Entrepreneurs not put off by House News woe

Despite sudden closure of pro-democracy site and concerns about press freedom, media veterans still believe news portals can succeed

PUBLISHED : Friday, 01 August, 2014, 4:03am
UPDATED : Friday, 01 August, 2014, 7:04pm

The demise of the popular but short-lived House News website is not deterring new media entrepreneurs, with one portal set to launch today and another looking to hire more staff.

The pro-democracy House News abruptly took its content offline on Saturday, and its dozen or so staff were formally dismissed yesterday. The collapse of the website shocked its devoted readers, and a message from its founder citing political pressure led to renewed concern about the state of media freedom in the city.

Co-founder Tony Tsoi Tung-ho also cited poor advertising revenue - despite the 300,000 individual visitors the site received each day in June - as a reason for the closure of the outlet.

Still, others believe they can have more success.

The latest to try is Simon Lee Chao-fu, a former writer at outspoken newspaper Apple Daily and founder of free-market think tank the Lion Rock Institute. Lee's portal, Hong Kong Citizens' Media, launches today. Half of its coverage will be business-based, and it will largely shy away from politics - for now, at least.

"Mainstream media have taken sides. I believe many Hongkongers would be interested in knowing what the other side thinks," Lee said, adding that the local media was facing a "grave situation" in terms of freedom.

Also in the market is veteran media entrepreneur and chat-show host Stephen Shiu Yeuk-yuen. Shiu, who last year pulled the plug on his online radio station Hong Kong Reporter, plans to expand his new site Meme Hong Kong with a text-based service, according to reports on another start-up website, the six-month-old Post 852.

And despite Tsoi's complaint about revenue, Post 852 founder Yau Ching-yuen said the situation was not quite so serious.

"A news website won't be lucrative … but at least it's more than survivable," said Yau, who plans to increase staffing levels by recruiting advertising agents. In the long run, he hopes advertorials will help pay the bills.

Yau said House News enjoyed "a high level of respect" from readers. But that was little consolation for its staff, who were called to a meeting yesterday to be formally told their jobs had gone. Employees were bound by confidentiality agreements not to reveal details of their dismissal. Tsoi was not seen at the meeting.

In a letter announcing the closure on Saturday, Tsoi said his family had felt intimidated by "white terror" - a term associated with violent suppression of political dissent. He complained that democracy advocates had been followed and said he "felt scared" on the mainland.

Reports have emerged since the closure that House News had been close to a co-operation deal with The Wall Street Journal.

A series of high-profile incidents led the Hong Kong Journalists Association to declare last month that this had been the "darkest year in a decade" for media freedom. February's triad-style chopper attack on former Ming Pao editor Kevin Lau Chun-to and claims of a Beijing-influenced advertising boycott of pro-democracy newspapers were among its concerns.