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Hong Kong Becomes Fertile Ground for Online News Start Ups

Screenshots of four Hong Kong online news organizations.
Screenshots of four Hong Kong online news organizations.

The latest Hong Kong summer blockbuster is not about kung fu fighters, triads or Canto-pop love interests. Instead The Menu, which opens today, is about online journalists.

Its dramatic trailer starts with a rather dire pronouncement —"Print is almost dead" — followed by action shots of digital reporters fighting for stories and clicks.

The Menu, though fictional, reflects the growing interest young Hong Kongers have in both politics and the media.

This former British colony, with freedoms and a worldliness not found in the rest of China, has become fertile ground for online news starts-ups. According to the Hong Kong Journalists Association, at least five news websites have opened in the past 12 months.

Big ambitions

In only its first year, Initium (端传媒,) has attracted three million unique users a month; launched an app that’s been downloaded 150,000 times; and hired 70 staff in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Europe and the United States.

Annie Zhang, Initium Chief Editor
Annie Zhang, Initium Chief Editor

Chief editor Annie Zhang, also known as Zhang Jieping (張潔平), says Initium is roughly based on the Chinese-language websites of the BBC or The New York Times. Their goal is to bring wide-ranging coverage – on topics from Taiwan elections to Syrian refugees – to "Chinese-speaking global citizens." (Zhang, 33, had previously written for the Times’ Chinese-language site).

"There’s no way we could be based on the Mainland," said Zhang, who is from Mainland China. "We produce ‘normal’ news. We don’t want to deal with censorship or fighting with the government."

Like other critical Hong Kong media, Initium is banned in Mainland China, although an estimated 10-15 percent of its visitors are mainlanders using a VPN to bypass the Great Firewall and read the site.

The English-language Hong Kong Free Press [] has also been banned, after launching about a year ago with $180,000 worth of online donations.

Those two website launches were followed in March by FactWire, a bilingual newswire and media watchdog. As of July, FactWire had raised $600,000 from 3,300 donors, in what is considered the city’s largest-ever crowdsourcing campaign. Others outlets, like Stand News, dot the landscape.

Large and small

Initium is relatively better funded than its competitors thanks to its founder, Stanford-educated lawyer Will Cai (蔡華), and the WI Harper investment group. Bloomberg reported in April that Cai had raised $3.7 million in venture capital, though some of that may be used for other ventures, like video or film.

They are already pursuing luxury advertising – during the interview, Zhang pulled their app up on her cellphone, showing off a Bulgari watch ad.

The rise of new, independent media comes as traditional outlets face increased financial and political pressure – two issues that are often interlinked in Hong Kong.

April was a particularly worrying month. ATV, the world’s longest-running Chinese-language television station, went dark on April 1, the same day The Sun tabloid closed. Jack Ma, the tycoon behind Chinese Internet giant Alibaba, officially took over at The South China Morning Post, the city’s only English-language broadsheet. The firing of a critical editor at the Ming Pao newspaper prompted the Chinese-language broadsheet to protest by printing blank rectangles in the next morning’s paper.

Off to the races

Meanwhile, new online outlets have emerged.

Two weeks after opening, Initium sent reporters to the site of explosions that killed more than 100 people in the Chinese port city of Tianjin in August 2015.

"We were not the first to report the news, but we were the first to focus on problems with the firefighting system – the fact that first responders were teenagers with no training," Zhang said, adding that they wanted to find angles not explored by either the local Hong Kong media or the censored Chinese state media.

In November, Initium was among the first to interview relatives of some of the Hong Kong booksellers allegedly kidnapped by the Mainland authorities.

New challenges

Last August, when Initium was less than a month old, one of its photojournalists, Anthony Kwan Hok-chun (關學津), was jailed in Bangkok after reporting on the Erawan Shrine terrorist bombing that left 20 dead.

The charge from the Thai authorities, that Kwan was wearing a bullet-proof vest without a license, was later dropped.

