Free Newspapers in Hong Kong

[in translation]

The Content Styles of Free Newspapers in Hong Kong.  By Clement YK So (蘇鑰機 ) and Choi Chi-hou (蔡志厚 ).  RTHK Media Digest.  January 2006.

In April 2002, the first large free newspaper Metro in Hong Kong began distribution in the MTR stations.  On July 12, 2005, the Sing Tao Group introduced Headline Daily and Centaline Property Agency Chairman Shi Wing-ching invested in am 730 which appeared on July 30, 2005.  The three free newspapers have a combined circulation of about 1 million copies.  Quite a few commentators have discussed the impact of the free newspapers on the traditional newspaper industry, but few people have studied the contents of these free newspapers.  This article is intended to explore the contents, special characteristics and political positions of the free newspapers.

We selected the newspaper issues from November 28 to December 9 (Monday-Friday, for a total of 10 days) as the subject of analysis.  We measured the content and advertising pages within the free newspapers, and we counted the number of pages for various kinds of news.  We compared the language and presentation styles.  We also counted the advertisements by type.  We also analyzed the reports with respect to the political reform proposal.

All three free newspapers reported on the televised speech by Hong Kong SAR Chief Executive Donald Tsang, as well as the December 4 demonstration march, but they took different positions.  On these two controversial issues, Metro did not have an obvious political position.  In reporting the televised speech by Donald Tsang, the article basically did not contain any subjective opinions of the editors or reporters.  They just tried to have a neutral and balanced report with opinions from both sides.  The report on the demonstration march was also consistently neutral.

Headline Daily leaned towards supporting the government.  So when it reported on the televised speech of Donald Tsang, the article emphasized that universal suffrage is "just one step away."  It gave a huge amount of space to Donald Tsang's speech, but it only had several lines that briefly mentioned the reactions of the pan-democrats.  The December 2 Headline Daily editorial said: "Inciting the citizens to go into the streets ... creates a situation of opposition between the citizens and the central government and damages China-Hong Kong relationship.  The consequences are serious."  In the December 5 report on the demonstration march, the emphasis was placed upon Anson Chan and the dispute over the number of marchers, while the demands of the citizens were not reported as detailed as Metro had done.

The political position of am730 seemed to lean towards the pan-democratic camp.  On December 1, am730 treated Donald Tsang's televised speech as a headline article, but they gave a lot of space to the criticisms by two scholars.  The pro-government side got fewer than six lines.  In the December 5 report on the demonstration march, it pointed out the dispute over the number of marchers, but the headline was still "250,000 people in the streets."  The content was mainly about what happened at the march, Anson Chan marching and the demands of the demonstrators.  The opinions of the pro-government side and the central government were reported, but the space was less.

In summary, Metro, Headline Daily and am730 have political positions that seemed to be a mini-version of the paid newspapers in Hong Kong -- Metro leaned towards the neutral model of the elite newspapers; Headline Daily leaned towards the pro-government mass circulation titles; and am730 lean towards "Apple Daily."

The three free newspapers have distinctly different styles in their layouts.  The Metro layout style is closer to the traditional English-language newspaper, such as adding brief summaries of international, national and local news at the left of the front page.  On the front page, in the Hong Kong, China and international news pages, the pictures and the texts are completely separated.  Each page has its own color scheme, and the overall style of the newspaper is simple and solid.

Headline Daily has a style that is closer to the mass circulation newspapers.  The various pages have more in terms of color, lines and graphics, and the arrangement of the front page is close to that of Apple Daily.

am730 has a layout style that is between a newspaper and a magazine.  The layout  arrangement was influenced by Metro, and the content is set in framed rectangles.  Due to the limited amount of pages, there may be more than a dozen news items per page, and therefore the layout is arranged tightly.  The front page news often uses graphics in place of photographs.  This is a relaxed and fun-filled style and is close to the tabloids and local entertainment magazines, as if am730 is intentionally appealing to younger readers.

The contents of the free newspapers are similar to each other in structure.  They all used the traditional newspaper sections as reference, and established subjects such as Hong Kong news, China news, international news, sports, entertainment, finance and so on.

Metro emphasizes on presenting Hong Kong and international news, because it is looking for more knowledgeable readers who are interested in the global situation.  Headline Daily mainly provides Hong Kong news and entertainment information, because it is looking to attract middle-lower class readers, especially female readers who are interested in entertainment news.  am730 emphasized Hong Kong news, followed by entertainment news and international news.  Although it emphasized Hong Kong news, it is still quite even on other types of information.  Its sports, entertainment and supplement information is the most among the three free newspapers, so it is obviously trying to attract younger readers.

