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Opinion

Feisty magazine's end raises questions over Hong Kong media's future

New online startups should learn from demise of Next

Hong Kong's controversial Next magazine debuted in 1990 and added a Taiwan edition in 2001, but saw advertising revenues dwindle in recent years.   © Reuters

As Hong Kong remembers the bloody crackdown on protesters in Beijing on June 4, 1989, a feisty tabloid weekly born in its aftermath has been shuttered.

The recent move by Hong Kong's Next Magazine to cease publication marks the end of an era and the fall of a fiercely anti-Beijing publication that refused to adapt to the city's changing political climate. Its demise is also evidence of how a once-leading print publication can fail to cope with the disruption of the digital age and social media.

Founded by businessman Jimmy Lai, who had made his fortune with retail clothing chain Giordano, Next debuted in Hong Kong in March 1990, just months after the Tiananmen crackdown. The manifest purpose of the Chinese-language publication was to provide a platform for the advocacy of democracy as Hong Kong faced a transition from British administration to Chinese rule in 1997. Next set out to speak truth to power while giving voice to the powerless.

Next never made any pretense of being objective or nonpartisan. Instead, even in its final days, the magazine was a staunch supporter of the Democratic Party, Hong Kong's oldest organized opposition group. The magazine advocated universal suffrage, street protests and civil disobedience. Lai himself played a highly visible role in the 2014 Occupy Central protests against China's conservative stance on election reform in Hong Kong, taking part in sit-ins and donating funds to the opposition to the ire of Beijing and establishment forces.

Beyond its political coverage, Next was known for its fearless reporting and exposes of the powerful, including corrupt officials and real estate tycoons. In its heyday, Next employed a dedicated team of investigative reporters adept at digging into public records, such as land and company registries, in search of the hidden interests behind headline-grabbing business deals and investments.

Next also fed on gossip and hearsay. Its tabloid style was snappy, sharp and irreverent. It pioneered the local use of captivating visuals and in-your-face bold fonts, devoting resources to design long before that became vogue.

The magazine got attention and became Hong Kong's top-selling news magazine because it set itself apart from the orthodoxy of mainstream media. It had a similar impact in Taiwan, where it launched a separate edition in 2001, shaking up the staid local media scene and quickly became the top-selling weekly there.

But Next had many detractors, including the property developers who refused to place advertisements, despite its market-leading position. Over the years, local and multinational corporations intent on expanding their business activities in mainland China began withholding their marketing dollars as well.

Some readers grew tired of Next's paparazzi journalism, which often infringed on people's privacy. At times, its reporting bordered on recklessness, with little regard for fact-checking. Some who enjoyed reading Next might not have believed much of what they read.

Lai failed to steer Next through the digital revolution. Insiders said he made many false steps and was late in investing in the digital transformation of the magazine. When he finally saw the need to go online, he did so in ways that pitted digital and print operations against each other. Meanwhile, as the weekly's content became thinner, print circulation fell from a height of 170,000 to 20,000 when publishing ceased.

Deals announced in recent years to separately sell the Taiwan and Hong Kong editions failed to complete while the magazines' advertising revenue and circulation steadily declined. Late last year, Lai proposed turning staff reporters, photographers and designers into independent contractors. While the plan was pitched as a way to promote entrepreneurship, it was soundly rejected by the rank and file who rightly saw it as a pretext for layoffs.

While the Tiananmen bloodshed helped spark Next's take off, the tightening control of Chinese President Xi Jinping in recent years accelerated the magazine's demise by forcing companies to pay even more care to avoiding politically suspect business partners. Since printing was halted in March, the Next brand has continued on in the name of Lai's listed company Next Digital and as a lifestyle and entertainment news section of the company's website.

While more traditional publications have come under the influence of Beijing with Hong Kong's politics and media more polarized than ever, a number of independent media has emerged to provide alternative views and perspectives. Technology has lowered the threshold for launching media startups.

Even with small staff, some have broken major stories. The new independent digital media helped raise Hong Kong by three places in the latest annual world ranking of media freedom by Reporters Without Borders. In its announcement, the group credited the fledgling independents for their successful but long campaign to win the right to attend official government press events.

"The resistance is being lead by a handful of independent online media such as Citizen News, Initium, Hong Kong Free Press and inMedia," Reporters Without Borders said.

As the digital revolution rolls on, the media landscape is now so diffuse that questions about the very notion of what constitutes journalism have emerged. Most Kwai Chung, which publishes a weekly satire magazine and an online video channel, listed on the Hong Kong market the same month Next stopped printing, instantly gaining a market capitalization higher than Next Digital and most other established media companies.

9GAG, a Hong Kong website publishing funny videos and memes, now has the fifth-most followers among media companies on social network Instagram, with some 40 million people tracking its account. Lifehack.org, launched in 2005 as a personal blog, attracts 10 million monthly readers of practical advice on modern-day living and working. The site is owned by Hong Kong company Stepcase.

Next Magazine was a symbol of its times and its demise signifies the uncertainties facing the media industry today in Hong Kong and elsewhere. To maintain its competitive edge as a global city, Hong Kong will have to defend and promote the freedom of expression against the push and pull of market forces, technological disruption and political interference. The city will have to learn from the failures and successes of old media while forging ahead with a new vision and road map for an emerging ecosystem that befits a digital and globalized world.

Yuen Ying Chan is a media consultant and strategist as well as an honorary professor with the University of Hong Kong's Technology-Enriched Learning Initiative. She was the founding director of the school's Journalism and Media Studies Centre.

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