Hong Kong Media At Crossroads

The starting point is an announcement by Rebecca Mackinnon on Moving to Hong Kong in January!

... In January I will be joining the faculty of the Journalism and Media Studies Centre at the University of Hong Kong, where I will be responsible for teaching "New Media," among other things. ...

I look forward to helping journalism students figure out what skills they need - not just technical, but ethical and intellectual - to lead their profession into new uncharted territory. Clearly the question of where journalism is headed, what students ought to be taught, and whether journalism schools remain relevant (if they ever were) is subject to much heated debate. ...

I myself have questioned the point of journalism schools, and have written about the need to re-think journalism education. But I do believe that while the emergence of citizens' media is exciting, important, and ought to be supported, the news business and journalism as a profession must also find a way to survive. Democracy is not possible without informed public discourse. That discourse, I believe, can be best served by a combination of professional journalism as well as journalism performed by concerned citizens. I look forward to challenging my students to think about how they as professionals can best serve this public discourse - and how they can work collaboratively with concerned citizens who have other day jobs but who are for the most part eager to contribute to the cause of a better informed public. 

The real threat to journalism does not come from amateurs: the real threat to journalism comes from information monopolies, propaganda, lies, censorship, surveillance, and ignorance. Journalists (and journalism professors) should spend more time fighting those true threats rather than wasting time arguing about whose journalism is more legitimate.

Here I will switch to a recent landmark of sorts in the Hong Kong media landscape.  It was reported that the newspaper Hong Kong Economic Journal is ready to be sold to Richard Li (son of Asia's richest man Li Ka-shing) for HK$280 million, and this deal is done except for ironing out the details.  The Hong Kong Economic Journal is regarded as the last example in the outstanding Chinese tradition of intellectuals as newspapermen.  Whereas most newspapers around the world are run as business enterprises or propaganda tools, Chinese intellectuals have a tradition of running newspaper in order to inform and influence the public.

Thus, in Extraordinary Chinese Sayings, 1840-1999, I translated classical examples such as:

In May 1941, Ta Kung Pao received an award from the University of Missouri School of Journalism.  This is a globally recognized award.  In the declaration from the newspaper staff, Zhang Jiluan (张季鸾) wrote: "Chinese newspapers are different from those in other countries in one way.  That is, the newspapers in other countries are corporate enterprises whereas Chinese newspapers are basically about intellectuals engaged in politics as opposed to being pure corporate enterprises.  On this point, one can say that China is backwards, but this can also be said to be a unique Chinese characteristic."


In early 1947, Xu Zhucheng (徐铸成) rejected the Nationalist government's proposal for investing 1 billion yuan to gain controlling interest in his Wen Wei Po newspaper.  Right in front of Nationalist bigwigs Chen Lifu (陈立夫), Wu Guozhen (吴国桢), Xuan Tiewu 宣铁吾), Pan Gongzhan (潘公展) and others, he said: "Wen Wei Po was brought up with my ink" and "I will not accept subsidies or politically motivated investments from anybody."  At the end of the conversation, the Shanghai Military Police Headquarters Commander Xuan Tiewu said: "I admire you.  Frankly speaking, I had thought that you were a Communist.  But after listening to you, I now know that you a warm-hearted patriot.  It was not easy for you to take your position today.  I, Xuan Tiewu, am sorry for having shut Wen Wei Po down for seven days previously.  From here on, no matter how you criticize us, if I take any more action again, then I must not have not been brought as a human being."  Xu Zhucheng said, "There is no need to exaggerate the case.  I am just running a newspaper in accordance with my conscience."

So does the sale of Hong Kong Economic Journal mean that genuine journalism in Hong Kong is dead as a result of "information monopolies, propaganda, lies, censorship, surveillance, and ignorance," as Rebecca Mackinnon suggests?

Such was the eulogy paid to the late and great Hong Kong Economic Journal by 徐承恩 in the essay 政事成因: 哀文人辦報之終結 published in Ming Pao (via InMediaHK) on July 31, 2006.

(in translation)

According to the previous generation of believers in diversity, when different media compete in the marketplace, the flow of information is enhanced and the media can then become the monitors of those in power.  In order to please their audiences, the media need to provide richer and more accurate information in the quickest time in order to avoid being eliminated in competition.  In the end, the public can get the information to understand the major events in society and monitor the actions of those in power in order to exercise their citizen rights to participate in society.

But when the media operate according to business logic, they become removed from the ideals of the believers in diversity.  Rich and accurate information do not necessarily earn money.  Whether the media can earn money or not does not depend on their news reports bringing social progress or elevating culture.  The most important thing is the media audience level.  Complex discussions or ideas that challenge commonsense may be valuable social assets in the long run, but they are often unpopular in the short run.  If the media need to obtain a return in investment in the short run, they need to be as simple as possible and avoid too much criticisms.  While this may suit the tastes of the audience, it damages the citizens' right to know.

