Stories About Apple Daily

It is common to just sit down and dismiss Apple Daily in Hong Kong and Taiwan as a 'rag' filled with 'lies.'  That is missing the point.  The point is that this 'lying rag' happens to the among the market leaders in both Hong Kong and Taiwan.  Either Apple Daily is doing something right, or else its readers are doing something wrong.  The quote from the first story is: "To study the democratic development in Hong Kong and Taiwan, one must study Apple Daily."

(Yazhou Zhoukan)  Observing Hong Kong-Taiwan Democratic Progress Through Media Culture.  By Woo Yanwai.  February 26, 2006.

[in translation]

Freedom of expression and press are the cornerstones of democracy, and the development of democracy in Hong Kong and Taiwan has created a freer and more open space for expression.  Apple Daily is the biggest winner when the free space for press was expanded in Hong Kong and Taiwan, and this also reflected the evolution of social values in Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Even as democracy developed under the market economy, Hong Kong and Taiwan societies are facing a decline in cultural spirit.  Behind each successful media organization there must be a certain value or ideology.  Apple Daily is a newspaper with a strong individual style, and its boss Jimmy Lai is the soul behind this style.  Apple Daily uses a crisp and clean layout design, inflammatory headlines and paparazzi-style news gathering methods to attract readers.  It is a media product that is a tabloid in the core dressed up in a middle-class candy coat.  Is the success of Apple Daily in Hong Kong and Taiwan the progress of democracy?  Or the decline of humanistic spirit?  Or the manifestation of cultural diversity?

The New York Times represents liberalism in the United States.  The Washington Post represents conservatives in the United States.  What does Apple Daily represent?  In Hong Kong, Apple Daily became the representative of the democratic movement.  In Taiwan, Apple Daily is the hero in exposing scandals among Taiwan political power holders.  What is the difference in editorial direction and content between Apple Daily versus the New York Times and the Washington Post?  Why do those traditional newspapers in Hong Kong and Taiwan (such as Ming Pao, Hong Kong Economic Journal, China Times, United Daily) that are closer in editorial style to the New York Times and the Washington Post seem to be ageing in a more democratic and freer social environment?

On the other side, how come the New York Times and the Washington Post know how to regenerate themselves with new generations of editors and reporters emerging?  In Hong Kong and Taiwan, the number of editors and veteran reporters is getting fewer and fewer, and the number of articles and the quality of the work are unsustainable.  If there is not a wholesome team of legal workers, can the quality of rule of law be sustained?  When the quality of the reporters, writers and editors cannot be sustained, who is going to defend the freedom of press?  Did a tabloid such as Apple Daily achieve such a huge influence because the readers made it so?  Or because it was the personal accomplishment of Jimmy Lai?  Or because it reflects the spiritual face of the Chinese  people of this generation?

The nature of a tabloid is to hype things up, to hate people who are rich and to despise people who are poor, to manufacture opposition and hatred, to play word games and to magnify human frailty, cynicism and conspiracy theories.  Can a society whose opinions are led by a tabloid reflect the triumph of freedom of expression?  Or the birth of fascistic democracy?  On February 2, 2006, Hong Kong's Apple Daily reported on the front page about a Hong Kong tour group encountering a traffic accident in Egypt with many casualties.  The headline was: "Three Hong Kong groups in Egypt went past without offering assistance; the wounded tourist complained in tears that Hong Kong people are cold-blooded."  The words for "Hong Kong people are cold-blooded" were extra-large.  But the content of the report does not support the conclusion in the headline that "Hong Kong people are cold-blooded."  All it did was to quote the words of a principal, and there was no in-depth attempt to verify the reliability of the statement.  This is the typical method by which tabloids hype up news through presenting the conclusion first and then end up with nothing definitive.

In recent years, the Apple Daily-style media culture has turned news into a creative art.  There is not much difference between entertainment news and so-called mainstream news.  The Apple Daily-style news is a type of news that sets up hatred and opposition, and this style has slowly become the mainstream in Hong Kong and Taiwan media.  How can a society under this kind of media culture develop normally in a diversified way?  When the future democratic development in Hong Kong and Taiwan has lost the humanistic spirit, what kind of democratic politics will result?  Should we blame Jimmy Lai?  This is a chicken-and-egg question about whether the times created the hero or the hero created the times.

