FCC archive: The rise and fall of Hong Kong’s Eastern Express newspaper
This article is reproduced from the November 1994 edition of The Correspondent
Since its launch last February, the Eastern Express has been making almost as much news as it has been reporting. The Correspondent examines its recent history, talks to the Oriental Press Group’s C.K. Ma and prints a plea from ex-chief editor of the Express, Steve Vines.
Nobody can deny it’s been a heart-stopping, roller-coaster nine months since the hoopla of the launch of the Oriental Press Group’s (OPG) Eastern Express. The stylishly-designed broadsheet was expected by many to give both the South China Morning Post (SCMP) and the Hong Kong Standard serious competition and to change he face of the local English-language newspaper market.
However, as most FCC members know, the story didn’t evolve as many would have hoped. To begin with, there was bad blood between some defecting members of the SCMP and its management as the journalists took up senior positions at the Express. Then the launch of the paper was delayed because of highly technical computer problems. Although the design of the paper was almost universally admired, when it finally hit the streets many professionals were surprised by some of the early news selections.
Even so, chief editor and former club president Steve Vines managed to create the feeling of an authoritative, modern publication with excellent foreign and comment pages. The Weekend magazine was a first-class product. Above all, the quality of the photography astonished readers with its clarity of reproduction and its imaginative execution. The uncounted hours of hard work by all concerned were apparently paying off.
However, as was inevitable with a new product, the paper soon began to show signs of wear and tear. Within weeks questions were raised about the paucity of advertising. It was said there were few financial controls and that relations between the OPG management and staff were growing tense. In the end Vines departed. Talk of treachery was also abroad and accusations of ‘spying’ and disloyalty emerged from several quarters. It wasn’t an elevating spectacle.
Club member Jon Marsh, one of the most vociferous ex-SCMP staffers, took over as acting editor. Further rumours of poor staff management/relations went spinning through the always-voracious newspaper gossip mill. Then C.K. Ma, the OPG chairman, was said to be in London offering the job of chief editor to high-priced Fleet Street journalists. The paper would close within weeks. The Weekend magazine was to be closed or, at best, relaunched on newsprint rather than high-grade paper.
In the event, while personalities clashed, the management had, indeed, decided to take the printing of the Saturday magazine in-house on lower-grade newsprint to save some $500,000 per month. Senior staffers, including Marsh, production editor Ewen Campbell and magazine editor Steve Procter threatened to resign and the magazine’s paper quality was given a reprieve.
At much the same time, while on assignment in China, a young female reporter ran into trouble over a story she had written about the political make-up of post ’97 Hong Kong. Accusations – not so unusual in newsrooms – about the irresponsible rewriting of the reporters’ copy, caused further tension.
Finally, Campbell was sacked for complex personnel reasons surrounding his proposed elevation to deputy chief editor. Marsh and Procter resigned in protest along with, among others China editor, Robert Delfs, and deputy foreign editor Gavin Greenwood, all members of the FCC.
As matters shook down, veteran local journalist and Club member Timothy Jim took the reins as a special assistant to C.K. Ma. He appointed foreign editor and former Correspondent editor Karl Wilson as an associate editor to liaise with the editorial staff, while veteran newspaper man Vernon Ram, with more than 40 years in the business, was reportedly hired to look into the launch of a Sunday edition of the Express. Peter Metrevelli, one of Hong Kong’s longest-serving turf correspondents, was appointed racing editor. Four new Chinese reporters joined the staff.
With a daily circulation rumoured to be anything between 10,000 and 30,000, the Eastern Express is now said to be metamorphosing into an “English-language newspaper with Chinese characteristics”. An amusing crack but probably not true.
Heading for strangulation: We print the outgoing chief editor’s op-ed that the Oriental Press Group dropped
Former Club president Steve Vines wrote the following article for publication in the Eastern Express shortly before he was removed as the paper’s chief editor. The Oriental Press Group, however, decided against publication. The Correspondent publishes it for the record.
Revolutions tend to eat their babies. This newspaper revolution is no exception. That is why I am writing for the last time as chief editor of Eastern Express. Some readers may feel that an exaggerated claim is being made here. They might well ask: can the launch of this newspaper really be described as a revolution? I think it can. Hong Kong has essentially been a one English-language newspaper town for more decades than most people care to count. The alternative to the market leader has been in the hands of an under-funded competitor, kept alive but rarely given the means to breathe with real life.
After the seal was set on the transfer of sovereignty in Hong Kong, it seemed even less likely that anyone would have the courage to start a new English-language newspaper. The pessimists were wrong. They underestimated the spirit of enterprise which pulsates through this place, they underestimated the thirst for untainted news and they underestimated the determination of Hong Kong people to preserve the freedoms which have made this famously barren rock one of the world’s greatest trading centres.
