable, but that is unconfirmed.  Another newspapers with a local favor is Taiwan Daily, which has been rumored to be in a financial crisis for the past six months.  It is questionable whether that newspaper can continue down its present path and it would be an important indicator whether a local newspaper can operate in the traditional style.

Grabbing the youth market is the objective of all the mainstream newspapers in Taiwan, and there is no doubt that Apple Daily has won the hearts of the young people.  In the developed western countries, tabloids and entertainment news normally attracts young people.  Generally speaking, young people do not like serious political and economic topics, especially long and difficult essays.  This is a common enough situation and should not surprise anyone.  The market satisfies various needs, and it is a sign of multi-diversity to have many different kinds of readers.  But the readership market in Taiwan is small, and it is difficult to sustain that healthy balance between quality and quantity that exists in the western or Japanese markets.

From the era of the White Terror, newspapers were subject to control for a long time.  The party-state system newspapers entered fully into the commercial market after the press controls were lifted.  Although there was a period of blossoming, the top management were still the same group of people who were produced by the party-state machine.  Even though the controls were removed, it did not lead to many different types of newspapers for readers to choose from.  The emphasis was still on the traditional format of newspapers produced by literary intellectuals as well as the tight linkage between politics and the traditional newspapers.

The newspaper industry in Taiwan had been almost always closely linked to politics, whether it was of the 'green' or 'blue' variety  Running a newspaper meant that it was impossible not to get deeply involved in politics.  Over the long term, the readers became thoroughly disgusted by any kind of political discourse.  Yet the newspaper executives were incapable of changing the political baggage.  This provided the space for Apple Daily to move into.

When Apple Daily first appeared, all the traditional newspapers in Taiwan were confident that it would fail under their combined assault.  The operating costs for Apple Daily were high, and they were encountering obstacles everywhere.  But Apple Daily used tabloid journalism and forced the traditional newspapers which have no idea how to handle the issues to follow through.  In fact, even the electronic media have to follow through.

Apple Daily satisfied the needs of the 24-hour-per-day cable television news channels because it had those shocking front page headlines.  The cable television news channels then had to follow through on those stories immediately in order to satisfy the aroused Apple Daily readers, and this in turn forced the other traditional newspapers to follow up on those stories too.  In military terms, Apple Daily was able to seize the initiative in the newspaper war.  On the battlefield, those armies which lose the initiative lose control and can only react to what the enemy is doing.  Their chances of victory are then slim.

Apple Daily first won the initiative by defining the discourse.  Then it was able to achieve a breakthrough in distribution.  The traditional newspapers had been able to gain an advantage because they had joint distribution arrangements.  But Apple Daily changed its strategy by having retail sales go through the convenience stores and they were very successful.  At first, readers did not change their habits and large quantities of Apple Daily were left unsold at the convenience stores.

Eventually, the success of the tabloid journalism meant that the Apple Daily stories were hot and created the habit for readers to purchase Apple Daily at convenience stores.  The readers even went to those sales points to pick up the newspapers, thus changing consumption patterns.  Apple Daily was able to use tabloid journalism to alter the reading habits of the traditional newspaper readers.  This model of retail first and subscription secondary was an astounding miracle in the Taiwan market.  The traditional newspapers which had looked down on Apple Daily now find their subscription markets shrinking, to the point where readers won't even take free deliveries.  This phenomenon showed the vast changes that are happening in the newspaper market in Taiwan.

But just because Apple Daily did not hold any obvious political position did not mean that the newspaper was neutral with respect to its readers.  This newspaper thinks "profit" first.  The most attractive part about Apple Daily is the editorial and art design, with lots of color photographs and news exposÚs about celebrities.  Strictly speaking, the people who make it onto the Apple Daily front page are almost all involved in some kind of 'scandal.'  This satisfies the general desire to peek into people's private lives.

Traditional newspapers carry economic and political baggage, and are ordinarily reluctant to publish news items that intrude upon personal privacy unless it was about political opponents.  But Apple Daily is only interested in making profit by any means, and is not afraid of upsetting or offending people.  This is very different from the traditional newspapers.  Whether the whole world accepts or rejects Apple Daily's conduct on moral and ethical grounds, that newspaper is certainly beloved by its many readers.

