Hong Kong journalists regroup abroad
When Hong Kong’s pro-democracy news outlets Apple Daily and Stand News were forced to close by authorities in 2021 under a sweeping Beijing-led crackdown on dissent, Jane Poon made herself a promise.
Poon, a Hong Konger who worked in the city’s media for nearly three decades before moving to Australia in 2017, promised to do whatever she could to keep the spirit of the defunct outlets alive.
After more than a year of planning, Poon’s vision became a reality in mid-January with the launch of The Points, a new online media outlet dedicated to covering news about Hong Kong and its growing diaspora.
Based entirely overseas, The Points, which publishes in Chinese, hopes to fill the gap left by the demise of most independent media in Hong Kong, where journalists now face the risk of arrest and imprisonment for coverage considered critical of Beijing.
The Points’s staff is made up of former employees of Hong Kong media, including Apply Daily and Stand News, who moved overseas amid the city’s crackdown on press freedom and other civil liberties.
With staff in Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom, the outlet hopes to be the first 24-hour news operation for Hong Kong that is based outside the city.
The Points’s recent coverage includes the Hong Kong Legislative Council’s unannounced decision to redact the names of legislators in transcripts of official proceedings, and a recent meeting between Hong Kong activists and Australia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Penny Wong.
“As some Hong Kong journalists disperse to other places, I think that although the Hong Kong media is in a difficult situation, it might also be a chance to turn a crisis into an opportunity,” Poon, who worked for Apple Daily’s parent company as the head of digital news for Next Magazine, told Al Jazeera.
“We could set up a media platform for the journalists in various places who may work together to cover stories across countries for the Hong Kong diaspora, and also cover stories which are not allowed to be published in Hong Kong anymore.”
Hong Kong, a British colony for more than 150 years before its return to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, was long regarded as one of Asia’s most vibrant and freewheeling media scenes until the imposition of a Beijing-drafted national security law in 2020.
Since then, most of the city’s pro-democracy media have been forced to shut down or decided to close out of fear of being targeted by authorities.
Jimmy Lai, the garment-factory owner turned media tycoon who founded Apple Daily, is facing up to life in prison in a sedition and foreign collusion trial scheduled to begin in September following repeated delays.
In November, six of Lai’s former employees, including Apple Daily’s editor-in-chief, pleaded guilty to conspiring to collude with foreign forces by advocating for sanctions against the Hong Kong and mainland Chinese governments.
Two former editors of Stand News, which closed in December 2021 after its offices were raided by national security police, are currently on trial for sedition.
Last year, Hong Kong’s global press freedom ranking plunged nearly 70 places to 148, according to Reporters Without Borders. The territory, which was promised a high degree of autonomy and civil liberties that do not exist in mainland China for at least 50 years after the handover, ranked 18th in 2002.
More than 1,500 journalists in Hong Kong have been put out of work in the crackdown, according to an analysis carried out by Bloomberg News last year, with many former media workers moving into other industries or migrating overseas.
At the same time, the growing Hong Kong diaspora — about 150,000 Hong Kongers have moved to the UK alone since the passage of the National Security Law – has created opportunities for new ways to report on Hong Kong.
The Points follows the launch of a number of other Hong Kong-focused outlets located abroad, including Flow HK, which is based in Taiwan, and Commons Hong Kong, which is based in the UK and Taiwan.
“There’s always a need for a vibrant, independent press. It’s hopeful to see resilient journalists inside and outside Hong Kong continue their excellent journalism,” Iris Hsu, China representative for the Committee to Protect Journalists, told Al Jazeera.
“If the overseas media outlets provide a safer platform for Hong Kong’s critical journalism that has been under attack for years, it would help preserve Hong Kong’s press freedom and slow the government’s deliberate erosion of checks and balances of power.”
The Hong Kong government has repeatedly insisted that the city’s press freedom remains intact. Hong Kong’s leader John Lee last year said there was no need to talk about defending press freedom because it “exists and we attach great importance to press freedom”.
Reaching across the divides
For now, The Points has a modest size and reach.
The outlet relies on six full-time journalists and freelancers, according to Poon, who said the website attracts about 3,000-4000 readers each day, although that number is growing fast.
Finn Lau, The Points’s executive director, said the outlet relies on a small pool of reader donations to pay its staff and is exploring other sources of revenue, which could include government grants or wealthy donors.
