Controversies, sex lives, milestones and blows

Apple Daily led the way in newspaper innovations, including a colorful layout and online video reports – but also attracted criticisms over media ethics due to its tabloid style.

“It set some milestones for Hong Kong’s news industry, but was also dealt some blows,” Baptist University senior lecturer for journalism Bruce Lui Ping-kuen said.

Founded by Jimmy Lai Chee-ying, Apple Daily was the first newspaper which was printed entirely in color when its first copy was published on June 20, 1995.

“We are making a newspaper for Hongkongers As long as readers choose us, support our reports and agree with our stance, we will certainly be able to stand tall no matter how strong the pressure has become,” the paper’s first editorial said.

Priced at HK$2, the newspaper instantly triggered a price war among black-and-white newspapers which were selling for HK$5 at the time.

Having sold 200,000 copies on its first day, Apple Daily soon rose to be Hong Kong’s second best-selling newspaper after Oriental Daily News. It set a circulation record of 537,000 copies on March 19, 1999.

The huge readership was a result of its market-driven strategy, catering to the taste of readers by emphasizing on breaking and entertainment news and reporting sensationally.

“Apple Daily introduced paparazzi to expose celebrities’ private lives and attracted readers with celebrities’ sexual affairs and anecdotes,” said Hans Tse Tsz-fung, a Chinese University master student researching local journalism.

Tse said the newspaper always included sensational elements and used dramatic headlines even when reporting on serious matters.

“Apple Daily’s practice lies in the gray area of social and media ethics. It uses a different and controversial way to enter the public’s view. Despite being controversial, Apple Daily being a best-seller attracts other newspapers to imitate it,” he said.

The pro-democracy newspaper was hit with a major scandal as it was accused of paying HK$5,000 to widower Chan Kin-hong for reporting about him visiting mainland prostitutes after his wife and two sons died.

The action sparked outrage over checkbook journalism in which journalists pay sources for their information.

Apple Daily later published a front page apology – signed by Lai – saying the incident had been handled improperly. But he insisted the paper had not paid HK$5,000 directly to Chan to make him visit prostitutes.

Lui said Apple Daily became particularly more innovative in recent years, citing the introduction of animated news in 2008, an English version in May last year and a 9.30pm newscast on its Facebook and YouTube accounts in October 2020.

Next Animation Studio uses simple CGI-animated videos to cover news stories and sports events in a humorous way. The video report rose to prominence in 2010, thanks to its report of American professional golfer Tiger Woods’ extramarital affairs.

“I think, though, [they] more or less distorted the truth,” Lui said about the animated news.

From last May, Apple Daily began translating feature articles from its Chinese version to English. It also invited columnists writing for its English version, allowing international audiences to understand Hong Kong’s situation.

From October 2020, Apple Daily had gathered a group of anchors, including Lai’s daughter-in-law and some in-house reporters, to produce a newscast at 9.30pm every night.

But Apple Daily struggled to adapt in the digital environment.

Average daily circulation dropped to 86,189 copies between April and September 2020 as more people turned to its free content online.

Despite its digital content boasting a user base of 9.6 million monthly unique visitors in Hong Kong, it still lost some HK$1.9 billion in the last five years. Losses narrowed after it introduced a paywall by the end of 2019.

Apple Daily’s revenue went downhill.

Lui foresaw that outspoken media might become “more prudent” in the future.

“On a spectrum, we now have lost Apple Daily, which is on the far-right of it. I think other media may start to steer to the middle course,” he said.

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