Of property and the fourth estate

PUBLISHED : Monday, 20 February, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 20 February, 2006, 12:00am

It is more honourable to be the boss of a newspaper than the owner of a property agency. People in Hong Kong are not too fond of property agents. This is natural, though, because agents in this city represent both owners and buyers at the same time, so they are a bit like double agents, who have loyalty to no one.

They speak two different languages. For example, they tell owners to sell their flat cheaply, because the interest rate is going up, while at the same time, they might advise another buyer to pay more for an apartment because the economic prospects are good. Their goal is just to close the deal.

In fact, I do not really like being a property agent. I joined this industry some 30 years ago, not by choice, but forced by circumstances. There weren't too many jobs available at the time.

A media owner appears more like an intellectual. People talk to you about different social and political issues and pay you more respect. I can voice my views, while others give their comments in response. This is a rewarding process.

I decided to launch the free daily am730 early last year when the other free daily, Metro, asked my property agency to place advertisements with them. I was surprised by its expensive rates. At the time I thought it must be a very profitable business, so I decided to go for it. It was a very satisfying moment when I saw the first copy roll off the printer. The feeling was even stronger than when I struck my first property deal.

Believe it or not, I don't really read am730. But I do pick it up every morning on the way to work. This is not a newspaper for people like me. This is a free daily providing basic information for the general public. I read the South China Morning Post and the Hong Kong Economic Journal every morning.

My only contribution, or constant support to the paper, is writing a 1,000-word daily column on current affairs. I spend about two hours every day on this and I enjoy writing very much.

I feel the pressure of meeting the deadline, too. I start writing the column at 6.30am before going to work at the property agency. I do not sleep very well at night sometimes because I'm thinking about what to write the next day. I might even ask for a contribution fee later when the paper starts making money.

However, managing a newspaper is not that much different from running a property agency. The philosophy is the same: just let the executives have the real power and let them get on with things.

Many people expect that media owners would exert a lot of influence on their newspaper. I did not do that. I have never asked any reporter to work on a single project, told the editor to change a headline or offered journalists there any tip for a story.

I don't think I am an editorial executive, because I only attend the board of directors' meeting once a month. I think the management of any newspaper should stay away from the editorial operation.

Very often I get people calling me, giving me story ideas or contacting me to find jobs at the paper. But I won't get involved with the paper's operation. I simply refer them to the chief editor. I do not even have an office there.

We do not have a detailed or written editorial policy for am730 but I believe our news coverage should be as factual and objective as possible. Many media critics say we are pretty close to the pro-democracy camp, which may well be the case, but I still think we are quite politically neutral compared with other local newspapers.

Shih Wing-ching is the major shareholder of am730 and chairman of Centaline (Holdings)