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Media & Entertainment

How Jimmy Lai's Apple Daily reshaped Taiwan's media landscape

Once all conquering empire loses out to politics and financial woes

Jimmy Lai, chairman and founder of Next Digital, holds up a copy of the Apple Daily newspaper as he speaks during an interview with Reuters in Taipei in 2010.    © Reuters

TAIPEI -- Marty Chang, a veteran graphic designer who worked for more than 15 years at Taiwan's Apple Daily, headed out the door for the final time late one night in May.

He was carrying all his belongings out after designing nearly a thousand front pages for the daily newspaper that used to be a must-read for ordinary Taiwanese, business executives and officials. In its heyday, the print run was 700,000 on an island of 23 million.

Apple Daily announced the end of its print edition from May 18, cutting almost half its workforce in Taiwan. That was five weeks before its Hong Kong counterpart was shut permanently on June 24. Next Digital, the parent company of Taiwan's Apple Daily, on Tuesday night said in a filing with the Hong Kong Stock Exchange that it is in talks with potential buyers to sell its Taiwan business.

"We did see some signs, but we didn't know the day could come so soon," Chang told Nikkei Asia. "Advertising revenue had been in serious decline for quite some time, partly due to the political pressure on advertising agencies, luxury brands and others who did not dare advertise for fear of a political backlash."

Jimmy Lai, the founder of Hong Kong's Next Digital, the parent company of Apple Daily and Next Magazine, is currently in jail there because of his outspoken support for the pro-democracy movement. The media tycoon who owned newspapers, magazines and video platforms in Hong Kong was also instrumental in reshaping Taiwan's media industry and its values in the past 20 years. Next Digital is set to cease operating from July 1.

Lai expanded Next Digital into Taiwan in the early 2000s. The first issue of Next Magazine, a weekly that blended celebrity gossip with investigative journalism, revealed that former Taiwanese president Chen Shui-bian's son-in-law had broken up in 2001 with a longtime girlfriend to marry the first daughter.

A Taipei cameraman reads the first Taiwan edition of Hong Kong's Apple Daily newspaper in Taipei May 2, 2003. 

In May 2003, Taiwan's Apple Daily gave front-page coverage to the first medical professional to die from SARS. In the following years, both publications covered countless scandals and socio-economic issues involving politicians, industry leaders and celebrities.

Barry Lam, chairman of Quanta Computer, and Terry Gou, founder of Foxconn Technology Group, both tried to block Lai's reporters from digging into their personal lives.

"Media is hard -- only people who are ruthless like me can do it," Lai once told Next Magazine. "If friends and how people see me were so important, I would not do media. It can't be that if someone is my friend, my media won't report on them."

Next Magazine first reported President Lee Teng-hui's controversial national security fund in 2002, a day after the National Security Bureau stormed the reporter's office and home. Sales hit a record 320,000 copies that week.

Apple Daily spent months undercover investigating how a major meat supplier and distributor injected cows with water to make them heavier. A 10-month investigation into fraudulent farmland speculation won the 2020 SOPA Scoop Award.

The editorial approach was to take no prisoners. Pei Wei, the magazine's president for 15 years, was slapped with more than 250 lawsuits.

"Lai is definitely the soul of Apple Daily," Louis Hou, a former investigative journalist at Apple Daily, told Nikkei. "He represents the spirit of fearlessness in the face of the powerful. Apple Daily was not afraid to publish negative stories against politicians or companies, as long as there were thorough fact checks. It was led by the example of Lai himself."

Police officers gather at the headquarters of Apple Daily in Hong Kong on June 17.   © Reuters

Some wrote off Apple Daily's sensationalist approach that tore up journalism manuals. Lai absorbed paparazzi culture and titillated readers with racy gossip, fast news and lots of scoops -- everything that the staid United Daily or China Times had never offered in the previous half century -- and that made him enemies in some quarters. One leading financial magazine in Taiwan had an unspoken rule never to hire Next Digital veterans because they were alleged purveyors of gossip, not reporters.

But Apple Daily was unstoppable and became Taiwan's biggest and the most influential newspaper with an average daily circulation that peaked at 510,000 in 2009. But its finances and fortunes flagged over the past decade. Apple Daily online logged 12 million non-returning users in 2019, according to its annual report.

Competitors also copied its initial success. Liberty Times, United Daily and China Times all went for louder headlines, larger photographs, more colloquial language -- and plenty of celebrities and gossip.

Ho Hsu-chu, chairman of Fu Jen Catholic University's Journalism and Communication Studies and a former Apple Daily senior editor, tracked Next Digital's impactful ascent.

"In the past, the media fed audiences information that they thought they should know," Ho told Nikkei. "Next Digital sees serving audiences as the top priority. They do news that people want to read to drive their business... Everyone tried to learn a thing or two from Apple."

"When Next Magazine and Apple Daily were coming up two decades ago, everyone was frightened," a senior editor who used to work for Next TV among other news organizations told Nikkei. "There was a long period when every editor needed to read Apply Daily and Next Magazine to commission their own reporters. That's where they know how to break news and get scoops."

Lea Yang, a veteran journalist who worked at Apple Daily in its early days, remembers how "very cautious" the industry was when Lai arrived, but they certainly sensed revolutionary change.

"As a reporter with Next Digital, you don't feel you need to worry when you are reporting the truth, no matter who it is about," Yang told Nikkei. "If you are hit with lawsuits related to reporting, the company sends its lawyers even if you are no longer an employee."

