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Next Digital

Hong Kong newspaper Apple Daily considering paywall for online content, CEO says

Next Digital boss Cheung Kim-hung confirms subscription model is a direction paper is looking at with revenue from online ads in decline

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 11 August, 2018, 5:50pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 11 August, 2018, 11:02pm

A Hong Kong newspaper that runs one of the city’s most widely visited Chinese-language websites is considering whether to charge readers for online content from as early as next year.

Cheung Kim-hung, chief executive of Next Digital, confirmed to the Post that introducing a subscription model was a direction Apple Daily was looking at.

“Revenue from the paper’s online advertisements has been on the decline,” Cheung said, pointing to competition from tech giants Facebook and Google.

“[The subscription model] might help expand our financial resources so we can further invest in our content.”

Sources said the policy could be rolled out next year at the earliest.

Media experts said while the subscription model had been a trend for media worldwide, including in Hong Kong, it could be a challenge for Apple Daily, a Chinese-language broadsheet which had positioned itself for the mass market rather than the elite.

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The pro-democracy newspaper was founded by high-profile liberal businessman Jimmy Lai Chee-ying in 1995. It was one of Next Digital’s flagship products, along with Next Magazine, which was founded in 1990 but stopped its print version in March, going solely online.

The company has been struggling and recorded a loss of HK$476 million (US$61 million) in 2017, thanks to poor market sentiment and keen global competition of programmatic advertising, where software is used to buy and sell online ad space in real time.

A number of big companies, including banks, were also said to have ended long-time advertising relationships with the paper over the past few years in the face of pressure from Beijing.

Last month Lai wrote in his Next Magazine column that the online subscription model could be a solution for the newspaper industry, citing as an example The New York Times. Its website has different levels of access depending on the subscription.

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Corporate governance activist David Webb, a shareholder of Next Digital, said the sooner the company rolled out the subscription model the better. Access to in-depth articles should be for subscribers only, he said, while low value-added news coverage should remain free.

Webb also believed the city’s pro-democracy supporters would be willing to pay for the content.

“Readers often choose their media based on their political leanings. Among the pro-democracy voters who form a majority of the public, there are only a few Hong Kong news outlets that they can really identify with,” he said.

“So I think Apple Daily or Next Magazine has a strong franchise in that area and many of their digital readers will be willing to pay for it.”

Professor Clement So York-kee, associate dean of student affairs at Chinese University’s journalism school, said a drop in Apple Daily’s visibility and influence would be inevitable following the new policy, but it could be a solution for the company.

But he said media outlets worldwide which targeted the mass market – similar to Apple Daily – tended to be free, while others, such as economic or financial journals, were inclined to charge readers who were usually middle class or the elite.

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For instance, Hong Kong Economic Journal and Hong Kong Economic Times have had online paywalls for years.

“Whether the readers of Apple Daily are willing to pay will depends on how special its content is,” he said. “It also depends on whether it can educate the public that information – despite being posted online – is not free.”

The monthly fee should be no more than HK$100 to make it attractive, he added.