Media have reason to be wary of new kid on the block
SWEDISH PUBLISHER Metro International will make its way into Hong Kong's already crowded print industry next Monday by giving away news for free in MTR stations six days a week.
Hong Kong's newspapers have been engaged in drastic price-slashing, but this is the first time they will have to tackle a daily competitor that relies solely on advertising income. And apparently they are not sure what kind of impact this new addition will have.
Metro is expected to deploy 150 workers to help distribute 300,000 copies of its 24-page, tabloid-sized daily from 7.30am next Monday. It now runs 22 editions in 12 languages in 14 countries. Its Hong Kong version, which will include two pages in English, is the company's first endeavour in Asia.
The paper is meant to be an easy-to-read summary of the previous day's news, which a commuter can scan through during an average 24-minute train ride. Its targets are commuters aged between 18 and 39.
Metro will have to battle with 15 paid-for newspapers already engaged in fierce competition. To make itself more appealing, the paper will also carry a racing page.
Metro will be asking for $108,000 for a full-page, four-colour advert and $56,000 for a black-and-white full-page advert. It has positioned itself as slightly less expensive than Ming Pao's listed rates.
The company has so far adopted a rather low profile. It has hardly generated any publicity since it was awarded the contract by the MTR late last year. Only a reception is understood to be planned after the unveiling of the paper next Monday.
Nonetheless, the company has recently caused some rowdy scenes in France, where it made its debut in Paris and Marseille on February 18. Youngsters hired to hand out the paper were mobbed, its plants vandalised and trucks attacked by union thugs, believed to be from the established press, who felt their jobs were under threat.
It managed to pacify the militant unionists only a week ago, after it agreed to have its paper printed at the Presse Alliance's facilities in Aubervilliers. Before Metro struck a deal with the unions, Norway's Schibsted entered the fray by launching a similar daily in the greater Paris region under the banner 20 Minutes.
Associated Newspapers, which is independent of the Swedish group, launched the Metro freesheet in Britain in March 1999. Initially available only in London, it now has a print-run of 826,000 and serves eight major British cities. It claims to be the world's largest freesheet and the sixth biggest newspaper in the UK. The group is planning a radio spin-off.
News International, the holding company for Rupert Murdoch's British titles, is reportedly preparing to launch a rival free paper to compete head-on with the Metro.
The paper's operator in Hong Kong is optimistic that the city's annual advertising spending will make the paper commercially viable in the long run. Of the HK$29 billion spent on advertising in the SAR, about 37 per cent is placed in print media.
At present, 160,000 copies of the consumer Go Go Guide are on offer for free at MTR racks on Thursdays. Meanwhile, the South China Morning Post will soon replace Recruit as the railway operator's partner for a free recruitment publication.
It remains uncertain how the free daily will affect the reading habits of Hong Kongers. However, the group's experience in Europe and North and South America suggests its freesheets could siphon off as much as eight per cent of the readership from existing markets. If that is to be repeated in Hong Kong, the papers will have every reason to be anxious.