Ming Pao leading the other newspaper war

Speak of newspaper wars in this country and most people immediately think of the battling Toronto dailies. But unbeknownst to the mainstream, Canada's most successful niche - the Chinese-language dailies - has been home to its own bloody battle for years....

Speak of newspaper wars in this country and most people immediately think of the battling Toronto dailies. But unbeknownst to the mainstream, Canada’s most successful niche – the Chinese-language dailies – has been home to its own bloody battle for years.

Sing Tao had been publishing a Canadian newspaper for 15 years when fellow Hong Kong concern, Ming Pao, launched its own Canadian editions in Toronto and Vancouver in 1993. Ming Pao’s timing couldn’t have been more auspicious. Hong Kong Chinese, uncertain over the economical ramifications of the imminent hand-over of the former British colony back to China, were pouring into the country. Hungry for news from their homeland, they were a newspaper publisher’s dream. They were also an advertiser’s dream: unusually wealthy for an immigrant group, the influx of Hong Kong Chinese were eager to buy goods and services for their new life in Canada.

Despite the influx of Chinese, Sing Tao, run by a well known Malaysian family from Hong Kong, found itself losing readership at an alarming rate almost as soon as the competition set up shop.

Just as Sing Tao was getting desperate, it found a white knight. Three years ago, the Toronto Star stepped in and bought a large chunk of the Canadian enterprise. The subsequent infusion of resources meant that the newspaper undertook a much-needed facelift, adding more colour to its pages and improving editorial, according to Peter Li, general manager for Sing Tao’s Eastern edition.

‘The Toronto Star helped to change the [paper's] image,’ says Li, adding that the Star’s added resources led to a more contemporary feel for the Chinese-Canadian original. ‘It became more light-hearted in terms of style and content.’

Albert Yue, owner and director of Toronto-based Chinese agency Dynasty Advertising, watched the newspaper war unfold.

‘There’s always a war when there’s more than one newspaper,’ he says. However, he points out that the presence of two or three newspapers in a Chinese community does not necessarily create as much tension as the same scenario generates in English Canada, thanks to the voracious reading habits of most Chinese.

As a 20-plus newspaper city, Hong Kong caters to those accustomed to reading two or three newspapers each day. The numbers in Canada bear this out. According to ACNielsen, 57% of Chinese in Toronto read Ming Pao, while

44% read Sing Tao and 15% read

the World Journal, an international Chinese-language paper with regional editions out of Toronto, Vancouver and other North American cities aimed at the Taiwanese community.

‘Obviously, there’s quite a bit of duplication,’ says Yue. And that doesn’t even look at the English papers: 37% of Chinese read the Toronto Star, while the three remaining Toronto publications each claim a 7% Chinese readership. ‘Clearly, the English newspapers can’t reach 40% of the population,’ says Yue.

He says that the introduction of another big player has improved quality across the board. There are more colour pages and improved content, thanks to access to Toronto Star photos and news. ‘It’s also a thicker paper,’ Yue says of Sing Tao today.

Besides the actual paper, the company has also had to work at promoting itself to advertisers, where it didn’t before. ‘Before the arrival of Ming Pao, there was no choice,’ says Sing Tao’s Li. ‘But, since then, we’ve found that advertisers have become more sophisticated and we’ve had to rely on independent surveys.’ Both Li and Ben Yip, Ming Pao’s Toronto-based senior manager, circulation and marketing, claim that their newspapers enjoy the highest number of advertisers.

Both papers try to attract readers and advertisers with special supplements targeting interests and special times of the year (Chinese New Year, for example) and weekly entertainment magazines focusing on Chinese film and music stars.

But Ming Pao’s Yip says that Chinese papers face the same problems as Canada’s English papers: trying to attract a younger audience that is not as enamoured with newspapers as previous generations. ‘We’re facing the same threat,’ he says. In fact, one way the company tries to maintain and grow its audience is by protecting and promoting the Chinese languages.

Consider this: 1996 Census figures indicate that only 30% of Italians in Canada speak their native language, compared to 75% of Chinese residents, who speak either Mandarin or Cantonese at home. No one can assume that the retention of language is an inherently Chinese characteristic – instead, the numbers likely reflect the waves of immigration. Italians are into their second and third generations, while Chinese are only on their first.

To combat the Westernization of its readership – which would almost certainly mean losing readers to English papers – Ming Pao supports Chinese heritage programs for youth and sponsors events that cater to promoting harmonious family relationships. The strategy, executed under the ‘Ming Pao Enriches Your Life’ tag, also includes targeting the senior population with special seminars and the like. In Chinese households, the more elderly members are often very much the decision-makers, says Yip. ‘Because they are free during the daytime, they buy the newspaper,’ he says.

Under the same auspice, the company organizes informational seminars for new immigrants from mainland China. Topics such as finding a job and seeking out an apartment are covered in these seminars.