China

The death of an irreverent Hong Kong magazine

HK upside down umbrella Image copyright FACEBOOK/HK MAGAZINE

Last week I woke up to the news that HK Magazine, irreverent and wry and which gave me my first full-time job in journalism, is to be closed down after 25 years.

Its last issue came out on 7 October, leaving former colleagues, friends and many others mourning something that had become beloved.

HK Magazine was one of only a few English-language magazines in Hong Kong and had earned a reputation as fun, independent and free-thinking.

Although it listed the hippest new restaurants, bars and spas, it also reported on issues such as Hong Kong's relationship with mainland China, the staggering income inequality found in the city and LGBT issues, at a time when few mainstream outlets were interested.

Image copyright Scmp

My three-year stint at HK Magazine was a dream for a rookie journalist. Right after graduation, I was given absolute freedom to chase the topics that interested me.

I once travelled to a remote part of the city to talk to street hawkers who were being hassled by authorities during the early hours.

I also did my very first interview with Joshua Wong for the magazine. He was only 15 at that time, but would go on to make global headlines - and the cover of TIME magazine - as the public face of Hong Kong's democracy movement.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Joshua Wong was interviewed for HK magazine in the years before he made the cover of TIME magazine

HK Magazine was by no means the most influential weekly in town.

It targeted a niche but loyal audience: expatriates and those Hong Kongers with fluent English. Many Chinese-speaking locals with little English would never have heard of it.

"I don't think HK Magazine had much cultural or political influence, but it did have a fun and fresh take on Hong Kong, through young expat eyes," said Yan Sham-Shackleton, a writer who was once based in Hong Kong.

"It captured the zeitgeist of that subculture, and I think if we read the magazine... it would bring back a lot of memories and a smile."

HK Magazine was bought by the English-language South China Morning Post in 2013. An SCMP said it now had to shut down because it faced "very challenging market conditions" which were especially dire for English-language lifestyle media.

"The volatile advertising landscape, diminishing profitability from display advertising and event business further thwarted the magazine's sustainability in the foreseeable future," the statement added.

Image copyright Scmp

It did not come as a total surprise.

Even before I left the magazine three years ago there were signs of trouble. Advertising sales, as well as circulation figures, had been falling for a while. In the first six months of 2006, HK Magazine boasted a weekly distribution of about 80,000. Last year, that plummeted to about 40,000.

"It reflects the demise of the print media. All print media are losing circulation or they are closing for one reason or another. This is another one," said Ying Chan, the founding director of the Journalism and Media Studies Centre at the University of Hong Kong.

Image copyright GRACE TSOI
Image caption HK magazine staff including Grace, centre in the white top, in happier times

Hong Kong's competitive media landscape has become unforgiving in the digital age. Even Chinese-language gossip magazines like FACE and Sudden Weekly could not escape the same fate. HK Magazine will certainly not be the last casualty.

It is obvious that HK Magazine has faced difficult times, but the closure still prompted questions from some who believed the magazine did not make losses, even in its worst year.

Image copyright HONG KONG MAGAZINE/FACEBOOK

Last year, the South China Morning Post (SCMP) was itself bought by the Chinese-owned Alibaba Group.

Alibaba certainly has money to spare. So some are asking why the company did not turn it into an online-only publication.

The purchase also stoked concerns about press freedom. This is understandable, because in recent years Hong Kong has seen a knife attack on one newspaper editor, the sacking of popular but outspoken columnists and evident self-censorship from some media outlets.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption There was suspicion and fear in Hong Kong media circles when a former editor of Ming Pao newspaper was stabbed

But in the case of HK Magazine, no observer is suggesting political censorship.

At the time of the Post's acquisition, Joseph Tsai, executive vice-chairman of Alibaba Group, said in an interview that the focus should be on building "a global readership", and helping people "learn more about China".

Zach Hines worked as HK Magazine's editor-in-chief from 2005 to early 2015. He left before Alibaba acquired the Post.

He said the Post was "definitely shifting its focus away from Hong Kong".

"I think their new priority is to target Western readers overseas to present coverage of mainland China.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption HK Magazine had a niche readership, and most Hong Kongers would have little reason to refer to it, but it was a loyal readership.

"My assumption is that locally focused businesses, even beloved magazines like HK, will not be given priority."

The death of HK Magazine has led to disbelief and outrage among its loyal readers.

But perhaps it also invokes a greater, deeper fear: will the city of Hong Kong fade into insignificance amid the rise of China, just like the beloved HK Magazine did in the eyes of corporate managers?

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