In recent years, it is fashionable to talk about basing everything upon the people.  But can a society without a humanistic spirit be based upon the people?  Jimmy Lai and Stephen Chow are immensely popular.  Is that the expectant response by the Chinese people to the transformation of democracy, or have we lost the ability to respect tradition and propagate tradition?  Jimmy Lai has often said that he likes to read Economist, but would he publish a magazine like Economist?

Taiwan is luckier than Hong Kong.  Apple Daily is influential there, but it is not dominating.  Taiwan newspapers have not all become like Apple Daily, as there are newspapers and magazines that still have the humanistic spirit.  Taiwan has its own cultural anti-body, but the situation in Hong Kong is one-sided.  In Hong Kong, they are all like Apple Daily.  They don't pay any attention to grooming and educating reporters.  More reporters quit and fewer veteran reporters remain.  The art of in-depth investigative reporting in Hong Kong has vanished.

Without a wholesome professional reporter system and ecology, freedom of press is just an absurdity.  This is the difficult situation faced by Hong Kong media.  A free news environment without professional ethical standards and in-depth analysis and study is sometimes even more "frightening" than more conservative or even totalitarian systems.  The frightening thing is that everybody has lost the ability to think and debate.  We think that if we shout slogans about freedom of press every day, then freedom of press will automatically appear.  To study the democratic development in Hong Kong and Taiwan, one must study Apple Daily.  Apple Daily reminds us that our democracy is more than just casting a vote, because there are many other factors that we have to consider and strive for.

(Next Weekly, issue #832, page 142-143)  Jimmy Lai.  February 16, 2006.

[in translation]

... Our business in Taiwan is exceptional.  The magazine as well as the newspaper both lead in sales.  The sales price for Apple Daily (Taiwan) is not only highest in Taiwan (NT$15 compared to NT$10 for its competitors), but the sale figure is the highest too.  This proves that our readers are largest in numbers as well as consumer power.  For advertisers, these two strong points of Apple Daily (Taiwan) gave them an unmatched marketing channel.  I am proud of the accomplishments of Apple Daily (Taiwan) and I am proud of Ip Yut-kin and his colleagues.

Last June, the research by A.C. Nielsen showed that Apple Daily (Taiwan) was the winner in sales in Taiwan.  At the time, Apple Daily (Taiwan) was sold at NT$10 like its competitors.  Two months later, I told the colleagues at Apple Daily (Taiwan) to raise the sales price to NT$15.  At the time, they all opposed my proposal and even Ip Yut-kin was against it privately.

I absolutely understand why they think so: they had worked so hard to rise up to the number one spot in sales and the newspaper is profitable.  So why take the risk?  If the competition does not follow suit, then how could it not affect our sales?  What happens if we can no longer keep the number one spot in sales?  A newspaper makes money through advertising.  Raising the sales price by NT$5 does not help the profit line much.  The number one spot was not won easily, so one should not be hasty.

I understand their thinking.  But as far as I am concerned, the most expensive and most widely circulated newspapers offers the advertisers a hitherto unseen marketing channel, and I longed for that.  This absolute advantage is just too attractive and I did not want to miss out on this opportunity.  So I told my Taiwan colleagues: "Don't worry.  If the sales plummet after the price increase and I don't see any hope of keeping the price level at NT$15, I will return to the old price again."  When they heard me say that, they finally agreed to let this mad man make the bet.  Now, the sales figures for Apple Daily (Taiwan) is far higher than the competition and I can finally breathe a sigh of relief.

The results at Apple Daily (Taiwan) are exceptional, but I know that there is never a moment of rest in business.  Apple Daily (Hong Kong) is facing a serious challenge.  Prior to the appearance of the free newspapers, about a million newspapers were sold in Hong Kong every day.  Today, there are a million free newspapers given out every day.  How can the paid newspaper continue?