“Financial sustainability is one of the key issues, that’s why it took us around 15 months to prepare our media before launch,” Lau told Al Jazeera. “For the upcoming two years, our top priority must be to get the media [outlet] to be financially sustainable.”
Despite its links to Apple Daily, The Points is also keen to reach Hong Kong people from across the political spectrum and to avoid charges of political bias and sensationalism that critics levelled at the defunct tabloid, said Lau, a Hong Kong activist known for his opposition to Beijing.
“We don’t want to overly politicise our media outlet,” said Lau, who popularised a protest strategy of escalating violence known as “Lam Chau” during anti-government protests in 2019 and 2020.
“On the other hand, we don’t want to self-censor. So we are trying to find a dedicated balance between being a tabloid or being a so-called … intellectual newspaper.”
Apart from financial challenges, The Points has had trouble getting the word out on social media.
Soon after its launch, the outlet’s Twitter account was suspended without warning or explanation, Lau said.
Lau said the account had not violated Twitter’s terms of service, but it may have been targeted with vexatious complaints by pro-Beijing figures or fallen victim to the shortage of staff at the platform following Elon Musk’s takeover. The account has yet to be reinstated.
“We are very frustrated with Twitter and we are still considering what we should do with this platform,” he said.
Still, Lau has big ambitions for the media outlet.
“I am rather optimistic about the visibility of this project. Actually I am a pragmatic dreamer,” he said. “That’s why I believe it might take one or two years to stabilise.”
For Poon, the launch of The Points is about more than upholding press freedom. She hopes the outlet can help preserve Hong Kong’s distinct culture and values.
“We have our next generation. We have to look after our children,” she said.
“That’s why it’s important to have our own media, to tell our own stories. Then our history and everything can be given down to our next generation.”
Twitter source code partially leaked online, court filing says – Al Jazeera English
GitHub removed code shared without permission after request by social media giant, court filing says.
Twitter’s source code has partially leaked online, according to a legal filing by the social media giant.
Twitter asked GitHub, an online software development platform, to remove the code after it was posted online without permission earlier this month, the legal document filed in the US state of California showed on Sunday.
GitHub complied with Twitter’s request to remove the code after the social media company on March 24 issued a subpoena to identify a user known as “FreeSpeechEnthusiast”, according to the filing with the US District Court of the Northern District of California. San Francisco-based Twitter noted in the filing that the postings infringe on the platform’s intellectual property rights.
The filing was first reported by The New York Times.
The leak of the code is the latest hiccup at the social media giant since its purchase by Elon Musk, whose tenure has been marked by mass layoffs, outages, sweeping changes to content moderation and heated debate about the proper balance between free speech and online safety.
Musk, who bought Twitter for $44bn last October, said recently that Twitter would open the source code used to recommend tweets on March 31. Musk, who also runs Tesla and several other companies, said the platform’s algorithm was overly complex and predicted people would find “many silly things” once the code was made public. It is not clear if the leaked source relates to the code used to recommend tweets.
“Providing code transparency will be incredibly embarrassing at first, but it should lead to rapid improvement in recommendation quality,” he wrote on Twitter. “Most importantly, we hope to earn your trust.”
Utah is first US state to limit teen social media access
Utah has become the first US state to require social media firms get parental consent for children to use their apps and verify users are at least 18.
The governor said he signed the two sweeping measures to protect young people in the state.
The bills will give parents full access to their children’s online accounts, including posts and private messages.
Under the measures enacted on Thursday, a parent or guardian’s explicit consent will be needed before children can create accounts on apps such Instagram, Facebook and TikTok.
The bills also impose a social media curfew that blocks children’s access between 22:30 and 06:30, unless adjusted by their parents.
Under the legislation, social media companies will no longer be able to collect a child’s data or be targeted for advertising.
The two bills – which are also designed to make it easier to take legal action against social media companies – will take effect on March 1, 2024.
Governor Spencer Cox, a Republican, wrote on Twitter: “We’re no longer willing to let social media companies continue to harm the mental health of our youth.
“As leaders, and parents, we have a responsibility to protect our young people.”
Children’s advocacy group Commons Sense Media welcomed the governor’s move to curtail some of social media’s most addictive features, calling it a “huge victory for kids and families in Utah”.
“It adds momentum for other states to hold social media companies accountable to ensure kids across the country are protected online,” said Jim Steyer, Common Sense Media’s founder and CEO.