This type of news that is based upon uncovering personal secrets created the "nihilism" of Taiwan journalism.  The principal young readers are only interested in getting the latest tabloid scandals quickly and then discussing it with their peers for amusement, whereas serious political and economic themes are ignored.  The young readers are therefore led by the media viewpoints more than ever.  The principal readers of Apple Daily are more likely to be Internet users, have less ability to read or write long essays and follow others on important political, economic and social issues.  Such is the tragic price that Taiwan society had to pay when tabloid journalism landed to create a diversified and competitive market.

Overall, the vacuity and nihilism of Taiwan society towards political and economic discourse and the general lack of serious and logical discourse is not the responsibility of Apple Daily, but the consequence of the longstanding tradition of Taiwan media.  The traditional newspapers had been protected by the Nationalist party-government system while the journalists had been accustomed to working under that system.  These excessively protected media elite had no response to the new competition.  Lacking self-confidence, they flowed along with the 'latest' tabloid journalism, because they don't know how to re-think the media business from other angles.  In Japan and the western world, quality newspapers and tabloids co-exist, not only because the markets are large enough for both but also because the traditional journalists know how to compete commercially by offering the readers more diverse choices.

Taiwan society is moving into a monolithic vacuity.  Under the interaction between education and media, traditional newspapers are getting into worse shape.  The fact that Apple Daily became the leader in newspaper readership may be a temporary phenomenon but the impact on Liberty Times and all the print media in Taiwan is only beginning to take effect.

...

Liberty Times raises the banner "Taiwan Excellence, Liberty First" to defend Taiwan's local ideology and values but it has fallen behind Apple Daily slightly.  Does this means that tabloid trumps politics?  What will Liberty Times do next?  Can they reclaim the lead in the near future?

According to the A.C. Nielsen 2005 2nd Quarter (April-June) media survey, Apple Daily, China Times and United Daily News increased by 0.7%, 1.1% and 1.3% respectively over the first quarter while Liberty Press slipped by 0.2%.  This was how Apple Daily ended up leading the print media.

...

So what happened in the second quarter that caused Liberty Times readership to decrease even as the other three grew?  At the end of July and the beginning of August, Liberty Times has shown the distinct tendency towards letting society news take the lead.  Will this change help them fight back against the tabloid journalism of Apple Daily?

An informed source who is familiar with both the political and media environments said that Apple Daily took advantage of the unique confrontation between the 'blue' and 'green' camps and ended up with increased readership by sheer luck.  As soon as the political climate cools down, the other media that are more focused on politics and economics will bounce back.  By that time, it will be tough for Apple Daily to fight back with tabloid journalism against the mainstream media, and that is why people think that Liberty Times will win the leadership position back again before too long.

The slight slippage by Liberty Times has been given diametrically opposite readings.  From one point of view, the major events during the second quarter was the call by Hsieh Kuei-Kao for peaceful co-existence, the meeting of Chen Shui-bian and James Soong and the election of the national representatives.  In those times, Liberty Times followed the 'green' party line and they therefore severely criticized both co-existence and the Chen-Soong meeting.

At the critical moment of the May 14 election of national representatives, President Chen Shui-bian jumped into the firing line personally to fight the criticisms from the media.  In the end, the Democratic Progressive Party got 45.2% to become the leading party; among the favored blue camp, the Nationalist only got 38.92% and the People First Party got only 6.21% even behind than the 7.05% of the Taiwan Solidarity Union.  The fact that the pan-green camp got more votes that the pan-blue camp is a first in Taiwan election results, and indicates a structural change in Taiwan politics.

So the political situation has shifted and the pan-green camp has advanced.  But why did Liberty Times not only failed to gain but lagged behind in readership?  What is the reason?  Informed source said that during the second quarter (April-June), if Liberty Times had not moved towards a pan-green position and used its media leadership to move instead towards a centrist position with respect to co-existence and the Chen-Soong meeting, then maybe Liberty Times could have risen up instead.  This is obvious in terms of what was happening to China Times and United Daily News, because they were more positive towards co-existence and the Chen-Soong meeting and their readership rose.