Besides, the readers are not the sole source of income for the media, as advertising revenue is at least as important.  If the media were genuine businesses, they would need to please the advertising clients and avoid criticizing them too much.  But these clients are often the powerful people in high places.  In Hong Kong, it has happened that a financial group withdrew all its advertisements from a media company on account of unfavorable reports.  Under such economic pressures, the media often do not dare to become a monitoring system on behalf of the citizens.

Furthermore, when the media becomes an organization within a financial group, it will lead to a homogenization of their directions.  Even if they have different reporting approaches, they will at least filter out reports that diverge from the views of the financial group.  The voices that are consistent with the Central values will take over most of the space in the media.  For example, at last year's WTO conference, most of the media adopted viewpoints close to the system or neo-liberalism.  The moderate media regarded the anti-WTO demonstrators as decent people doing the wrong things.  Other media characterized them as oddballs.  Most of the mainstream media would not adopt leftist viewpoints such as dependence theory as the basis for analysis.  Media which work under financial groups would prevent certain social topics from appearing, in what American political scientist Elmer Eric Schattschneider called the "mobilization of bias."

Some commentators may say that the regions with the richest amount of media information and the most powerful media oversight are dominated by financial interest groups.  Therefore, my worries are unfounded.

I am not going to deny that the places where the media empower the citizens the most are where the financial groups operate media organizations.  But the media there own the traditional ethics of professional journalism.  The professional journalists are strong and they monitor the conduct of their colleagues on one hand and they can maintain editorial independence on the other hand.  It is a common value among these professional journalists to uncover the truth for the citizens and monitor the powers that be.  Under these circumstances, foreign media can have outspoken journalists like Edward R. Murrow who ignored the market and was unafraid of the powerful.

But Hong Kong does not have that deep tradition.  The news workers here are weak in front of their bosses.  In the incidents of the six gentlemen of Asia TV and the more recent Commercial Radio firings, any frontline worker will be dismissed if they offend their media bosses.  Under these circumstances, we need to be concerned about the monopolization of media by the financial interests groups.

The era of intellectuals publishing newspapers is over.  But Hong Kong still have several newspapers that are the legacies of the era of intellectuals publishing newspapers.  This may be the final twilight of Hong Kong media.  Will these legacies vanish due to the financial interest groups?  Can these legacy newspapers survive in the present competitive environment?  For those friends who care about Hong Kong media, these questions are far more important than whether a certain newsweekly magazine exhibited some naughty body parts, or whether a certain newspaper printed some vulgar words.

However, all this not lost because in the Chinese language, it is well-known that the word for 'crisis' also contains 'opportunity' in the 'danger.'  The preceding essay is logically complimented by the Letters from China blog's recent post 文人辦報 文人辦博.  The title of the blog post says that while the era of intellectuals publishing newspapers may be over, there is a new era of intellectuals publishing blogs!

Indeed, when Hong Kong Economic Journal's columnist Kong Shaolin (孔少林) wrote the final edition of his popular column 原是物語 last week, he subtitled it: "You can be Kong Shaolin too!" and he listed some Hong Kong bloggers as his sources of inspiration:

聞見思錄: 博客觀事入微,資料十足,文筆流暢,照片醒神,在本港博落界知名度頗高。


中环博客:「中環博客」專欄已成為《AM 730》主打,廣受中環人注視。《AM 730》各位朋友︰首個目標已在望,努力!

It is as if Kong Shaolin was telling his readers: "I will no longer be around for you, but you can read these blogs because they are every bit as interesting and informative!  And if you want to, you can start your own blog and be like me too!"

A year ago, nothing of the sort could have happened.  Let me retrieve the following posts from just over a year ago:

- Hong Kong Blogosphere Up In Arms (May 2, 2005)
- Weblogs as Online Diaries (May 5, 2005)
- Blog is Blog (July 2, 2005)

A year ago, the Hong Kong bloggers were trying to collect signatures to protest against the mainstream media for characterizing blogs as teenager online diaries!  We got no respect!  They would not take us seriously!  Today, we have just gone past the entrance to step into a new era.

Why blog?  

Once upon a time, intellectuals thought that they had to publish a newspaper in order to inform and influence the public.  Today, it costs a few hundred million dollars to start a newspaper and that will be beyond the means of most intellectuals.  However, the barrier of entry to a blog is trivial: any number of blog service providers (blogger, wordpress, typepad, blogspirit, MSN Spaces, etc) will be happy to provide a space for free!  And the technology is very simple to learn and use.  Therefore, neither money nor technology is a problem.

The second barrier is that blogging does not generate enough income to survive, much less send your child to university and so on.  True, but most of the bloggers listed above have real-life jobs that pay enough and then they blog on their own time because they want to inform and influence the public in a way that their real-life jobs do not enable them.  Therefore, the question is whether you care enough or not.  I assume that you must care (or you would not have read up to this point ...).