In terms of the arrangement of the content, Metro is basically following traditional newspapers.  The content is arranged in order of importance.  The hard Hong Kong, China, finance and international news are placed up front.  The entertainment, health and other soft news are placed in the rear.  Headline Daily used the double headliner setup: the first and last pages of the newspapers are both Headline Daily.  The first page offers Hong Kong news, whereas the last page is Headline Entertainment to provide interesting entertainment news to the readers.  am730 also chose Headline Daily' double headliner model: the first page is mainly Hong Kong news and the last page is known as amLIFE with either entertainment or sports news as the headline.

Metro is obviously following the route of an elite newspaper.  Its language is simple and solid, it rarely uses slang, even in the soft entertainment, health and readers' pages.  Also, Metro was the first to have an "simplified Chinese" page and an "English News Digest" for the students who often ride the MTR.

Headline Daily has a linguistic style similar to the mass circulation newspapers, with common sayings and slang in the articles and the choice of language is close to the masses.  Metro and am730 both have Letters and Readers' Page, but Headline Daily does not.  The amount of news presented by Headline Daily is the lowest among the three.

Since quite a few of the am730 employees had been hired away from Metro, am730 is similarly to Metro in many places.  When am730 selects the Headline Daily, it does not completely follow traditional journalistic rules.  A lot of times, it uses content that readers will find interesting or identifiable as the headline, such as "Three-year-high in job switching."  Another characteristics is that it has divided up the traditional supplement section of the traditional newspapers by having one or two columns on each topic section written by people who are knowledgeable in that area.  am730 also has "New technology" and "Women and health" sections to chase after young people who look for fashionable electronic products and female office workers.

The Headline Daily director said before that they have an independent team of 20 news workers that will work separately from Sing Tao Daily of the same news group.  So is Headline Daily just a summary of Sing Tao?  This article presents a preliminary analysis of the Hong Kong news and entertainment sections in the two.

We examined the Hong Kong news in Headline Daily and Sing Tao for four days.  We found that the former has about 20 or so Hong Kong news items on the average whereas the latter has 49 items.  The former has five exclusive items.  Most of the news reported in Headline Daily are also reported in Sing Tao, but the latter is more detailed than the former.  Headline Daily' exclusive stories are more likely to be sudden breaking stories, or more personal information such as "Sheung Wan shopping center establishes MTR special discounts."

Although the reports are similar, Sing Tao's target is mainly middle-class whereas Headline Daily is aiming for the middle-lower class.  In reporting on the same news story, they used different approaches.  This is shown when both newspapers featured Donald Tsang's televised speech as the front page cover on December 1.  Headline Daily' report contained personal opinions to inflame the reader emotions.  Although Sing Tao is more pro-government, it is not too subjective and emotional in treating the news.

In terms of the entertainment page, Headline Daily obviously borrowed a lot of Sing Tao content, especially the international entertainment news.  Many articles are identical in content but only different headlines.  So they must have come by copying-and-pasting from the Sing Tao report.  In other words, Headline Daily is not completely a summary of Sing Tao, but the former actually used a lot of information provided by the latter with some minor editing.

In the three free newspapers, advertisements account for 48% to 57% of the page space.  Overall, the ratio of content and advertisements is approximately equal.  The most frequent advertising clients for the free newspapers are: educational organizations, banking and financial services, computer and electronic product, retail businesses, travel and transport industries.  The three free newspapers have different sources of customers: Metro's principal advertising clients come from educational organizations, banking and financial services and retailers; Headline Daily' clients come from educational organizations, computer and electronic products and retailers; am730's clients come mainly from banking and financial services, computer and electronic products and educational organizations.

In summary, the three free newspapers have their own unique content and directions.  The overall style of Metro is close to the local elite newspapers, and its non-politicized news reporting helps it to maintain an objective and fair image, and its international news attracts the better educated readers.  Headline Daily follows the path of mass circulation newspapers, focusing on Hong Kong news and entertainment news that interest the masses.  With the backing of Sing Tao to provide news information, it has the ability to draw readers away from the mass circulation paid newspapers.  Although Headline Daily has the largest number of print copies among the three, it also has the least amount of content.  am730 is clearly going after the young office workers and students, and its content is the most complete among the three.  After competing for six months, the market positioning and image of the three newspapers are becoming more obvious.  They each have their own target readers.  If they can keep their own readers, the situation should be sustainable for quite some time.

Related Link:  Newspaper Competition in Hong Kong (7/24/2005)

(SCMP)  Free daily hopes to show profit in second quarter despite ads dip.  By Frederick Yeung.  January 27, 2006.

Hong Kong free daily am730 expects to record its first monthly profit some time in the second quarter, publisher and property agent Shih Wing-ching said yesterday.  One of three free dailies now circulated in the city, am730 hit the streets in July last year and has since accumulated losses of about $20 million.  Market leader among the give-away titles, Metro Publishing Hong Kong's Metro made its first monthly profit after 14 months of operation and is believed to have made a profit of $50 million in 2004.

