In China, Newspapers Can Still Thrive

Newspapers, as everyone knows by now, are a crummy business, being slowly but surely pounded to death by two major forces they can’t control. First, news is now available for free, instantly, online. So, no need to wait for – and pay for — tomorrow’s newspaper to find out what’s happened today. At the same time, Google and Craigslist have created a far more efficient, and generally far cheaper,  form of advertising online than traditional print advertising.

On the whole, it’s a very gloomy picture. But, there is one new newspaper business model that not only goes from strength to strength, it will likely continue to make big money for many years to come. It’s the free newspapers distributed on subway and metro systems. The first one appeared in Sweden in 1995. Shenzhen, where I live, this year got its first entrant, called “地铁早8点”( “8 O’clock” in English). These free newspapers seem inoculated from every pathogen that is killing off the big urban newspapers around the world like the New York Times, LA Times, Le Monde, South China Morning Post. 

Start with the fact they are free. That certainly makes it easier to find readers. Next, there’s guaranteed, efficient and low-cost distribution. In the case of 8 O’clock, the paper is handed out by reps or left in big piles weekday mornings at many of Shenzhen’s 137 subway stations. Based on my daily subway commute, I’d say the newspaper is now being read by well over 60% of the people on my morning rush-hour train. The newspaper is bulging with ads. By any standards, this is a both a business success and a repudiation of the notion that print newspapers are sledding towards extinction.

The key to success for 8 O’Clock is knowing who its readers are and what they want to read about. 8 O’Clock, like most free subway newspapers, attracts mainly under-40 office workers. They have very clear editorial tastes, and these differ in some key ways from the many newspapers that are now headed for the boneyard. For one thing, 8 O’clock doesn’t try to break major stories or even stay current on political or economic stories fighting for headlines elsewhere. Instead, it offers its readers a mix of brief articles about celebrities, sports stars, oddball “human interest” tales and the occasional local scandal. Around half of each page is pictures, either advertising copy or outsized art work accompanying the short articles.

8 O’Clock is owned by the biggest traditional newspaper publishing company in Shenzhen, called Shenzhen Press Group. It has ten other newspapers in Shenzhen, all using the conventional paid-circulation model. This offers some obvious traps for Shenzhen Press Group, most obviously in selling a product at newsstands with some strong similarities to the one it’s giving away for free in subway stations.  But, against that, Shenzhen Press Group is reaching people with 8 O’clock that most likely never buy paid-for newspapers. What’s more, Shenzhen Press Group already has an in-house advertising team and deep knowledge of the local market to sell ads efficiently in 8 O’Clock. A full-page color ad sells for around USD$25,000-$35,000, depending on the day of the week and placement. Readership is somewhere around 300,000 a day.

Beijing, Shanghai, Shenyang and Guangzhou all have their own free subway newspapers. All seem to be thriving.  Other countries also have them, including US, UK, Germany.

China is the ideal place for free subway-distributed newspapers to thrive. Start with the fact, of course, its cities are huge and subway ridership dwarves that of most Western cities. But, as important, the newspaper industry in China is relatively new. Chinese aren’t imprinted in the way that so many Americans and Europeans are about what newspapers are for. The popular ones see themselves, unashamedly, as for-profit vehicles: an effective advertising medium. Not as a civic trust.

The editorial goal is to get enough people reading articles at the top of the page to deliver big audiences, efficiently, for the advertisers renting space at the bottom. For 8 O’clock, the advertisers are mainly large auto brands, hospitals, realtors and big chain stores all of whose businesses are thriving in China’s booming domestic economy. 

In cities like Shenzhen, Shanghai and Beijing, purchasing power, along with property prices, are reaching first world levels. There’s massive net migration into large cities in China, compared with stagnant, or declining populations in most big Western cities. The subway systems are themselves mainly new, with extensive networks – 14 lines in Beijing, 11 in Shanghai, five in Shenzhen, with two more on the way. As the systems grow, so too will the profits of the free subway newspapers like 8 O’clock.

A generation ago, there was basically only one newspaper of any importance and readership in China, the Communist Party’s People’s Daily (“人民日报”).  It’s still published, and has changed little down the years, a slim sheaf of turgid and often theoretical writing barely leavened by photos or ads. Meanwhile, thousands of newspapers and magazines have entered the market with a broad range of content.

All major media in China are still subject to censorship and, in theory, under the control of the Party’s propaganda department. But, 8 O’clock has ample scope to provide what Shenzhen’s subway commuters are after, at a price they can’t argue with.  A financially healthy newspaper serving a financially prospering city– 8 O’clock will keep waltzing compared to the wretched papers in the US and Europe.