Last week’s big media news in Hong Kong was the South China Morning Post’s move to buy Asia City Media Group including HK Magazine. This move brings the SCMP Group (which also publishes Hong Kong editions of Cosmopolitan, CosmoGirl and Harpar’s Bazaar) closer to a monopoly of Hong Kong English language publishing (and print advertising).
Having contributed to both the SCMP and HK Magazine in the past, I have reservations about this. The SCMP has steered a less than direct course in recent years, especially with its Arts and Lifestyle coverage. And, HK Magazine was at times a welcome antidote to mainstream coverage of social issues in Hong Kong.
A Globally Influential Asian Newspaper?
My hope (or maybe this is just a dream) is the move might bring the SCMP closer to being a true regional news player in Asia. I’ve often felt the SCMP’s ambitions were too modest. Being the biggest English-Language paper in Hong Kong is not a worthy goal.
In South East Asia, we don’t have any big, internationally well regarded newspapers with regional influence. Often I find myself relying much more on coverage from The New York Times/International Herald, The Guardian or The Financial Times for reporting of events in my own backyard. And, even though Australia has papers with a good legacy, like The Sydney Morning Herald or the The Age, I often find analysis in other sources, like the BBC, to be more incisive.
It’s a common lament, that in the age of digital media, traditional newspapers and magazines are dead. But, the reality is not so simple. While many local newspapers around the world are struggling (and will continue to do so), papers that can reach a broader, regional and international audience are frequently doing well. The differences between, say The New York Times or The Guardian, and the South China Morning Post (or Singapore’s Straits Times) are more than just a matter of style or format.
Meanwhile In Singapore
Last week we also saw the latest global ranking of press freedom. Singapore slipped down fourteen places to tie for 149 on the list, alongside Afghanistan, Iraq and Qatar. I’ll leave it to others to comment on the balance between government control and media self-censorship in this country. But, I’ve had two personal experiences that leave me fascinated about the media landscape here.
First, the experience of watching a fairly inane piece on the local music industry literally disappear from Google. My SEO is pretty good and it was amazing to see one post simply vanish from any relevant search results, while the rest of my site and other, similar posts where not equally affected. I’d like to think that was a glitch, but no experts I’ve spoken to think that could have been the case.
Second, the lack of interest from local news outlets has surprised me. In Hong Kong I had enquiries from all the English language news sources (papers, magazines, radio), but here, pretty much nothing. I’ve heard plenty of explanations, few of which really satisfy as explanations for this lack of curiosity.
Freedom Is Attractive And So Is Quality
New York Magazine recently published an interview with Robert Silvers, editor and co-founder of The New York Review Of Books. The NYRB is one of those “can’t happen in the digital age” stories, a niche, highbrow paper that prints long-form essays and is in good economic health.
As a long-time NYRB subscriber, I’m obviously a fan of the essays, and am constantly struck by the quality of the reviews and commentary on Asian politics and culture. Of course, one shouldn’t be surprised, given the quality of writers NYRB approaches and the breadth of opinions they represent.
And, this is really the issue, both in terms of writing in Hong Kong and Singapore. Quality writing from a diverse group of authors, who can faithfully represent differing perspectives, even ones they don’t agree with, is a benchmark of good critical media. You find it again and again in the newspapers and magazines that are still doing well in this digital age and it is something that separates those outlets with a global appeal, from the ones that merely try to survive regurgitating press releases to an increasingly distracted local audience.