The third barrier is that the real-life job and family life often leave very little time for blogging.  That is alright.  The greatest opportunity in Hong Kong right now is for a true aggregator (or aggregators) to emerge.  Instead of having to visit a long list of bloggers one at a time and getting disappointed at not finding new posts, an aggregator can sweep up the best of the day in mainstream media, forums and blogs.  This is not one of those mechanical harvesters at Yahoo!, Sina.com or Google.com.hk, but it does require someone to intelligently screen, classify, summarize and annotate.  This should be quite easy to do and cannot take more than one hour each morning.  The effect is that the bloggers can post at will with guaranteed quality without losing audience loyalty.  Whenever you feel like, you post and your readers will be there if your post has "Quali" (note: the Hong Kong abbreviation for "quality").  Such an aggregator will be better than any specific newspaper can offer, online or offline.  (Note:  I don't understand why any news website has not already done this already to corner the market!)

The fourth barrier is that there is no organization among bloggers, so that there appears to be no overall direction or purpose.  That is wrong.  That is very wrong.  You've got it all wrong!  This is actually the best demonstration of the effectiveness and efficacy of the free market of ideas.  Look at the list of blog listed by Kong Shaolin -- they are diverse, they cover different subject areas and they hold diverse opinions on common issues.  Isn't that the sort of thing that we thought that we might lose when the financial groups take over the media organizations?  In fact, we would not want it any other way.  And because we are many and we will be many more, we will be a countervailing force that forces the mainstream media to acknowledge us.  For example, if the majority of blogs argues in compelling fashion against an Article 23-like issue, where does that leave the editorial columnists in mainstream media?

The fifth barrier is that the blogosphere is elitist in that some blogs are more equal than others.  Kong Shaolin listed a small number of elite blogs, and that runs against the notion of popular participation.  Well, actually, if you go through the list of Kong Shaolin, the bloggers fall into two categories.  Those who are already well-known by virtue of their media credentials (such as the Central Blogger, who writes a column in <<am730>>) and those who are absolutely no-names (such as the Duke of Aberdeen, whose major known personal characteristic is that he is a resident of Aberdeen on the south side of Hong Kong island).  How did the no-names make this list?  It's about the 3P's: patience, persistence and perseverance.  The free market of ideas rewards those attributes.  If you can patiently and persistently articulate your viewpoints in a consistent fashion, people will inevitably recognize your worth sooner or later.  There is no better illustration than the list of Kong Shaolin.

I have written this missive without any plan or proposal.  I cannot offer any definition of civilian media or journalism.  I actually think that it is wrong if anyone were to tell you what it is.  I believe that it can only come through praxis.

Dictionary definition:  Praxis is a complex activity by which individuals create culture and society, and become critically conscious human beings. Praxis comprises a cycle of action-reflection-action which is central to liberatory education. Characteristics of praxis include self-determination (as opposed to coercion), intentionality (as opposed to reaction), creativity (as opposed to homogeneity), and rationality (as opposed to chance).

I am here to create and learn and re-create ...

Join me in the blog revolution ...

Or maybe it is called civilian media, or journalism, or something ... what is in a name? ...

For those behind the Great Internet Firewall, here is a copy of the Letters from China blog in simplified characters (sorry, links inside the essay have been omitted):

文人办报 文人办博




预科修经济,吾师推荐张五常教授结集《卖桔者言》,出版社是信报 -余大叹闻所未闻也。大概《信报》之于新市镇(穷乡僻壤的委婉语)报贩,食之无肉,弃不足惜,纵然入货,必隐于暗角。时吾人学业,稍见起色,尤好发「高论」,渐觉《苹果》、《明报》之不足;又及金融风暴骤至,财经新闻尤为刺激,遂转读《信报》。林行止的政经评论,曹仁超的投资分析,张立的出世入世,吾人不知其然更不知其所以然。



报社灵魂山木先生,似无复当年精锐,余试举一例:去年布殊出访东北亚,东京演说,月旦亚洲民主,抑北京,扬台北。本博断言此乃美式热气,意在美国选民,故布殊未必有心,北京肯定不在意。山木先生却认为布殊言论势将刺激中共,中国之行添变数云云。胡布会之后,山木先生坦承分析有误。本来预测落空等闲事,但以为此等老调空谈将影响大国外交,识者实难信服也。更有甚者,搅错基本事实之误(1, 2)日多,有损牙力,自不待言。至于其他版面之误(近日副刊一文指布殊总统之弟为加州州长),纵教我等忠实读者「痛心疾首」,亦几近见怪不怪矣。



《信报》评论专栏,既深且广,余以为华文报章,无一能望其项背。林行止七成功力,仍远胜一众后进。孔少林颇有《金融时报》 Lex Column 的影子,分析有料到,间中更流露人文关怀,商人无铜臭味,妙哉。方卓如够寸,更寸得起。崔少明隔岸观传媒,毛孟静人在江湖。毛尖上海通信,高洁花都拈花。陈云道观天下,王启明游走桥牌人间。张建雄尝美酒佳肴,理性消费;曹超人写富人玩意,「低级趣味」 一时间无法尽录,颇有「人满之患」之感。






办报办博 心理犹同




或曰,博客非专业记者编辑,何足相提并论。此实浅见也。记者写博,在内地渐成风气,香港亦不乏例子(1, 2);以为传媒尽收天下兵器,只有传统记者才有足够分析能力与文字能力,更属狂妄自大,教人失笑。

不言春作苦 常恐负所怀



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