Citizen News’ CE: crowdfunded news website struggles for survival with confidence and hope

Surviving on a small amount of capital, lacking human resources, and never having enough subscribers, are the dark side of maintaining an “independent” and “unique” journalistic stance of a Hong Kong crowdfunded news website.

Daisy Li Yuet-wah, the CEO and chief editor, said independence allows the website to fulfill their mission of “providing quality news for Hong Kong” without political or capital pressure yet the downside is that it is hard to make money when giving a talk to students at Hong Kong Baptist University on April 4.

Hong Kong Citizen News, a non-profit Chinese-language news website founded by ten veteran journalists including Li and former Ming Pao chief editor Kevin Lau Chun-to, launched on January 1, 2017, promising to “uphold press freedom” without political bias.

“Citizen News is quite a unique website in Hong Kong,” Li, the former chief executive of the online news division of Taiwan’s Apple Daily news and former Hong Kong Journalists’ Association (HKJA) chairwoman said, explaining that it may be the only one in Hong Kong that does not have investors.

According to Li, Citizen News has an initial funding of HK$2.5 million from four donors and another HK$2.5 million from a crowdfunding platform to raise operational money from the public in its first year, and now has about 1,000 subscribers who pay HK$100 per month.

These people pay to receive something they value: a weekly newsletter that has four sections.

Exclusive to paid subscribers, the newsletter, which has about 8,000 Chinese characters covering local political news, international news, Taiwan news, and financial news, are written free by four well-respected writers. Three are Citizen News’ funders, and the other is a senior reporter from a certain publication who is a friend of the funders, Li said.

Li and the other two founder-editors take a concessional salary while the company pays the hired ones at market price but at the lower end of it, Li said. Citizen News now has ten paid staffs, but higher salaries are not easy to pay. Indeed, even the bosses muck in with all tasks.

“I’m the chief editor, the CEO, and the tea lady in the office,” Li said.

Li admitted that they have not reached a sustainable operating level yet, but she remains confident and hopeful, saying that the company now has a problem with marketing and wants to reach out to a bigger audience.

“We didn’t do sufficient to reach out to them,” Li said that there is nothing they can do if they try to do marketing but get a negative answer, but they cannot come to that conclusion yet.

On April 3, a story published by Citizen News that fact-checked to a speech by Maria Tam Wai-chu, a Hong Kong deputy of National People’s Congress, about changes to the extradition policy had received 70,000 views on Facebook, which is about 10,000 more than the number of its followers on Facebook.

The senior Hong Kong politician and lawyer said on a Commercial Radio interview on March 31 that China has signed and implemented extradition treaties with 36 countries, including Britain, the U.S., Canada, Germany, France, and Italy. However, Citizen News found that 37 instead of 36 countries have signed extradition treaties with China, and these countries do not include Britain, the U.S., Canada, and Germany.

Although Citizen News provides its audience with online payment methods like Paypal and PayMe, Li did not think that these would increase income for them now or in the near future because their audience is made up of mostly intellectuals who are over 50 and may not familiar with using those methods, telling that a subscriber who once came to the office to pay in cash.

Li said Citizen News is trying to build a bigger editorial team and might hire a professional marketing person this year to improve the influence of the company.


Chen Yuyang, Apr. 7,  2019

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