Recently, The Sun reduced its sales price from HK$6 to HK$3, and this was another blow to us.  The daily sales figures for Apple Daily (Hong Kong) has dropped from 360,000 to 310,000 or so.  We are lucky to be able to sustain this level, and these results would not be possible without the talents and hard work of Tung Chiao and his colleagues.

I am confident that Apple Daily (Hong Kong) has the ability to overcome the challenges from this highly competitive environment.  The market is not a zero-sum game.  It is not as if the presence of free newspapers will cause the paid newspapers to die off.  The market is a place for new creations, and the more competitive the environment, the higher the fighting spirit and creativity.

There is an infinite number of free news sources on the Internet.  If the news information business is won by sheer quantity, then the paid newspapers should have been swamped much earlier before the free newspapers ever appeared.  Operationally, the paid newspapers in Hong Kong are undoubtedly facing a lot of pressure.  This is just a necessary phase in the adaptation and improvement process.  This is not a hopeless dead-end.  The question is what we should do to overcome the current difficulties.

As I see it, the only solution is to reform -- to change our operational methods to fit the new competitive environment and to create more value for our readers and advertisers. ...

But I am more concerned that some of the Apple Daily (Hong Kong) colleagues are resisting the essential reforms; they tell me all day that "I feel that something is not right," "I don't think that we should act hastily until everything has been thoroughly thought through ..." and other ambiguous, abstract excuses.  I know that reforming past habits is as difficult as a junkie getting off a drug habit, but we have no other choice.

Dear colleagues, please put aside your prejudices and face the challenge of the moment.  Do not be afraid to make mistakes.  If it is wrong, we can correct it.  We will keep trying until we succeed.  Okay?  I will not give up reform.  Please do not resist.  Okay?

(Jimmy Lai in Next Weekly, via 连岳的第八大洲)

[in translation]

When Taiwan Apple Daily was first started, the network of distributors who delivered newspaper to homes boycotted us and refused to distribute our newspapers.  When I learned about that, I laughed and I did not even think about negotiating with them and beg for their mercy.  At the time, I thought that the boycott would stimulate the morale of my colleagues and made us even more combattive and enthusiastic in starting our buseinss.  Actually, delivering newspapers to people's home was really not "our cup of tea."  I did not want their help, so they were over-reacting.

When newpspapers are delivered to the homes, two problems appear and they are both fatal to the newspaper business.  First, the newspaper business people have a fixed number of subscribers and they don't have to worry about selling the newspapers in stores.  So do they have the need to spend their efforts in coming up with content that satisfy their readers?  Would they spend their effort to come up with newspaper headlines that attract their readers to purchase the newspaper?  Second, no matter what the headline news is, the subscriber has already paid the money to purchase the newspapers.  Therefore, they are a group of passive readers.  It does not matter if this is a group of working people who ought to care about news because they don't have to make the decision to buy the newspaper.  There are times when they don't want to read the news, so at those moments how could they not be indifferent to the newspaper and the advertisements within?  Those subscribers who stay at home may not be the active members of society, and so they are not active consumers.  What is the use of these passive readers for advertisers?

Therefore, when I started Apple Daily in Taiwan, I told the colleagues from the beginning that we want to create a retail newspaper, as opposed to a subscriber newspaper.  We want to create a newspaper that belonged to the consumers.  We targeted those readers who will look at the headline of the day, assess their own feelings of the day and then make the decision to buy the newspaper or not.  This type of reader is someone who really cares about what happens around him as well as an active reader which is the marketing target of the advertisers.

Conversely, the passive reader who stays at home and is relatively inactive does not bring value to the advertisers.  For us, the passive readers are a burden and a cost, because it is a money-losing proposition to have a business based upon selling the newspaper copies alone.  It does not matter how big the group of passive readers are, because they will not bring value to the advertisers.  So we simply will not sell the newspaper to them -- the bigger a money-losing business is, the more money is lost.

The goal of a newspaper is to satisfy the needs of the readers, and also to satisfy the needs of the advertisers.  I started this newspaper not to obtain political influence, or establish my authority, or derive other kinds of interest.  Therefore, we pursue those involved and particpating news readers, because only they are the active consumers.