Inside his 60-square-feet bedroom, Hongkonger Gavin Liu found it almost impossible to move: The narrow space between his bed and the door was crammed with 6,000 copies of the latest edition of Northbound.
The North District community newspaper, led by Liu as the editor-in-chief, is among dozens of small local publications that sprang up in the city last year following the 2019 anti-extradition bill protests. From unauthorised occupation of government lands to stories behind neighbourhood shops, the bi-monthly paper draws attention to social and livelihood issues in the border towns of Fanling and Sheung Shui.
The 31-year-old chief editor told HKFP that he was searching for a platform to “make voices heard” after Hong Kong was rocked by the worst political turmoil in decades. But Liu was wary of channelling a “strong sense of resistance” in his newspaper, as he believed its target readers should be people outside of his pro-democracy “echo chamber.”
“Print newspapers are somehow more convincing for middle-aged and elderly people. If our front page is full of protest slogans, they definitely won’t take a copy,” he said.
It is why Northbound chose to cover topics that would “concern people across the political spectrum,” Liu said, such as the inconvenience caused by vegetable vendors who blocked the streets with their storage racks.
“We want to use livelihood issues, which is also part of politics, to attract people to take a copy of the newspaper… then we can show them how ineffectual the law enforcement agencies are,” he said.
Putting a spotlight on community issues rather than politics is a common practice at these district newspapers. Kwun Tong News told HKFP that they did not want “too much politics” in their publication, while Yau Tong-based newspaper Zaap Yau said they aim to provide “fair and unbiased information” to the older generation in their neighbourhood.
“Yau Tong is a district that has a very strong pro-establishment colour. We hope through a community newspaper, elderly people can learn different information and let them know what we youngsters think,” said 22-year-old Ng Cheuk-kwan, a writer for Zaap Yau.
Northbound, Kwun Tong News and Zaap Yau are part of a programme launched by local online news outlet InMedia, which provides funding and assistance to dozens of district publications by covering the their printing and transportation costs for up to six editions. The media organisation also collaborated with some publications and held workshops to train their citizen journalists, who often had no prior experience in news writing.
District councillors assist local newspapers
Besides the financial support from InMedia, community publications have also been helped out in various ways by their respective district councils. Such collaboration has been cut short, however, by the wave of district councillor resignations in the past few months.
The government now requires that district councillors take loyalty oaths or be subject to disqualification — and possible financial penalties, if the government later deems the oaths to be insincere. Pro-democracy candidates claimed a historic landslide victory against the pro-Beijing camp in the 2019 District Council election, winning 388 of the 452 elected seats. But as of mid-July, more than half have stepped down.
Fifty percent of the North District council members have quit. The departure of these 11 pro-democracy councillors created a headache for the Northbound chief editor: He could no longer use the councillor’s office to store and distribute the community paper. He and his team also lost access to a venue where they could film interviews free of charge.
“Community newspapers and district councillors are usually very interconnected. Some were very trusting and even gave us the keys to their office,” Liu told HKFP.
In a bid to prevent its distribution network from shriveling up, Northbound’s team approached independent local shops to help circulate the newspapers. But it was not as easy for Kwai Tsing Story, which is based in Kwai Chung and Tsing Yi, where shopping centres are dominated by big chain stores and conglomerates.
One of its members, Sue, who only gave her first name, said business proprietors in the malls were uncertain whether they could keep copies of Kwai Tsing Story in their premises. Some asked the publication to seek permission from the mall management, other chain stores referred the newspaper representatives back to company headquarters. Requests were often ignored or refused.
“In the past, we would give around 100 copies to  district councillors’ offices, that would help us distribute 2,700 copies already… now we have to work very hard and mobilise a lot of manpower to distribute the newspaper in the streets,” she said.
Similarly, Kwun Tong News said without the district councillors’ offices, some residents who live in the Sau Mau Ping area can hardly find a copy nearby. The nearest outlets — restaurants and shops inside industrial buildings –are 20 minutes away by bus.
“It is really quite inconvenient and has quite a large impact on the newspaper,” said 28-year-old Derek [he requested a psuedonym for fear of reprisal] who runs Kwun Tong News with six other members.
Zaap Yau, a publication that worked with members of the Kwun Tong District Council, said they did not rely on councillors to distribute their quarterly newspaper. The team opted instead to use street booths, because it allowed them to communicate with their readers.