This was the spirit which brought about the birth of the Eastern Express – a paper committed to independence in news reporting and dedicated to being an open market for the exchange of ideas and views.
What, you may ask, is so revolutionary about all that? The answer is very little in countries which enjoy a free press. It is only revolutionary in circumstances where this freedom has been extinguished or is in the process of being squeezed to the point of strangulation.
Fortunately Hong Kong’s press has yet to experience strangulation but we are heading in that direction.
One of our television stations is now reluctant to carry any news which reflects badly on the Chinese government, many newspapers are becoming increasingly selective about what they report and how they report news which is considered to be “sensitive”.
The Eastern Express chose to travel down the other path. This happens to be a more conventional path where news stories are treated according to merit, not the sensitivity of Chinese officials. It takes us in directions which may not lead to the winning of friends in high places but this was never our intention.
In other words, we have worked on the assumption that China must at least be given the benefit of the doubt in matters of press freedom. We saw no reason to retreat from the field of battle before the battle even began.
In many ways we could be considered to be Hong Kong’s true optimists – some may say, foolhardy optimists. We have carefully studied the territory’s new mini-constitution, the Basic Law, and found it to contain unequivocal guarantees of press freedom. We have listened carefully to the speeches of Chinese leaders about the “one country, two systems” concept and assumed that they meant what they said.
In other words, we have worked on the assumption that China must at least be given the benefit of the doubt in matters of press freedom. We saw no reason to retreat from the field of battle before the battle even began. This seems pretty much like common sense but in some quarters is regarded as wild talk.
What does it mean in practice? How can we claim that the Eastern Express is really different from any other English-language newspaper in Hong Kong? Allow me to provide some examples.
Let’s start with China coverage. Other newspapers cover a national People’s Congress meeting as if it really is a decision-making occasion – filled with debates likely to shape China’s future. This is nonsense and created as such on our pages because we believe our readers to be intelligent enough to want to know the true function of the congress meeting. Another example is more telling.
We published in full the only document we have published in full in the newspaper’s history, the extraordinary speech made by former Chinese Communist Party General Secretary Zhou Ziyang, prepared (but not delivered) for a meeting of the party’s central committee on the eve of his removal from power in 1989. This is probably the most revealing internal document from the Communist Party to reach the public domain since the revolution.
We claim no credit for securing the document, this honour goes to the Hong Kong Economic Journal which generously made it available to the media as a whole. We merely translated the speech into English. We were the only Hong Kong newspaper to take advantage of EJ’s offer. This is quite extraordinary because in terms of significance the speech is at least as important as Nikita Khrushchev’s address to the twentieth congress of the Soviet Union’s Communist Party at which he revealed the crimes committed by dictator Stalin. Very few newspapers in countries with a free press would show the kind of restraint displayed by the Hong Kong press over the Zhou speech.
For the record, we cover China seriously because the fate of Hong Kong is firmly tied to the mainland and readers have a right to as much information as possible about the new sovereign power.
The creeping polarisation of Hong Kong society has led our critics to assume that because we have covered China in such a fearless manner, we must therefore be pro-British, or at the very least pro-Chris Patten. It is depressing that news coverage is viewed through the narrow prism which classifies reportage into the tight categories of pro or anti this, that or the other. For the record, we cover China seriously because the fate of Hong Kong is firmly tied to the mainland and readers have a right to as much information as possible about the new sovereign power. We never set out to be pro-British and the idea that this paper is pro-government will produce howls of hollow laughter from a great many civil servants in Lower Albert Road who can barely contain their anger when the words Eastern Express are uttered.
It is a matter of pride that this newspaper has forced the government to act in circumstances where it should have acted on its own accord. Our revelations about the April attack on the Whitehead Detention Centre compelled the Governor to order an independent inquiry. Our coverage of the fate of illegal Chinese immigrants held in detention for months while they waited to give evidence in criminal trials rightly led to their release These are examples of good, old-fashioned campaigning journalism, rooted in hard-nosed reporting. The reporters did not set out to embarrass the government of the day. They set out to unearth the truth.
Aside from content, the Eastern Express has been revolutionary in form. We ventured where other newspapers feared to tread in terms of design, use of photographs, daring to have a magazine with real substance rather than easy-on-the-eye wallpaper and we dared to be different in the way we covered the news, abandoning the predictable and routine in favour of the interesting and exciting.
Am I being self-serving and self-indulgent? I plead guilty, but can only say in mitigation that a departing editor should be allowed a small piece of self-indulgence. Fortunately you have the choice of whether you want to put up with it. There is still a choice here. Newspapers live and die by virtue of the choices readers make. Hong Kong will never be the same if the media offers no choice.
Chasing a cool $4 billion – Simon Twiston Davies’ exclusive Q&A with OPG chairman C.K. Ma.
The Correspondent: What was the chronology of the founding of the Eastern Express? What kind of market research was carried out?