Yang remembers Lai personally supervising business coverage at Apple Daily, and his Post-it notes on the pages when the paper just entered Taiwan.

"He wanted us to explain why we only reported on big tech companies that seemed very removed from readers," she said. "We began reporting on small and medium enterprises as well. And if we reported on good restaurants, why not show people how to reach them?"

"Lai's idea was to bring diversifying and eye-opening experiences to the readers," she said. "Some of the things Apple Daily did were very innovative. I still remember the team we had traveling around visiting all the world's expos, even though the expenses were extremely high."

In the late 2000s, Lai expanded his Taiwanese empire with Next Animation Studio and Next TV. The animations earned Next Digital international attention when CNN picked up on the vivid clips describing Tiger Woods' affairs and fights with his wife. U.S. talk show host Conan O'Brien was impressed by animations that were turned out in 48 hours that his own team needed 6 weeks to produce.

There were critics as well. Some feared Next Digital's detailed depictions of crime and disaster scenes might promote violence and pornography, and be a negative influence, particularly on teenagers.

Next TV's slogan: "I am full of guts and I dare." The main theme of Next Magazine was: "Only pursue truth, not profundity."

In its heyday, Taiwan's Apple Daily alone had up to a hundred graphic designers. "We needed to recreate a scene with graphics for major news events in three to four hours," Chang said. "Critics called Apple Daily's reporting and layouts too sensational, but our goal was to report truthfully what had just happened."

Apple Daily's style changed how Taiwanese people read. "In one edition, the word "raped" appeared 13 times in headlines, and that was something a lot of people could not take," Jean Hsieh, a former writer and editor with Apple Daily, told Nikkei. "But I learned one important thing working there in many different departments: a reporter must have integrity. You should never accept anything from anyone or any company you report on, and you must talk to as many sides as possible.

"If you wanted to write beautiful, literary rhetoric, you would feel terrible and in the wrong place. We always wrote as simply as possible so that the general public could understand what was going on."

Lai valued his reporters and editors, and paid them more than industry peers, but he was strict and always demanded the highest standards in return. Staff were told to "carry an axe" to the editorial meetings, where people from different departments critiqued and challenged each other constantly, pointing out flaws and what could be improved. This fostered a fiercely competitive environment.

Young models aggressively distribute copies of the new Sharp Daily newspaper outside of Taipei's subway stations in October 2016. Hong Kong media tycoon, Jimmy Lai, launched the free paper in an attempt to saturate the commuter market.   © AP

Another tradition was "pruning the Apple tree" in which almost every year 5% of staff assessed to be underperforming were let go.

The company valued focus groups that asked ordinary readers in different age groups to review content and layout. Those opinions were given great weight, according to former and current employees. Columns and topics that got too many thumbs down were dropped.

"Lai's approach was to hire much more people than other media, and to bet big on technology and sophisticated equipment," a former senior editor told the Nikkei. "He never worried about cost when starting up a new business unit. It was like an alien arriving. He always wanted to try new things and change -- never to become complacent with success."

Taiwan's Apple Daily online is the last holdout of Lai's media empire after the eradication of its Hong Kong progenitor. But it has lost most of its luster in recent years, with print circulation falling from an average 500,000 in 2010 to 82,000 in 2020, according to Next Digital's annual reports.

Lai sold off Next TV in 2013, stopped printing the magazine in 2018, and terminated Next Magazine last year.

Lai once owned a number of buildings, including a corporate headquarters in Taipei. These have been sold off in recent years. An attempt to sell off Apple Daily earlier in April fell through.

Next Digital's total headcount in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Canada fell from over 5,000 in 2011 to just over 2,000 by September 2020 -- with 1,228 in Hong Kong and 866 in Taiwan, according to annual reports.

On May 14, Apple Daily announced the end of its Taiwan print edition from May 18, and laid off 326 people -- nearly half of its employees.

Next Digital has reported consecutive annual net losses since 2016, and on Friday informed the Hong Kong Stock Exchange that it will be unable to publish its financial results by June 30. The media company stopped trading in Hong Kong on June 17 after hundreds of Hong Kong police searched its offices, and arrested senior executives and editors.

"There seems to be an invisible hand in its history," Eric Chen, editor-in-chief of Apple Daily, wrote on his Facebook on May 17, the last day the paper was printed. "Taiwan's Apple Daily was born during an epidemic [SARS] and died in an epidemic."

Apple Daily's influence has greatly diminished with stronger competition and diminishing resources to invest in scoops and investigative pieces. The newspaper's old harsh stance on officials has gone soft on President Tsai Ing-wen's administration because of her China skepticism and position on Hong Kong.

"It is still very critical of the China Communist Party, but it's not as independent and critical in its reporting on Taiwan's government and the Tsai administration," an Apple Daily news editor who left by May 18 told Nikkei. "Headlines were softened when it came to the government."

Apple Daily declined Nikkei Asia interview requests.

"It's very sad, but I don't think Apple Daily will last long," said Hou. "The resources for good journalism are shrinking. How can you retain influence in the very competitive online media environment when you don't have the funding and big talent pool any more?"

"Apple Daily's influence is much diminished," said Ho of Fu Jen Catholic University. "It tried to introduce online subscriptions but could not get back to the glory days. "With Apple Daily's closure in Hong Kong and decline in Taiwan, the public influence of Jimmy Lai and Hong Kong issues on Taiwan will gradually shrink as time goes on."

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