The plunging circulation and financial woes of Hong Kong’s news media organisations are hardly big news but, understandably, even less coverage is given to the efforts of mainstream media outlets trying to obscure details of this painful decline.

Recently the pro-Beijing news website laid off 70 people, or about 9 per cent of its staff. Other media organisations have been cutting staff and reducing their commitment to print. The demise of Next Digital’s Next magazine is a case in point.

HK01 website. Photo: Screenshot.

A rare expansion story has been unfolding over at the South China Morning Post under the relatively new ownership of Jack Ma’s Alibaba. But there is no evidence that the cash being poured into this increasingly pro-China mouthpiece has anything to do with money-making.

In 2017, without fanfare, both the SCMP and its sister Sunday operation withdrew from the independent newspaper circulation auditor ABC, after many years of stalwart membership. It showed more enthusiasm for independent audits when, under Rupert Murdoch’s ownership, the circulation figures and profits were extremely healthy.

Nowadays the Post is careful not to make claims about the size of its current circulation. In its media kit, designed for potential advertisers, it relies on the last ABC audit, some three years ago, showing a circulation of some 100,000 for the daily and some 82,000 for the Sunday paper.

No one seriously believes that these numbers prevail today and because the SCMP is no longer an ABC member it is not possible to identify the proportion of sales accounted for by so-called bulks, which are newspapers sold at a considerable discount to schools, airlines, hotels etc.

South China Morning Post
South China Morning Post. File Photo: SCMP Media Kit.

In the case of the Post these figure-boosting bulks always made up a substantial part of its circulation.

Perhaps the best evidence of its financial decline (again, no longer visible since the SCMP’s listing was withdrawn from the stock exchange) is the extreme paucity of display advertising in the newspapers, aside from some still lucrative financial notices and listings, such as its mutual funds lists.

The Post’s glory days as being either the – or one of the – world’s most profitable newspapers have decisively ended. However, it is not alone in concluding that spending money to publicise falling sales was not a good idea.

The Standard left the ABC as long ago as 2012, Sharp Daily quit in 2014, Ming Pao in 2009 alongside the Hong Kong Economic Times. These two Chinese-language titles were joined last year by AM730. Some of Hong Kong’s Chinese-language papers have never been independently audited.

As matters stand only two Hong Kong newspapers are independently audited: Apple Daily and the giveaway Headline Daily. The former’s average circulation in the first half of last year was 110,177, including just 2,911 bulks.

Next Media Headquarters
Next Media Headquarters.

Other newspapers make impressive claims about their readership, the Oriental Daily News, never a fan of independent audits, says it has a readership over 3.54 million, according to the 2018 Media Report. The audit-free and now giveaway Standard says it has a circulation of 821,000 and a readership of 1.23 million.

It may be argued that print circulation no longer matters because all the action has moved into the digital sphere. However, no Chinese Hong Kong publication has yet dared to charge readers for access to its website. And, as is widely known in the advertising industry, rates for online ads are very low.

The only real revenue continues to come from newspaper sales and the dwindling amount of display advertising that still appears in printed newspapers.

Only the Oriental Daily and to a lesser extent Sing Tao have managed to retain something approaching a healthy degree of classified advertising (mainly for jobs) reflecting the older age of their readers.

In Hong Kong, the only paper that has built a paid online readership is the London-based Financial Times, which is also printed here but does not break out its Hong Kong paid readership from its wider digital sales figures.

Despite the lack of independent auditing and understandable scepticism over the unaudited figures tossed around by media companies, there is some indication of the true readership of Hong Kong media outlets.

This is provided in the Reuters Institute Digital News Report, emanating from the University of Oxford in Britain.

Its most recent figures for Hong Kong cover 2017.  They show that questions about the usage of TV, radio and print outlets in the week when the survey was undertaken produced an impressive 71 per cent of respondents using TVB News; next up was the public broadcaster RTHK on 43 per cent.

media journalism press freedom reporters
Photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

The giveaway newspaper AM 730 came in third with 28 per cent while Apple Daily was on 27 per cent, Oriental Daily News, which claims to have Hong Kong’s highest newspaper circulation, was on 23 per cent.

Interestingly the only English media outlets to make any kind of impression on Hong Kong news readers were the international broadcasters, BBC and CNN, who registered with 12 and 10 per cent of users respectively.

Figures for purely online news consumption are markedly different, although TVB news remains at the top of the tree with 44 per cent of respondents using it, closely followed by Yahoo! News on 43 per cent. Apple Daily was the top newspaper brand at 37 per cent. Again, in the English language sphere, only the BBC and CNN registered among top brands, but did so with just 9 per cent each.

It should be stressed that this survey was undertaken well over a year ago and that the rapidly evolving world of digital media changes much faster than the traditional media, so it is entirely possible that a newer survey would produce markedly different results.

Significantly, in 2017 Stand News, a non-mainstream digital-only newspaper, came in for the first time with usership of 11 per cent.

Other challenges to the established media outlets, including HKFP, are also gaining impressive readership.

It is therefore likely that more non-mainstream outlets will start registering in future surveys. Less likely however is that a new survey will give much comfort to the established media organisations, who have yet to discover a method of making money out of their online presence.

Stephen Vines is a journalist, writer and broadcaster and ran companies in the food sector. He left Hong Kong with great reluctance in July 2021 following the crackdown on freedom of expression. Prior to departure he had been the host of the RTHK television current affairs programme ‘The Pulse’, a columnist for ‘Apple Daily’ and a contributor to other outlets. He continues to be a columnist for ‘HKFP’. Vines was the founding editor of 'Eastern Express' and founding publisher of 'Spike'. In London he was an editor at The Observer and in Asia has worked for international publications including, the Guardian, Daily Telegraph, BBC, Asia Times and The Independent and, during Hong Kong’s 2019/20 protests, for the Sunday Times. Vines is the author of several books, the latest being Defying the Dragon – Hong Kong and Worlds’ Biggest Dictatorship