House News, a pro-democracy news website and blog, announced its sudden closure yesterday. A co-founder cited fear, political pressure and low advertising revenues as reasons.
In a letter posted on the website's front page, Tony Tsoi Tung-ho, said he and his family had been increasingly influenced by the spreading "white terror" in society, as a number of democracy advocates had been followed, had their past investigated and been smeared.
"As a businessman who frequently travels to and from the mainland, I have to admit that I felt very scared every time I crossed the border," Tsoi said in the letter.
He is one of 10 professionals to have publicly vowed to take part in the civil-disobedience movement Occupy Central.
"The pressure has become so bad that I feel more haunted as days go by," he said.
Tsoi said the website had an average of 300,000 distinct individual visitors every day last month, but in this "abnormal society", it had never made any profit because advertisement revenues were disproportionately low.
"From a business point of view, I really can't see the dawn of House News … Not only have the core values of Hong Kong been twisted, the market is twisted as well," he said.
House News was founded in 2012 by Tsoi, former adviser to the Central Policy Unit Lau Sai-leung, writer and cultural critic Leung Man-tao and columnist Gregory Sung Hon-sang.
Leung said Tsoi had been paying almost HK$600,000 a month to keep the website running but they could never balance the books. "Despite our popularity, many big companies don't place advertisements on our website because of our critical stance towards the government and Beijing," he said.
To Yiu-ming, assistant professor in Baptist University's department of journalism, said the unsustainable business model House News adopted was a key factor behind its closure, as it had proved that relying only on advertisements did not work.
He said many successful examples of new media had sourced funding from donations from the public and charities.
But it was the political environment that had made Tsoi lose his courage and patience to try new models, To said.