C.K. Ma: When we moved into our existing premises in Kowloon Bay in 1990 provision was made for expansion. After that we launched the Oriental Sunday, Jade Magazine, The Sun Racing Journal and Eastweek Magazine. Expanding into the English-language market was a natural and logical step for the Oriental Press Group. Such a move not only gave us a good corporate image it also gave us a springboard into the international market.
I made the decision to launch the Eastern Express after hearing the news that there was to be change in management at the South China Morning Post.
According to figures released at the time, one third of the issued shares of the SCMP were worth about HK$3 billion, based on a daily circulation of about 100,000. That meant that a successful English-language newspaper could be worth something like HK$10 billion. Moreover, the Chinese newspaper publishing business has almost reached saturation point and there is very little potential for growth.
I estimated that if the OPG could put out an English-language newspaper just half as successful as the SCMP – that is with a daily circulation of around 50,000 copies per day – the value of the group would increase by a cool $4 billion. Doesn’t that sound like a good investment?
The publication of an English-language newspaper is a good fit for our existing facilities and mode of operation, especially as an English paper with a small print run would slot perfectly into our daily production schedule in our newly-upgraded, $200 million facilities.
I estimated that if the OPG could put out an English-language newspaper just half as successful as the SCMP – that is with a daily circulation of around 50,000 copies per day – the value of the group would increase by a cool $4 billion. Doesn’t that sound like a good investment? We took on the project as a long-term investment and hope it will straddle 1997.
TC: Having undertaken the launch of the paper, did you envisage the product you were given, or were you hoping for a more ‘racy’ tabloid as seen in the Oriental Daily News?
CKM: The aim of the Eastern Express is to capture a share of the SCMP group’s circulation. We have never considered the idea of a tabloid newspaper. From the start, our objective was to publish a modern, quality product. This conviction is reflected in our investment in state-of-the-art equipment and our decision to print on high-grade newsprint with top-quality ink that will not blacken readers’ hands when they flip through the pages.
TC: A recent issue of the Sunday Morning Post ran an interview with Mike Hanson, the outgoing government information co-ordinator. He admitted having had discussions with you prior to the launch of the Eastern Express. Could you comment?
CKM: I read the article in the Sunday Morning Post. It said that the government information co-ordinator had a hand in the creation of the Eastern Express. This is ironic. I would like to ask the management of the SCMP if it enjoyed special privileges from the government, like, the provision of exclusive stories and advertising and other support, in the “good old days”?
Since I publish a newspaper in Hong Kong, of course, a good relationship with the government of the day is vital to our operations. And since Mike Hanson is the information co-ordinator, who else should we turn to if we want to understand the government’s thinking? We would certainly like to develop a good relationship with his successor and hope to gain the same support from the administration as the SCMP has enjoyed in the past.
TC: Many questions have been raised about the circulation of the Eastern Express. What is it today?
CKM: We have joined the international ABC group for a circulation audit and we expect to publish the results around February. As a member of the ABC, we have to abide by its regulations which require the distribution of circulation figures one year after publication.
Where the Eastern Express will stand in a year’s time has to be judged by public support when the time comes.
TC: The fast start-up of the paper is seen by some as being at the root of many of the early editorial problems . Given a second chance, would you have taken longer to launch the Eastern Express?
CKM: The successful launch of a newspaper very much depends on good timing. Sufficient financial resources, up-to-date plant and first-class human resources are also vital elements. In my view, the success of a newspaper requires constant fine-tuning. Even the SCMP, after 90 years of publication, needs constant fine-tuning.
TC: Advertising has been sparse since the launch of the paper. Could you tell us about your advertising sales strategy?
CKM: The advertising volume of a newspaper usually takes time to grow. The Eastern Express is just another newspaper and should not be singled out for criticism. It is unfair to compare a nine-month-old venture with another product which has a 90-year history.
TC: “Cultural differences” have been widely quoted in reference to the management/staff relationship at the Eastern Express. Has “culture” played a role in the difficulties over the past four months or so?
CKM: That’s really a hypothetical question. To imply that a management with a Chinese cultural background would have difficulties managing a group of Western journalists would incite undue racial conflict. That is deplorable. However, I realise that such reasoning could provide a convenient excuse for those stepping down to cloud the real issues. Please remember, that Hong Kong’s success is due primarily to the fact that we have blended the cultures of East and West.
TC: Eventually a new chief editor will have to be appointed at the Eastern Express. Will it be an international appointment? Will more expatriate staff be appointed?
CKM: My philosophy is simple: to give the job to the right person.
TC: Where do you see the paper in 12 months’ time?
CKM: We will work hard in order to live up to public expectations. Where the Eastern Express will stand in a year’s time has to be judged by public support when the time comes.
Simon Twiston Davies is a contributing columnist to the Eastern Express.