News & Views

There’s rarely a dull moment in the news industry, and recent developments have been both worrying and inspiring. Bad news first — the rapid demise of Circa News (http://bit.ly/1Ie92Rr), once seen as a leading light of mobile media, has underlined once again just how difficult it can be to combine an old business with a new medium and achieve any sort of financial success. Circa’s app broke down news stories from various sources into bite-sized summaries that could be easily digested by users on the go. However this approach requires a healthy amount of talented human editing, which makes it relatively expensive to maintain and scale. As Julia Greenberg’s excellent post-mortem in Wired (http://wrd.cm/1di5lgs) points out, that and the increasingly fierce fight for audiences and advertisers — still, after all these years, the industry’s only real sources of revenue — ultimately did Circa in. To this list we’re inclined to add Circa’s focus on text;  many consumers of news on the run prefer it in multimedia format, hence why more venerable organisations (the BBC, Reuters) and upstarts (Buzzfeed, Snapchat) alike have been experimenting with short-form video news. Which, of course, is also hideously expensive to produce, especially on anything approaching a 24-hour cycle.

On a more upbeat note, our hometown of Hong Kong got its first new independent English-language news outlet of note in quite some time this week with the launch of Hong Kong Free Press (http://www.hongkongfp.com/). The experience of outfits like Circa shows it won’t be easy, but HKFP is pursuing a non-profit model and will seek to recoup its minimal costs through a combination of membership, advertising and donations (full disclosure: n/n was an early sponsor). At a time when Hong Kong (and the world, really) is in dire need of independent voices, we salute HKFP for its commitment, and hope it gets the support it deserves. Hard news might be a tough, and increasingly fragmented, business, but it’s more vital than ever.


If ever journalists doubted their skills were still in demand, Apple’s call for editors for its nascent Apple News team (job posting available at https://www.apple.com/jobs/us/) should serve as convincing evidence. The titan from Cupertino is quite clear about wanting newsroom-tested journalists — not digital content producers, marketing storytellers, social media writers or any of the other iterations on the profession that seem to be emerging (and paying better) these days.

By hiring human editors to pick and choose content for its news app, Apple is adopting a very different approach than Facebook, which relies on algorithms to do the same thing (for its Instant Articles and news feed). It all sounds good — Apple is promising editors will work closely with leading outlets to gather the very best of the news, and to give enterprise journalism the visibility it deserves. And there’s no doubt a human might be able to recognise groundbreaking journalism in a way software can’t. But given Apple’s control freak tendencies, it also raises the question of what kind of remit and freedoms these editors will be given — especially when it comes to stories about Apple itself, which dominate the global media on a regular basis. This is doubly true if Apple News starts to displace other popular aggregation tools like Flipboard, putting pressure on publishers to ‘play nice’ with Apple and its editors to make sure their content reaches a huge potential audience.

On the other hand, there’s no reason to assume Facebook’s news-bots are inherently any more neutral or less susceptible to manipulation — presumably it’d be easy enough to flick a switch so they bypass exposes of the company’s latest privacy breaches. And the success of both Apple News and Instant Articles relies on a certain degree of transparency; any ham-fisted attempts to stifle information will simply drive people to other services.

Still, while not dismissing either news ‘service’ out of hand, consumers should keep in mind that this isn’t ‘news’ as we know it, provided by organisations with an express mission to inform the broader public, and that neither Apple or Facebook are bound by the conventions (or financial concerns) that, even in these strange times, govern most media outlets. Some discrimination is in order … along with perhaps a celebration that at least a few journalists will be working at a cash-rich, fast-growing organisation for steady paycheques.


If there was ever a media industry milestone, this is it. A closely watched annual survey by the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers shows circulation revenues have displaced advertising as the global newspaper’s industry top earner — for the first time in a century (http://bit.ly/1dIfOmz).

The trend has been building for a while, and has a few interesting, possibly contradictory, implications. On the plus side, fears of influence of the almighty advertising dollar on newspaper coverage may turn out to be overblown, and broadsheets (at least those with self-preservation instincts) will presumably redouble efforts to focus on what matters to their audience. On the other hand, if readers are the biggest contributor to the bottom line, we could see more papers opt for Daily Mail-variety shock-and-fluff tactics in a desperate effort to raise circulation numbers, or raise prices to squeeze more cash out of the readers they do have.

One thing to keep in mind that circulation revenue isn’t necessarily replacing ad income — in many mature markets both are stagnant or declining; it’s just that ad revenues are dropping at a more precipitous rate. Newspapers therefore won’t be absolved of the need to update their business models or hone their content for other platforms. In fact the same survey showed mobile consumption of news is growing faster than ever. Regardless of economic conditions, newspaper ad revenues are also unlikely to stage any kind of meaningful recovery, given the range of other marketing channels advertisers now have to choose from. Not such a great time to be a developed-market newspaper with a limited budget, maybe, but with so many publications (and advertisers) experimenting with new forms of stories and distribution to win hearts,  minds and revenue streams, content consumers will have more choice — and clout — than ever.