It is a curious irony that the first newspaper in China was a Portuguese-language weekly. Founded on September 12, 1822 in Macau by Paulino da Silva Barbosa, the Abelha da China, or China Bee, survived only one year but left behind a profound legacy. Today, the enclave's 460,000 residents are served by eight Chinese and three Portuguese daily newspapers, five Chinese and one Portuguese weeklies, an English daily and dozens of magazine titles; all this on top of a raft of publications imported from Hong Kong and the mainland. Each morning, street-side newsstands are piled high with up to 20 different daily papers. On the face of it, the media market would appear to be booming in line with the general economic headiness in Macau. In fact, the opposite is true. Most local publications barely break even and often struggle to pay salaries, the local television and radio station has run at a loss for more than a decade and the advertising market remains seriously depressed. Apple Daily Group advertising director Mark Simon, whose paper ferries about 7,000 copies a day to the territory, said flatly: 'Macau is boring. It's a small market for everybody and ad rates just don't pay much.' Indeed, homegrown press probably would have succumbed long ago to the influx of Hong Kong and mainland competitors if not for the very unique dynamics of the market: the single largest investor in Macau's media industry is the local government. Nearly every media organisation in Macau receives an annual subsidy of up to 780,000 patacas ($790,530), distributed by the Macau Government Information Bureau, known by its Portuguese acronym GCS. Moreover, the government shows no signs of giving the market a freer hand in the sector - as it did in recent years with gaming and telecommunications. In February, Chief Executive Edmund Ho Hau-wah announced plans to increase press subsidies by the end of the year. Last month, the government took over Macau's only terrestrial television and radio broadcaster, Teledifusao de Macau (TDM), by formally acquiring the 49.5 per cent that it did not already hold. 'Macau is a tiny place and there is a lot of media spillover from Hong Kong,' said GCS director Victor Chan Chi-ping. The subsidies to media organisations were a kind of 'public service', he said, 'Because they cannot survive commercially [on their own].' Jose Rocha Dinis knows this first hand. The 58-year-old director of the Portuguese-language daily Jornal Tribuna de Macau (JTM) has lived here for 24 years, prior to which he worked as a journalist in Lisbon. As he sat in his office next to Senado Square, smoking brown cigarillos and chatting over a cup of espresso, Mr Dinis said the subsidies 'are a way to protect the local industry, otherwise we would be completely eaten by Hong Kong'. Mr Dinis' paper, a 24-page tabloid with a circulation of about 1,000, employs six staff journalists and receives an annual subsidy of 594,000 patacas. JTM also relies heavily on court announcements, which by law must be published in both Chinese and Portuguese newspapers, as well as advertisements from various government departments. 'Macau is like a three-legged table,' he said. 'The Portuguese community is a short leg, but without it the table falls. The government understands this.' In many ways, the local government's acquisition of broadcaster TDM marked the end of an experiment in privatisation. Hong Kong television had dominated Macau's airwaves ever since Television Broadcasts started broadcasting in the late 1960s. TDM was set up by the Portuguese administration in 1984 to provide local content, with a Portuguese and Cantonese channel on both radio and television, and it ran at a loss from day one. In 1989, in an effort to turn it around, the government brought in private investors but retained a 50.5 per cent stake. At that time, Macau had no laws against tobacco advertising. The new management floated a plan to sell ads to cigarette companies and beam the station's signal over to Hong Kong, ostensibly bringing in a windfall of new revenue. The move, of course, was blocked by Hong Kong authorities, and resulted in a 'complete disaster', said current TDM chief executive Manuel Goncalves. Later changes to the structure of the private shareholdings failed to produce positive results, despite involvement from casino tycoon Stanley Ho Hung-sun and future Chief Executive Edmund Ho. The private investors returned their 49.5 per cent share to TDM in 2002 and the company was forced to rely on the government to cover nearly all operating costs. TDM last year lost 60 million patacas. 'We don't call it a loss anymore,' said Mr Goncalves, now that the government was the sole backer. 'It's necessary funding for public service. The market will never allow a profitable station in Macau.' That verdict appears to apply to print media, too. The pro-Beijing Chinese-language Macao Daily News, with upwards of 30,000 copies per day, is the largest newspaper by far. It receives a direct annual subsidy of 780,000 patacas from the local administration and the lion's share of legal and government announcements. It supplements that with a good number of sauna advertisements, among others. But staff and production costs at the Daily News are proportionately high and among Macau's papers, their situation is 'the roughest', according to Mr Chan. 'The biggest papers face the heaviest pressure. They all need subsidies to survive.' There are limits to the subsidies, however. Publications need to be dailies or weeklies and to have been in business for five years before they can qualify. Portuguese daily Hoje Macau was launched in September 2001 and is eagerly awaiting the financial support. 'It's been hard to pay salaries because we don't receive subsidies,' said director Joao Costeira Varela. Still, Hoje makes ends meet through court announcements and limited ad sales to private companies. In addition, subscriptions at 10 patacas per paper from government departments account for about 200 copies of its 1,000 circulation. Also unqualified are publications in languages other than Chinese and Portuguese. But that cuts off a nascent, and possibly the only, growth market in Macau's print media landscape: English-language publications. Increasingly, locals are turning to English as a second language and an influx of gaming industry expats has further broadened the audience. Last autumn, the English-language Macau Post Daily was launched and is doing well, despite a strong reliance on newswire content. Macau Business, a glossy monthly distributed mainly to hotels but also in Hong Kong, was established in May last year and has been growing steadily since. Its executive director, Paulo Azevedo, was formerly a journalist with TDM and another Portuguese daily, Ponto Final. 'The Portuguese language in Asia is like Latin, like we're 16th century Dominican priests or something,' he said. 'It's nice to maintain this image of Macau but commercially speaking it's a nightmare. There is no growth there.' Mr Azevedo says his magazine has been breaking even since it launched and advertising profits are reinvested to fund expansion. Still, it is hard to make ends meet and he could use some assistance from the government coffers. 'You can't give to some and not others.' If a welfare mentality is sprouting among Macau's media organisations, nobody seems concerned by it, least of all the recipients of the administration's largesse. To be sure, the government can afford to prop up the sector for the foreseeable future, armed as it is with a war chest of gaming tax revenues. But perhaps some industry fundamentals have not really changed since the China Bee first went to press in the early 1800s. Indeed, the irony of that enterprising publication was not that it printed in Portuguese. Rather, it was that the paper's founder, Barbosa, was the territory's governor. You can guess how it was funded.