Similar regulations are being considered in four other Republican-led states – Arkansas, Texas, Ohio and Louisiana – and Democratic-led New Jersey.
But Common Sense Media and other advocacy groups warned some parts of the new legislation could put children at risk.
Ari Z Cohn, a free speech lawyer for TechFreedom, said the bill posed “significant free speech problems”.
“There are so many children who might be in abusive households,” he told the BBC, “who might be LGBT, who could be cut-off from social media entirely.”
In response, Meta, Facebook’s parent company, said it has robust tools to keep children safe.
A spokesperson told the BBC: “We’ve developed more than 30 tools to support teens and families, including tools that let parents and teens work together to limit the amount of time teens spend on Instagram, and age verification technology that helps teens have age-appropriate experiences.”
There has been other US bipartisan support for social media legislation aimed at protecting children.
President Joe Biden’s State of the Union address in February called for laws banning tech companies from collecting data on children.
Last year, California state lawmakers passed their own child data law. Among other measures, the California Age-Appropriate Design Code Act requires digital platforms to make the highest privacy features for under-18 users a default setting.
The passage of the Utah bills coincides with a bruising congressional hearing for TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew.
The digital media rollup dream is dead for the moment — now it’s all about core brand strength
When a marriage or an engagement fails, it’s common for the participants to take time to work on themselves.
That’s where the digital media industry finds itself today.
After years of focusing on consolidating to better compete with Google and Facebook for digital advertising dollars, many of the most well-known digital media companies have abandoned consolidation efforts to concentrate on differentiation.
“What you’re finding is companies are trying to find a non-substitutable core,” said Jonathan Miller, the CEO of Integrated Media, which specializes in digital media investments. “The era of trying to put these companies together is over, and I don’t think it’s coming back.”
A 90% decline in BuzzFeed shares since the company went public in 2021, a failed sales process from Vice, the collapse of special purpose acquisition companies, and a choppy advertising market have made digital media executives rethink their companies’ futures. For the moment, executives have decided that more concentrated investment is better than attempts to gain scale.
“Right now, everyone’s trying to get through a tougher market by focusing on their strengths,” BuzzFeed CEO Jonah Peretti said in an interview with CNBC. “We’re in this period now where we should just focus on innovating for the future and building more efficient, stronger, better companies.”
What’s happening in the digital media space echoes trends from the biggest media companies, including Netflix, Disney and Warner Bros. Discovery. After losing nearly half their market values, or more, in 2022, those companies have emphasized what makes them different, whether it be distribution, brand or quality of programming, after years of global expansion and mega-mergers. Disney CEO Bob Iger said the word “brand” more than 25 times at a Morgan Stanley media conference this month.
“I think brands matter,” Iger said. “The more choice people have, the more important brands become because of what they convey to consumers.”
Making strategic decisions based on consumer demand rather than investor pressure is a pivot for the industry, said Bryan Goldberg, CEO of Bustle Digital Group, which has acquired and developed a number of brands and sites aimed at women, including Nylon, Scary Mommy, Romper and Elite Daily.
“Too many of the mergers were driven by investor needs as opposed to consumer needs,” Goldberg said in an interview.
The rollup dream’s rise and fall
From late 2018 to early 2022, the digital media industry had a shared goal. Pushed by venture capitalist and private equity investors who had made sizeable investments in the industry during the 2010s, companies such as BuzzFeed, Vice, Vox Media, Group Nine, and Bustle Digital Group, or BDG, were talking to each other, in various combinations, about merging to gain scale.
“If BuzzFeed and five of the other biggest companies were combined into a bigger digital media company, you would probably be able to get paid more money,” Peretti told The New York Times in November 2018, kicking off a multiyear effort to consolidate.
The rationale was twofold. First, digital media companies needed more scale to compete with Facebook and Google for digital advertising dollars. Adding sites and brands under one corporate umbrella would boost overall eyeballs for advertisers. Cost-cutting from M&A synergies was an added benefit for investors.
Second, longtime shareholders wanted to exit their investments. Large legacy media companies such as Disney and Comcast‘s NBCUniversal invested hundreds of millions in digital media in the early and mid-2010s. Disney invested more than $400 million in Vice. NBCUniversal put a similar amount into BuzzFeed. By the end of the decade, after seeing the value of those investments fall, legacy media companies made it clear to digital media executives that they weren’t interested in being acquirers.
