House News closed last month, but other independent sites still exist

PUBLISHED : Monday, 18 August, 2014, 6:17pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 19 August, 2014, 12:49pm

The abrupt closure of House News on July 26 sent a chill through the media community, highlighting the difficulties of operating an independent news portal, especially in Hong Kong's highly politicised environment.

Yet within a week, another news site, Hong Kong Citizens' Media, sprang up to deliver financial news and analysis, modelling itself on US sites such as Business Insider.

The demise of House News spurred Simon Lee Chao-fu to bring forward the launch of Citizens' Media, says the founder, who also started free-market think tank Lion Rock Institute.

"I want to run the site like a magazine," Lee says. Online news tends to be fragmented, he adds, and having helped Apple Daily create its news platform, Lee reckons he knows how to build a viable one for himself.

"There are a lot of rumours and financial disinformation on social media ... posts which boast of sure-fire tips for horse racing and soccer, and other Ponzi schemes. I want to debunk them on my site."

For the moment, the start-up has four staff members, including Lee, and is hiring people to create infographics. Lee says he has also signed up 40 volunteer contributors, half of them financial experts.

Poor revenue and political persecution - the two factors House News boss Tony Tsoi Tung-ho cited for halting operations - can hurt any news enterprise. While digital is the way of the future, few news sites have been able to generate significant advertising income, traditionally the main revenue stream.

Still, that hasn't deterred several Hong Kong media veterans, including former Sing Tao chief executive Lo Wing-hung, from setting up independent news portals.

Yuen Yiu-ching, for example, quit his job as deputy chief editor at the Hong Kong Economic Journal, and left with three reporters to set up in January. Operating out of an office in Wan Chai, the team has since grown to 11 people.

Yuen, who is financing the portal with HK$7 million of his own money and loans from friends, believes the future is promising, despite the untimely end of House News.

Within six months, post.852 has been able to rack up between 200,000 and 400,000 monthly page views thanks to stories including an examination of gender dynamics that was pegged to the leak of TVB starletSire Ma's nude photos, he says.

Another story, on Legco president Jasper Tsang Yok-sing being a possible candidate for chief executive, drew 70,000 page views.

"Unlike traditional newspapers, we can quickly provide analysis and commentary on breaking news. My column, Yau Ching Yuen on 852, is strong in incisive analysis."

Post.852 (named after Hong Kong's IDD code) is meeting with advertising agents and hopes to secure about HK$200,000 in advertising each month. Yuen also aims to develop revenue from current affairs workshops.

"We plan to get media veterans such as Albert Cheng King-hon, bloggers and personalities like Tanya Chan Suk-chong to hold classes on subjects like liberal studies. We are aiming for HK$50,000 in monthly profit from the three-month courses," he says.

"Our web fans are mostly youngsters. They will be interested to learn how to analyse news critically."

Yuen aims to derive revenue from people who support his mission to provide independent news. Post.852 has raised HK$900,000 so far, mostly through HK$100 donations from ordinary users who sign up as members. "As our site is accessible to all, members do not enjoy any privileges; they only identify with our mission to speak the truth.

"The number of media outlets that dare to speak the truth is fast decreasing, but those [who are unafraid of antagonising Beijing] act more like agitators. We don't want to take sides when presenting news."

At Bastille Post, which launched in November in rented premises at the Sing Tao headquarters in Shau Kei Wan, publisher Lo Wing-hung holds similar views. "I am pro-people instead of pro-Beijing or pro-opposition," Lo says.

Hong Kong has three million registered voters, half of whom actually vote. Democrat candidates have won roughly 60 per cent of the vote in direct elections over the years, with pro-establishment candidates winning the remainder.

So, if he were to take sides, Lo says, it would mean excluding a large group of people from his coverage. "We strive to present opposing views," Lo says.

Lo has given up an annual salary of HK$9 million at Sing Tao to set up Bastille Post. He and his partners invested HK$15 million in the venture and hope to break even in three years' time. Lo says he's out to pursue his own passion: "I want to be among the first to ride the latest wave in the media industry."

Just as the storming of the Bastille was an important symbol of the French Revolution, he recognises that digital media is bringing revolutionary changes.

