A new round of battle in the local media's protracted readership war has erupted, as the Sing Tao Daily News slashed its cover price by two-thirds to $2 from today.
The move makes the paper one of the two cheapest in town, alongside the Sun (the youngest among the 15 regular dailies). The other Chinese-language papers are $5. The new-look Sing Tao aims to liven its layout and broaden its editorial content. The previous price battle resulted in more sensationalised coverage. Sing Tao, however, is adamant it will strive to be a clean, family paper.
It is optimistic to think there is an untapped market for quality papers, as this will put it on a collision course with Ming Pao. Sing Tao has not imposed a timeframe on its promotion, though it is rumoured $10 million has been earmarked for its war chest.
Less conspicuous changes have already taken place in other newsrooms. Last week, there was a shake-up at the top of the Hong Kong Daily News.
As a cost-saving measure, the Tin Tin Daily has started hiving off some of its editorial pages to outside contractors. Its readership has plunged from about 244,000 in 1997 to about 100,000 by the end of 1998. Apart from the Sun (launched earlier this year), six of the top 10 best-selling papers registered declines in readership ranging from 15 to 59 per cent between July 1997 and January this year. Even the popular Apple Daily, which trails the Oriental Daily News in second place, has failed to maintain 400,000 copies.
Despite its setbacks, the paper still shares about 80 per cent of total SAR readership with the Oriental Daily and the Sun.
Competition from each other aside, the dailies face a growing threat from the Internet. Hong Kong has seen a proliferation of news, finance and entertainment-oriented Web sites in the past few months, while many more are in the making.
Only about a year ago, the only connection between most businesses with the news media was their role as advertisers.
However, they now compete directly with news organisations for advertising dollars as more corporations have established a presence in cyberspace.
A telecommunications service provider has taken a dozen sales executives from a best-selling weekly magazine to help man its e-zine operation. Like most other Internet endeavours, the company has yet to make a profit on the electronic front. But it has set an ambitious target of $8 million in advertising revenue a month in two years.
More importantly, such newcomers are cash-rich and are not so worried about short-term returns. Instead, they are more interested in nurturing a clientele for the future. Unlike most medium-size newspapers fighting for survival, they can enjoy the luxury of both time and money.
Few people are convinced that computers will make ink and paper obsolete. But statistics compiled by the United States advertising industry indicate that about three-quarters of advertisers demand their campaign contain an Internet element. About a quarter considered advertising exclusively on the Net. This may offer a glimpse on what is in store for Hong Kong. But the electronic editions of the traditional dailies are not poised to benefit the most.
Strange bed-fellows are emerging to the chagrin of traditional publishers. Property developers have closed ranks not only with telecoms concerns but also pharmaceutical companies in Internet joint ventures.
Virtually everybody can be a publisher on the net. Today's advertisers may well become tomorrow's publishers. This is bound to further complicate Hong Kong's already confusing media war.
Andy Ho is a political commentator