“This is the way to get to know people in the neighbourhood, to have more interaction with them. That was one of the goals of running a community paper. They can also give us feedback,” student Ng said, adding they could hand out 400 copies in an hour’s time.
Gateway to local stories
To the publications keen on covering unique local stories, district councillors were a valuable gateway to finding contacts and sources. They were also frequently quoted in articles about community issues.
Ex-Kwun Tong district councillor Vincent Cheng Keng-ieong told HKFP that he was featured in Kwun Tong News when the newspaper did a story in August 2020 on the government’s controversial smart lamppost pilot scheme. The article was published exactly one year after protesters dismantled lampposts in the Kowloon industrial heartland, out of fear that the authorities may use them for “surveillance” purposes.
The 33-year-old Democratic Party politician had served in the Kwun Tong District Council for more than five years before resigning in July. Cheng said he saw an improvement in civic awareness with the rise of community publications like Kwun Tong News, as residents became more attentive to the district’s everyday scene including the hot-button issue of traffic congestion.
“During my first term, not many people had discussed district work… [community newspapers] encouraged the younger generation to come out and take part in district work,” said Cheng, who first won a seat in the district council in 2015 and was re-elected in 2019.
Cheng said it has been some time since Kwun Tong News published a story. Their recent posts on Facebook are mostly shared articles from other community publications or news outlets. The former district representative said it may be because most councillors who had worked with the newspaper are gone.
“I guess the newspaper may face more difficulty in finding topics to write about,” he said.
Kwun Tong News’ chief editor Derek said their usual circulation was 5,000 copies, but they only printed 3,000 for their last edition. Still, the publication is committed to continuing publication, and say that they are expecting to put out a new edition later this month.
Losing goats, missing a bridge
The mass exodus of district councillors has left a gap in the representative body tasked with advising the government on local matters like the allocation of public funds on local works, community activities and peoples’ well-being. Chief Executive Carrie Lam announced in July that the government will not organise a by-election for the vacant seats.
The absence of district council members has prompted some residents to seek help from other community leaders. Northbound’s top editor Liu said a Sheung Shui resident gave him a call when he discovered two goats in his rural home. Liu’s team of citizen journalists managed to find the owner and returned the lost animals. A mother whose intellectually challenged son wandered off also reached out the editor for assistance.
“District councillors are supposed to be a bridge between the government and citizens. Without the district councillors, a lot of people don’t know what to do. Who should they approach?” Liu asked.
While most district newspapers are sponsored by InMedia, this funding is set to run out after six editions. Northbound, for instance, will need to start covering its own costs in the next edition.
Northbound launched a subscription plan in their fourth edition by asking people to pay at least HK$10 for a copy. Readers could set their own price, and many ended up paying more than the minimum. Other publications have adopted a similar model.
“We have around 50 subscribers… some had paid HK$1,000 [for a copy]. On average, we earn HK$2,000 per edition, [but] it is not enough to cover the costs,” Liu said.
Advertisement from local shops and NGOs is another potential money-earner for district papers. Kwai Tsing Story said they saw a boost in ad placement in June, when pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily – which has operated in Hong Kong for 26 years – was forced to shut down following national security arrests and freezing of its assets.
However, some of the publications reported having a difficult time setting up bank accounts. Sue of the Kwai Tsing publication said they had to wait for months before they got approval. She said they had supplied several banks with proof they were a legally registered society, but waited almost a year for a response to their applications.
The citizen journalist who is in her early 50s said she blames the bank account delay for a delayed launch of paper’s subscription programme.
Do local newspapers have a future?
The local newspapers face some major challenges. Gone are the sympathetic district councillors who helped them find fresh stories and move copies into readers’ hands. The clock is ticking on the original startup funding and new sources of income are just coming on line. And at a time when several editors of Hong Kong’s once influential pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily now sit in prison, even small local papers like these can’t help but feel the pressure of the decline in press freedom under the Beijing-enacted national security law.
Northbound’s Liu said he was not too worried about the potential pushback that community papers may face going forward. He said Northbound has been “careful” with the words they print, not out of fear of the “red line,” but to ensure the writers do not taint their stories with personal views or emotions.
“We don’t have time to worry about things that may or may not happen,” he said.
Derek of Kwun Tong News said while the “suppression” of Apple Daily once caused him anxiety about the district paper, he decided they would keep going until they cannot.
“We would try to stay as close to the red line as possible and do what we can. We cannot really grasp where the line stands. If [the authorities] have to tighten it, there is nothing we can do.”