Battle for readers will make losers of some newspapers

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 21 September, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 21 September, 2011, 12:00am


The curtain has finally been raised on the newspaper war that is likely to determine which will survive, with the launch of the much-anticipated free Chinese-language Sharp Daily, produced by Next Media. This week's first issue had a print run of 800,000. As a result, it has pushed up the total circulation of the city's free newspapers from about 2.25 million (five papers) to over 3 million per day. Together with the circulation of paid newspapers (more than one million), we have a total circulation of well over four million. With a population of about seven million, that's roughly one newspaper for every person if you exclude the young, old and illiterate. The competition is stiff.

To prepare for the launch of Sharp Daily, the Oriental Daily News and The Sun reduced their cover prices to HK$5 and HK$4 respectively. It's a smart move because it could corner the Apple Daily readers who are not diehard fans of the paper - the paid sister paper of Sharp Daily. In the long run, the price war will push out weaker competitors.

We have far too many newspapers for our population. Many are barely surviving. Even Next Media, one of the leading local news organisations, posted a loss of HK$20 million in its half-year results, possibly due to its investment in its television business in Taiwan. Still, we can't deny that the newspaper market has shrunk rapidly in recent years.

The boss of Next Media, Jimmy Lai Chee-ying, has finally recognised the power of the free dailies and the serious threat they pose to traditional paid newspapers. Sharp Daily shows the group's determination to create a new market as the traditional newspaper market faces a continuous drop of 2 to 3 per cent in circulation per year. The latest free daily is positioning itself as a unique multimedia product that is not only readable, but also provides audio and video information, promising readers a totally different newspaper experience.

In the face of this latest challenge, traditional papers have to move with the times and find a new path to stay competitive.

Yet, it's debatable whether the use of more cartoons by Sharp Daily to illustrate content is really a new form of multimedia. This format might have attracted many younger readers but it risks pushing away older ones. Furthermore, reading the news online is nothing new to young people. So, it doesn't seem likely that they will treat Sharp Daily differently by watching and listening to its animated news online on top of reading the paper itself.

There are concerns that, with more free dailies coming onto the market, quality will suffer. But I am confident that the situation will actually benefit the market; with a flood of free Chinese dailies, traditional, poor-quality newspapers with a low readership will eventually become obsolete.

The situation is similar to pay television, which has not completely replaced traditional free terrestrial TV services. The market will only be divided into mainstream and non-mainstream sectors. Traditional newspapers will be like pay TV services catering for the non-mainstream market, while free dailies, like free TV, will continue to capture the majority with more diverse and entertaining content.

Some traditional newspapers have tried to dumb down their content to revamp themselves, to remain in the mainstream market. The fact is, a broadsheet newspaper can never pretend to be a tabloid free sheet. It will only cheapen itself if it tries to do so. In order to survive, traditional newspapers should focus on quality.

Even without free dailies, traditional newspapers face rising competition among themselves. The launch of Sharp Daily has only intensified the competition, which is not a bad thing for readers. If traditional newspapers can grasp this opportunity to improve their content, they will always attract readers who are willing to pay for good, classy and readable newspapers. When it comes down to it, it's always about survival of the fittest.

Albert Cheng King-hon is a political commentator.