House News closure was no business as usual

Evan Fowler, a former House News contributor, says the sudden closure of the popular but short-lived news website seemed the result of more than having a poor business model

PUBLISHED : Monday, 04 August, 2014, 2:46am
UPDATED : Monday, 04 August, 2014, 4:25am

The Saturday before last I received a message from an editor at House News. It read, "Storm has arrived. Your writing must not stop." When I checked online, instead of a news page, there was only a written statement from Tony Tsoi Tung-ho. House News had closed.

Tony began by stating his "fear". He wrote of Hong Kong having changed; of pressure and surveillance; and of a wave or atmosphere of "white terror". He stated his need to travel to the mainland for business, and the deepening sense of fear he felt each time he crossed the border. Unusually, he also mentioned his family.

Everything he wrote was framed by fear. In just over two years, the site had grown to become Hong Kong's largest online news platform, with over 300,000 unique readers a day. And yet it was operating in an "abnormal social and market atmosphere". "Not only are Hong Kong's core values distorted, so too is the market," he wrote.

House News, as the mainstream media would report the day after, closed because it was a failed business.

Almost exactly a month ago, I was a guest at the news website's second anniversary party. It was releasing a still and video campaign that profiled four prominent contributors. I was one. There was an unmistakable optimism that night. House would soon be cited by The Economist as an example of independent news in Hong Kong. A guest that night, the Asia editor of a major European paper, spoke to me of the sense of "tension and negativity in Hong Kong, but also hope", and said that "nothing represents this more than House".

Whilst House was running at a loss, these losses, I was told, were both manageable and within expectation. The collapse early this year of a deal with Ming Pao did strain finances, but I was assured that new income streams had been opened and the hole was well on the way to being filled.

Indeed, about a week before Tony and another senior person at House had confirmed to me that House's finances were acceptable. "We have Hong Kong's big three advertising with us," I was told, "Mercedes, BMW and Audi."

As a contributing writer I was not privy to account details. I cannot state that House did not find itself in financial difficulty a month later. Perhaps it did. But if the situation did change so rapidly, if the market could distort so quickly and to such a degree as to force House's closure, I find myself questioning how and why this could happen.

As a Hong Kong person I was proud of House News and of what it represented. In its success I saw the determination of Hong Kong people to come together as a community in times of need; an example of the much feted Hong Kong spirit to find opportunity in adversity and in our own ability to fashion our own solutions to those problems that we face.

House News was not founded as a business. Whether true or not, there is a growing feeling, especially among the young, that Hong Kong's mainstream media is no longer free to represent the full diversity of perspectives within this city. House News addressed these concerns. House was established as an open platform free of any editorial position. All views were welcome. It also distinguished itself from its competitors by the level of transparency it offered, providing clear links to article sources and being open about any form of payment or association the company may have with contributors of articles or reports.

As many Hong Kong people, myself included, found personal experience often not correlating with what was reported in the mainstream press, House arose to provide alternative perspectives. These were the perspectives not only of paid or professional writers, but also of ordinary people.

As a writer at House, I was often asked whether House was pro-democracy or connected with media tycoon Jimmy Lai Chee-ying, as was often reported. It was not. I was asked whether my position on democratic reform or my perspective on Hong Kong was in any way shaped by House. Again, it was not.

I wrote for House because it afforded me an opportunity to write freely. My writing, often to my chagrin, was unedited. I was under no pressure to censor or frame my writing within certain boundaries. For all the seeming lack of professionalism in this approach, it was what many people wanted to read.

With the high turnout for the Occupy Central-organised referendum on political reform, there was an expectation at House that pressure might be applied to silence the site. When I last saw Tony, at lunch on the day of the July 1 demonstration, there was no indication that there would be any problem.

Two weeks later something changed. I received a message from Gmail informing me that my account had been accessed several times from a mainland site. It was the first time I had received such a message, so I asked for assistance. I was advised to get a new computer, and I understand that the incident was reported to House.

A few days later at my weekly meeting with an editor I was told not to come to the office, but to meet instead at a nearby restaurant. As we sat down, I was passed a note. It said "storm". I was discouraged from talking freely or asking questions. What I read included the following words: crackdown, massive, not secure. There were no details.

In further meetings, conversations remained guarded and were peppered with unusual remarks including talk of an "investigation" on the mainland. At the time my feelings were that the expected pressure was being applied, and people were just waiting out the storm. This was my take until l read Tony's statement on the closure of House News.

There is too much about the sudden closure of House News that does not add up to attribute it to being merely a business decision. It is not unreasonable to conclude that, whatever the details and mechanics of the pressures that forced House to close, the level of this pressure was beyond the expectations and the ability of a man as able as Tony Tsoi.

What concerns me is the thought that Hong Kong, as a market, a place to do business and as a community of people, may now be open to such a distortion, to practices that would engender such fear as to undermine the very core upon which this city was built.

Evan Fowler is a Hong Kong-based essayist