HONG KONG (AdAgeChina.com) -- Jimmy Lai, the chairman of Next Media Group, took part in a question-and-answer forum at the Foreign Correspondents' Club in Hong Kong on June 24, 2009. Next Media is the largest publicly-quoted media company in Hong Kong and one of the world's biggest Chinese-language media groups. The business was built on tabloids, but now Mr. Lai is expanding into television. He started a TV network in Taiwan earlier this year and last month began broadcasting free online video news on Apple Daily's web site.
The session covering Mr. Lai's views on the future of newspapers, the rise of online media and politics was moderated by Steve Vines, a journalist, broadcaster and a member of the FCC's board of governors. Below is an excerpt from the conversation.
A video of the event has been posted on YouTube here. (Due to the sensitive nature of some of Mr. Lai's comments, the video cannot be posted on web sites based in mainland China, where YouTube is blocked.)
Do newspapers have a future?
Newspapers won't die. People will still buy newspapers and read the text. A newspaper gives you a feel of the society you live in. [But] the future of the newspapers [is] combined with video. You can make [news] more detailed with animation.
Is it possible to make money in media using the internet?
No one makes money [on the internet] except maybe the Wall Street Journal. From day one they relied on subscribers. You have to charge for something, [publishing involves] lots of work. I don't know how Twitter, Facebook and MySpace are going to make money. Without money, it's difficult for the internet to proceed healthily. What we are trying to do now is to integrate the media into animation. We ask our reporters to take a video camera instead of a still camera.
What do you think the future will look like for online newspapers?
We have to change [and be] creative. What we lack is not a new form of newspaper, what we lack is creativity. Our business is not in delivery. You change the delivery, and upload the text on to the internet and think that this is an electronic newspaper? I don't think so. I'm in the newspaper business, I need to change the form of the delivery, I need to change the form of the content to make it an electronic newspaper. You have to charge for micro-payments...you have to charge for something.
Is there room in Hong Kong for more media titles?
There's always room [for new titles] if there's creativity. When I started Next magazine, people said I was crazy. Hong Kong had hundreds of magazines but we became an overnight success. At the end of the day, you just have to create something that people want. We have to create something new from trial and error.
Is there room for English-language media in Asia?
It's just a lost cause. Not for international newspapers [but for local papers]. It's not what's important that counts for newspapers, it's what is closest to your heart. The dog who lives next door to my place dying is more important than the death of the mayor of the next town. I don't care about him but the dog I see every day, I have an emotion about it, this is more important. I'd rather report about the dog than the mayor. That's what newspapers are. You don't have the settled English-speaking population here now. The foreigners who are here now think internationally and don't care about local news. They care about international news. Newspapers like the Financial Times, the International Herald Tribune, the Wall Street Journal will survive, but not the local English newspapers and magazines.
People say the scandalous reporting in your publications has made Hong Kong a less nice place to live in.
It's unpleasant for people who've done the wrong thing, if people have done nothing wrong, there's nothing to show about them, nothing to write. Unless someone has done something sensationally bad, they won't be worth covering.
Should publications have a clear political stance?
A newspaper is not a natural product. It's an emotional product. That's why they buy it and read it every day. I can only hire people who share my own values. I can't hire people who are against democracy or against universal suffrage.
How much freedom do your reporters have?
I give them autonomy -- until they do something very bad.
You started an Internet-based grocery retailer, adMart, which offered a home delivery service. That business failed. What happened?
I was very stupid. I was caught up in the dot-com craze like everyone else and lost more than a billion [Hong Kong] dollars. Luckily, it was my own money. Hong Kong does not have enough scale for such a business. You want to buy anything here, the stores are close.
Would you start a business anywhere besides Greater China?
No. I have to be Chinese to understand the culture and society. You have to give people the feel for the media, not just the words, but the feel is very important. I think you have to be part of the culture to understand it and have a hunch for it.
Does Hong Kong still have a free media environment after the handover to China in 1997?
I think media is free here and I have no trouble.
Some advertisers avoid using your publications to stay on good terms with Beijing and protect their operations in mainland China. How do you handle that?
It still happens. We just don't make as much money as we should. There's no way to handle it.
Hong Kong's TVB broadcaster is for sale. Are you interested in buying it?
I would not be allowed a license [in Hong Kong]. One day I think the internet will replace the TV channels, maybe then I will go into the TV business. But not now, not yet. In Taiwan [where I am currently developing a television business], they will give me a license, but here they won't...They would be crazy to give me a license.
Do you see the internet replacing the TV industry?
Whatever media business you go into, you go into as a content provider and content producer, not a platform operator. If we have a TV platform, we just use the platform to create the content and sell content. The internet isn't our area. We are in business to save people's time. If you go on the internet, you can surf for two hours and can't find anything to read that's good enough. That's why [newspapers] exist. I believe the whole business is trial and error. We try a lot of things and fail. No one is a prophet and can see the future. We have to try new things all the time and learn from them.
Has the introduction of free newspapers in Hong Kong hurt your business?
Competition pushes us to change and be better and provide more reasons for people to pay HK$6 (77 cents) for a newspaper. But it hasn't hurt us much [in circulation] or in ad sales. Maybe sales have fallen about 6%.
What media do you consume personally?
I don't watch TV, that's the reason I want to go into the TV business [through the internet and in Taiwan], because it's so boring. I read our newspapers every morning. I read a lot. Newspapers and magazines are still my main source of news.
Will you take part in the pro-democracy march in Hong Kong on July 1 as usual?
I will be there. We have to fight for universal suffrage until we get it. We have to be there, if that's the only way we can tell the Beijing leaders [they] have to do what they promised. We have to walk, we have to fight, we have to protest until we get it.
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