With no strategic buyer available, merging with each other using publicly traded stock could give VC and PE shareholders a chance to cash out of investments that were well past the standard hold time of seven years. Digital media companies eyed special purpose acquisition companies — also known as SPACs or blank-check companies — as a way to go public quickly. The popularity of SPACs picked up steam in 2020 and peaked in 2021.
Deal flow accelerated. Vox acquired New York Magazine in September 2019. About a week later, Vice announced it had acquired Refinery29, a digital media company focused on younger women. BuzzFeed bought news aggregator and blog HuffPost in 2020 and then acquired digital publisher Complex Networks in 2021 as part of a SPAC transaction to go public. Vox and Group Nine agreed to a merger later that year.
BuzzFeed, generally thought by industry executives at the time to have the strongest balance sheet with the best growth narrative, successfully went public via SPAC in December 2021. Shares immediately tanked, falling 24% in their first week of trading. The coming weeks and months were even worse. BuzzFeed opened at $10 per share. The stock currently trades at about $1 — a 90% loss of value.
BuzzFeed’s underwhelming performance coincided with the implosion of the SPAC market in early 2022 as interest rates rose. Other companies that planned to follow BuzzFeed shut down their efforts to go public completely. Vice tried and failed. Now it’s trying for the second time in two years to find a buyer. BDG and Vox, meanwhile, abandoned considerations to go public. Vox instead sold a 20% stake in itself in February to Penske Media, which owns Rolling Stone and Variety.
The industry turns inward
Consolidation was always a flawed strategy because digital media could never become big enough to compete with Facebook and Google, said Integrated Media’s Miller.
“You have to have sufficient amount of scale to matter, but that’s not a winning formula by itself,” Miller said.
Vice’s deal for Refinery29 is a prime example of a deal motivated by scale that lacked consumer rationale, said BDG’s Goldberg.
“The digital media rollup has proven successful only when assets are thoughtfully combined with an eye toward consumers,” Goldberg said. “In what world did Vice and Refinery29 make sense in combination?”
Vice is engaged in sale talks with a number of buyers that fall outside the digital media landscape, CNBC previously reported. It’s also considering selling itself in pieces if there’s more interest in parts of the company, such as its TV production assets and its ad agency, Virtue.
Vice is a cautionary tale of what happens to a digital media company when its brand loses luster, Miller said. Valued at $5.7 billion in 2017, Vice is now considering selling itself for around $500 million, according to people familiar with the matter, who asked not to be named because the sale discussions are private.
A Vice spokesperson declined to comment.
“In the old days of media, with TV networks, if you were down, you could revive yourself with a hit,” said Miller. “In the internet age, everything is so easily substitutable. If Vice goes down, the audience just moves on to something else.”
Companies such as BuzzFeed, Vox and BDG are now trying to find an enduring relevancy amid a myriad of information and entertainment options. BuzzFeed has chosen to lean in to artificial intelligence, touting new AI-generated quizzes and other content that fuses the work of staff writers with AI databases.
BDG has chosen to primarily target female audiences across lifestyle categories.
Vox has focused on journalism and information across a number of different verticals. That’s a strategy that hasn’t really changed even as the market has turned against digital media, allowing Vox CEO Jim Bankoff the opportunity to continue to hunt for deals. Just don’t expect the partners to be Vice, BDG or BuzzFeed.
“We want to be the leading modern media company with the strongest portfolio of brands that serve their audiences on modern platforms — websites, podcasts, streaming services — while building franchises through multiple revenue streams,” Bankoff said. “There’s no doubt M&A is part of our playbook, and we expect it will continue to be in the future.”
Finding an exit
While executives may be making strategy decisions with a sharper eye toward the consumer, the problem of finding an exit for investors remains. Differentiation may open up the pool of potential buyers beyond the media industry. BuzzFeed’s emphasis on artificial intelligence could attract interest from technology platforms, for instance.
It’s also possible that there will be an eventual second wave of peer-to-peer mergers. While Integrated Media’s Miller doesn’t expect a future industry rollup, BuzzFeed’s Peretti hasn’t closed the door on the concept if market conditions improve. As executives invest in fewer ideas and verticals, the end result could be healthier companies that are more attractive merger partners, he said.
“If everyone invests in what they’re best at, if you put them back together, you’d have that diversified digital media company with real scale,” Peretti said. “That helps drive commerce for all parts of a unified company. I think it’s still possible.”
Disclosure: Comcast’s NBCUniversal is the parent company of CNBC.
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