"While I've created products like the free Headline Daily under Sing Tao , this is the first time I've used my own money to set something up. I don't want to operate the same way as traditional media, which comes with restrictions - old-style newspapers prefer to reserve an exclusive story for the print version instead of breaking it on the web.

"Digital media allows for more creativity in advertising. Many customers want to try new media now," Lo says, citing a collaboration with the Hopewell Group to produce a multimedia supplement on changes in Wan Chai.

With a team of 16 people, Lo is keen for Bastille Post to break more stories, as it did about Hong Kong Television Network founder Ricky Wong Wai-kay's secret meeting with ATV chairman Wang Jing.

"We don't want to stand out just for having star bloggers, as they do not have an exclusive relationship with a single news portal. Overseas portals like Huffington Post and Business Insider have their own unique style. The philanthropic model is difficult to do in Hong Kong due to its small size. I want to run Bastille Post as a business."

That's why he plans to launch an Amazon-like store for Chinese books in September, which could serve as a bellwether for future e-retail business that he might develop. Hong Kong still has a thriving market in paper books as e-books in Chinese are not popular, he says.

But Lo mainly wants to lure young people who prefer television dramas and video games to news. "Young people do not like reading the news, but that has more to do with how it is presented," he says.

Some think news reporting has become a shallow, hit-and-run thing because of social media. But Lo believes it's a trend we have to live with. On the positive side, running a news portal gives him the flexibility to update throughout the day.

This allowed Bastille Post to publish more than 10 stories overnight when Malaysia Airlines' flight MH17 was shot down over Ukraine.

At which media entrepreneur Stephen Shiu Yeuk-yuen launched last year after pulling the plug on his loss-making online radio station Hong Kong Reporter, the news content is being increased.

Memehk chief executive Anthony Lam Yue-yeung says they recently hired four more people to add a text-based news service, although the portal had started with filmed commentary on current affairs, economic issues and lifestyle talk shows.

The portal takes a pro-democracy view, reflecting its founder's values, but that comes at a price. "Although no one has withdrawn advertising for political reasons, some say they don't want to place adverts with us because of our strong political stance," Lam says.

The site makes an occasional profit although Memehk doesn't break even every month.

"We feel the pressure," Lam concedes. "Maybe it will be so great one day that we can't go on any more. But for the moment, we will stick to our principles."

Commercial viability remains a challenge although media enterprises are all intent on strengthening digital operations, says Clement So York-kee, a journalism professor at Chinese University who has studied press ecology in Hong Kong.

Traditional newspapers can fund digital operations from existing business, but there is a long way to go before stand-alone news portals can make money, he says. "The closest example of financial success was House News, but it has closed. Huge online readership and hit rates do not easily translate into real money."

If a news portal were run as a non-profit it would be acceptable to break even. But those run as businesses will have a hard time, So says. Activities such as setting up an online store and organising seminars don't bring in much income.

"The main source of revenue for media ventures is still advertising. But advertisers have yet to trust online platforms. Even the Huffington Post is still losing money. There are not many financial success stories even for overseas news portals."

So argues the most viable business model for news sites should be to generate quality content, with a paywall. If subscribers paid HK$30 per month, 50,000 readers could generate annual revenues of HK$18 million.

News portals may not have the reporting teams that traditional media have to pursue investigative stories, but they can build a robust blogger community, as House News did.

"If the platform has quality input from bloggers and curates news in an interesting way, they will get paid readers because news and other content on the internet are scattered among many sites. If there was one source which combined everything, people would pay to go there," So says.

Bastille Post has yet to break even, but Lo says: "I don't use money as a yardstick for my work. I feel the excitement of being among those riding the latest digital media wave. Digital news is fast and has instant impact," he says. "If you only see it from the perspective of making money, launching a news portal is too risky. But I don't mind earning less now."

At Yuen acknowledges: "I was forced to set up my own site after the political pressure at the Journal. The current media landscape gives me less and less room to say what I want."

For Yuen, "It's a trade-off. If you continue to work for a big media organisation, you receive higher pay but there is less freedom. So I choose to earnless and have more freedom to speak the truth."

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