Apple Daily was literally besieged for a few consecutive nights earlier this week when more than 100 people obstructed newspaper delivery trucks by blocading the entrances and exits of the Next Media building, ignoring a restraining order issued by Hong Kong's high court.
This is a frightening precedent, whether you consider press freedom or merely the commercial desire for a stable and dependable media environment.
This is the first time one of the most politicised media outlets in Hong Kong has encountered physical hostility disrupting its news-gathering and distribution operations. But clearly not the first time the paper has felt some political pressure. Flash back to a talk at the National Endowment for Democracy back in April, where Martin Lee (founder of Hong Kong’s Democratic Party) alleged that Beijing was using economic pressure to squeeze the paper. Lee said that Hong Kong businesses were being encouraged to revoke their advertising deals with Apple Daily in favor of more Beijing-friendly media.
And indeed some advertisers pulled out before Occupy Central got started, as evident in this report about HSBC and Standard Chartered. "For those clients with a political stance, they have already pulled out a while ago," one industry source told Campaign Asia-Pacific. These clients were mainly in the retail banking and real estate industries.
"It's more political to pull out than to stay on," this source added.
The lead time to pull advertisements can be from three to 12 hours for digital ads and from 12 to 24 hours for the print version, in an emergency situation, according to sources. Even after Occupy Central started, advertisers have had ample time to pull out and would have done so if they are worried about being guilty by association.
"The advertisers that are still in the paper are either indirect supporters of the paper's political stance, or there for business reasons," said another source.
For example, today's edition came with a glossy wraparound ad from Versace, promoting the grand opening of its flagship boutique shop in Harbour City—a shopping mall in the Tsim Sha Tsui district unaffected by the sit-in protestors.
Other brands in the paper's volatile A section include Samsung, Penfold's, PrimeCredit and Mini. These brands apparently do not mind their placements right next to emotionally charged coverage with headlines shouting "demonic police beatings" and "fear of escalation of Next Media's woes by dark forces".
After all, it's the eyeball count callling the shots when it comes to advertising effectiveness. Apple Daily's traffic and circulation have remained steady, the paper insisted, despite some delivery delays. In the heat of the moment, newsstand vendors were selling the A section of the paper separately on its own after the company took action to deliver the news-heavy section ahead of lifestyle-oriented B to H sections.
And online, Occupy Central has had a big positive impact: the company has seen a 40 per cent traffic increase. Digital traffic on its website and mobile app ranged from 30 to 40 million daily pageviews, with 60 per cent of that coming from mobile devices. By comparison, print circulation is about 190,000.
The paper has been under virtual attack for some time, with repeated denial-of-service (DDoS) cyberattacks on its website in June. This has happened again this week, according to an internal Apple Daily source, who said the company has seen attacks every day and has stepped up its online security efforts.
Overall, most brands haven't deviated much from their media plans. The paper has seen a higher rescheduling rate this month, a source confirmed. And some brands have forfeited ads that couldn't be rescheduled. For instance, Disney forfeited a time-sensitive promotional ad because of "gloomy shopping sentiment", one source revealed.
Granted, new ad bookings have also declined somewhat, with closing rates after RFPs on media plans lower this month as a natural consequence of the unstable situation. "All we can reveal is that it's slower, no numbers," the source said. "But not drastically slower," he added when probed.
In fact, the decline in commercial ad booking revenue was offset by copy-based ads with political messages, such as the black-and-white pages taken out by groups or unions in the advertising, design, or education industries calling for less violence and more dialogue.