However, Mr Shih said he believed his paper would record a full-month profit next quarter.  "Our advertising revenue covered about 80 per cent of our daily operating costs last month. Several days in November we even recorded a single-day profit," Mr Shih told the South China Morning Post.  Mr Shih said the paper needed 15 to 20 pages of advertisements per day to cover daily operating costs of about $300,000.  The first quarter of each year is the low season for the advertising market and Mr Shih said January advertising revenues had dropped from December. However, he hoped they would rise after Lunar New Year. 

According to Mr Shih, he and his team members have so far invested $50 million in the paper's start-up but this seed capital was now almost exhausted and fresh capital was required.  "The business is better than our expectations and I will inject another $50 million as a second phase investment for the paper," he said.

One challenge facing the paper was collecting its receivables, he added.  "The account receivables from advertising clients seem longer than expected. We take about six months to fully cover that part of revenue. This affects our daily cash flow."

Am730 is expected to raise its daily circulation to 300,000 copies when the advertising market picks up later this year.  The paper says it has secured big brand clients such as Dell Computer, HSBC, Hang Seng Bank, Wing Hang Bank and PCCW.  The paper has a daily circulation of about 270,000 copies, while Headline Daily and Metro have circulations of about 600,000 copies and 350,000 copies, respectively.

(SCMP via AsiaMediaLeading papers suffer as free dailies eat into ad budgets.  By Frederick Yeung.  July 27, 2006.

The latest survey of daily newspaper advertising spending by Nielsen Media Research will not make comforting reading for Hong Kong's circulation leaders, Oriental Daily News and Apple Daily.  

Figures for the first six months of this year tend to confirm the predictions of many in the industry that the three free dailies would steal an increasingly large chunk of revenue from the traditional papers.

Both the free papers and the Chinese-language quality dailies outpaced the average 8 per cent growth in Hong Kong newspaper advertising in the first half, according to Nielsen Media.

It said Oriental Daily News suffered a 10 per cent drop in advertising income to $2.02 billion in the first half compared with a year earlier and saw its market share decline to 24 per cent from 29 per cent. Apple Daily's advertising take fell 6 per cent to $1.24 billion in the first half and its share slipped about 2 percentage points to 14.9 per cent.

On a pre-discount basis, total newspaper advertising revenue in the first six months was $8.3 billion, versus $7.6 billion in the same period last year, the researchers said.

The three free sheets - Metro and upstarts Headline Daily and am730 - along with Ming Pao Daily News, Hong Kong Economic Times and Hong Kong Economic Journal, showed the fastest growth.

Nielsen Media also said advertising income at Oriental Press Group's The Sun soared more than 50 per cent to $549 million in the period, although it followed a price cut last October.

The Economic Times, buoyed by a spate of new share offerings in the first half, saw its advertising receipts climb 15 per cent to $1.09 billion, placing it third overall, while Ming Pao's advertising take grew 12 per cent to $589 million after it bulked up its business section to win a bigger share of bank and financial services spending. Both papers also benefited from the economic recovery, which brought in more luxury goods advertisements.

The trend for giveaways shows no signs of waning. The free sheets collected a combined $774 million or 10 per cent of all newspaper advertising dollars in the first half, according to Nielsen. Compare that with their combined $572 million of revenue or a 6.4 per cent share in the preceding six months.

Metro, the original free paper, retained its place atop the category with $342 million in advertising, up 8 per cent from a year earlier.

Its two competitors both debuted in July last year. Headline Daily, a member of the Sing Tao News stable, garnered $221 million in the first half of this year, a 90 per cent gain compared with the first six months of its existence. Am730, owned by property-agency magnate Shih Wing-ching, raked in $211 million, up 50 per cent from the previous half-year.

When it comes to dressing itself up as an advertising platform, few can compare with MTR Corp.

The underground railway system captured about 3 per cent of the local advertising budget last month amounting to $104 million, an increase of 35.9 per cent over the same period last year. The MTR is poised to overtake radio as the third-largest media platform in Hong Kong after print and television.

It has been helped by HSBC launching its Investment at Ease campaign on the platform screen doors of eight MTR stations, offering the latest stock market information as well as foreign exchange rates, gold prices and interbank interest rates.

In an extension of a previous campaign, the bank also invites several renowned financial analysts and scholars to comment on the local and global stock market scene.

"Our strategy is to capture passenger attention by creating the habit of receiving investment information as part of daily life," said Mary Choy, general manager of HSBC's creative agency JWT.

Additional Link: 免費報何止免費而已 Government Information Office