The current political crisis has highlighted the need to keep the flames of press freedom and free speech burning in Hong Kong. An informed citizenry is the best protection against efforts to erode our rights and freedoms.
This is probably why there appears to be a surge in the demand for news. While Hong Kong readers have grown accustomed to getting their news for free from various content providers, they have also realized the need for independent media outlets that report the news in an unbiased manner and dissect the unfolding events to distill their significance and repercussions — even if it means they have to pay for the news.
This is also probably the reason why more than half a million people have subscribed to the digital edition of Apple Daily over the past few days.
Next Digital’s Apple Daily Online has been planning to put up a pay-wall over the past few months. The ongoing political turmoil may have given the outlet the ideal situation to transform it from an advertising-driven digital publication to a subscription-based one.
In April, it urged readers to register as members for free access to all its online content. Apple Daily recorded more than 3.6 million registered members at this stage.
Then, starting from last Tuesday, registered members were informed of a one-off HK$3 fee for access to all Apple Daily Online content until the 1st of September.
The move is actually a trial run for its planned shift to a subscription model. The plan will be formally launched on Sept. 2, although the company has yet to announce the pricing details.
Apple Daily Online said it has recorded more than 500,000 paid subscribers since the pay-wall was launched on July 4. The conversion rate is around 14 percent so far.
The company expects the number of paid subscribers to continue growing as the city’s political crisis remains unresolved.
It is reasonable to expect Apple Daily Online to achieve the milestone of having a million paid subscribers in the very near future. That should help Next Digital to establish a solid foundation for its subscription model, even as its advertising business remains under pressure from several big businesses, which themselves are allegedly under pressure from the powers that be because of its pro-democracy stance.
The surge in paid readership may not mean much to the company’s fortunes in the short term. The 500,000 paid subscribers would only translate to a subscription revenue of HK$1.5 million, or HK$3 million if the number of subscribers reaches a million.
That may seem insignificant when compared with its traditional revenue of HK$576 million from advertising and other sources.
However, if the subscription plan is sustained, and Next Digital charges its readers HK$1 a day or HK$30 per month, it could generate a revenue of HK$30 million each month from a million subscribers. That would be HK$360 million in a year.
While such revenue from subscription may not surpass its online advertising income, that would be greater than its newspaper advertising sales.
That would also put Next Digital in a much healthier financial position to sustain its media business in the mid- to long term.
The company, of course, must continue to find ways to run more efficiently and allocate resources more rationally. That said, Apple Daily would be able to continue to operate.
Many media experts believe that it would be very difficult to convince Hong Kong readers to pay for content.
But the ongoing political turmoil shows that readers want a diversified media landscape in order to protect the city’s uniqueness, and they are willing to pay for it.