Hong Kong media maverick Jimmy Lai is used to being counted out. Shares of his media flagship have lately tumbled to historic lows while he struggled to reverse five years of consecutive losses at his popular but unprofitable Apple Daily.
Lately he has resorted to promoting a subscription model similar to that of the New York Times. Then suddenly his newspaper was the talk of the town when Apple Daily published a juicy story that generated a huge amount of traffic.
It came in the form of a video clip of singer Andy Hui Chi-on, husband of Canto Pop queen Sammi Cheng Sau-man, seen kissing and cuddling young TVB actress Jacqueline Wong Sam-wing, whose boyfriend is Kenneth Ma Kwok-ming, also a TVB actor.
The 16-minute video clip, complete with apparent intimacy and unexpected dialogue, quickly went viral and dominated social media platforms in Hong Kong, China (where Facebook and Apple Daily are banned but the video and story featured on the popular WeChat app) and North America (where Apple has an app).
The mix of celebrity and intimacy between public figures with positive images captured the public’s attention, but it also sparked concerns over privacy and hidden cameras.
The source of the video, perhaps filmed by a taxi or Uber driver, is unclear. How it came to be leaked is also unknown, as is whether or not Apple Daily paid for it. Quite a few Apple rivals fired shots at Mr Lai for shamelessly running, if not paying, for the story.
In any case, the story gave fresh impetus to Apple Daily’s subscription plan just as it started a campaign to get customers to sign up for a plan that is currently free, but will require payment from later in the year, perhaps in October.
The juicy story, which attracted more than 100,000 “likes” on the Apple Daily website, reportedly brought in more than 200,000 subscribers, taking those enrolled in the subscription service to over two million.
It also saw Next Digital’s shares temporarily shoot up 22% at the opening of trading on Wednesday before falling back in the afternoon.
Apple Daily is a classic case of how a local media giant has suffered from its repeated attempts to monetize its huge online traffic. Hong Kong’s top news website, with over 5 million total unique visitors, is losing around HK$20 million (US$2.55 million) a month.
Worse still, the paper has been blacklisted, not just by mainland Chinese companies, but also by other major corporations who do not want to be viewed unfavorably by Beijing because of the paper’s anti-establishment, pro-democratic editorial approach.
Now it remains to be seen whether the maverick’s publication can get a second chance to prove that its back-to-basics, human-interest approach can become a life-saver for the struggling media giant.