Zhang said she remained "worried" about how to cover problems like terrorism and war, but also did not want to pull her coverage. In December, Initium ran a series of photos of fleeing Syrian refugees by Nicole Tung, a young freelance photojournalist originally from Hong Kong.

"I was told that global news was expensive to produce and had a low hit-rate among local viewers," Zhang said. "But that turned out not to be true. Brexit, the German train attack, ISIS – local audiences are reading about these issues. They affect us all."

Tom Gundy, Founder of Hong Kong Free Press ( J. Lau/VOA)
Tom Gundy, Founder of Hong Kong Free Press ( J. Lau/VOA)

Local coverage

But their most important work is being done locally. Surprisingly, Hong Kong does not have easily accessible voting records for elected officials. So Initium undertook a Big Data project to make sense of 200,000 voting records – which will come in handy as Hong Kong heads into legislative elections in September.

FactWire, meanwhile, broke the news in July that Hong Kong officials had been warned in private about safety problems with Singapore subway trains, which had been "secretly recalled" by China.

Compared to its Chinese-language counterparts, Hong Kong Free Press is run on a shoestring. When Tom Grundy, a British resident in Hong Kong, initially aimed to raise $20,000, donors flooded him with far more cash, but also demands for original news, interviews, blogs and photography.

A year after it went live in June 2015, HKFP has logged 3.5 million unique visitors in total, 49,000 Facebook fans and 26,800 Twitter followers.

Grundy, 33, had previously been a popular blogger called Hong Wrong and a political activist. He had held protests for Edward Snowden, Tibet and Gaza – though he is still best-known for his failed citizens’ arrest of Tony Blair at the University of Hong Kong in 2012.

He says he does not see HKFP, a registered non-profit, as a competitor to for-profit mainstream media, but as an "alternative.

"The South China Morning Post is owned by a mainland company and people are skeptical," he said. He prefers to rely on microdonations. "We’re hoping pennies will turn into pounds," he said. "We understand that producing good journalism is both hard and expensive."

Grundy works rent-free in a corner of the D100 internet radio station, thanks to a favor by Albert Cheng, (鄭經翰 – traditional, 郑经翰 – simplified), a 70-year-old media boss and government critic.

During mass democracy demonstrations on July 1, Grundy manned the news desk himself, producing rolling live coverage from 2 p.m. to 10 p.m. His whole staff – all four of them – were out reporting. "They’re all trilingual – I’m the only idiot here who only speaks English," Grundy said. "Everyone is a multimedia reporter. They’re shooting short videos, doing vox pops, taking photos, posting on Twitter."

For a local website, HKFP gets a significant number of U.S. viewers. "People want to figure out how Hong Kong fits into the puzzle that’s China," Grundy said.

HKFP also translates materials not fully available in the international media.

In a series called Ministry of Truth, it wrote English subtitles for the videos of "forced confessions" extracted by the Chinese authorities. These included testimony by kidnapped bookseller Gui Minghai, journalist Gao Yu, lawyer Huang Liqun, actor Ko Chen-tung, internet figure Guo Meimei, American investor Charles Xue and pharmaceutical executive Liang Hong.

Local journalists, frustrated by the pressures facing the mainstream media, have welcomed the new opportunities.

When FactWire’s first eight reporters – chosen from 280 applicants – showed up for work in February, they walked into an industrial-building space where the phones and computers were not yet set up.

"We had given up relatively stable jobs to join FactWire for an adventurous journey," Ng Hiu-tung, one of FactWire’s founders, wrote in the Hong Kong Journalists Association’s magazine. "FactWire is not funded by a wealthy businessman, nor does it have a long legacy or big newsroom. The one thing we have are reporters who want to report things as they are."

"Residents of Hong Kong funded FactWire because they think good information is indispensable to survive as citizens," the U.S.-based Global Investigative Journalism Network wrote in March. "They know that if they support quality, well-verified stories, they will know what is really going on, and they will not be deceived with slanted or special-interest driven information."