Local community newspaper Tuenmunality (溯本尋屯) has found the way to thrive in the dying print industry, connecting people by sharing Tuen Mun’s collective memories and fascinating tales.

[ Print: From bloom to withering ]

A newspaper stall receives looks in Kennedy Town in Hong Kong, on Nov 21, 2021(Sun). GIF: Hannah Lee.

Print media is sinking faster than you may think. In this digital era, revenue from print advertising is falling steeply, forcing many newspapers out of business in Hong Kong.

As shown by the graph, according to a 2021 survey by Hong Kong Public Opinion Institute, the proportion of citizens using the internet as the main new source, rose from 12.3% in 2000 to 70.2% in March 2021 while the proportion of accessing news through print newspapers has been in a steep decline. 

Print newspapers have become increasingly difficult to sustain. Popular independent online media such as Standpoint News and the Hong Kong Free Press in English (Hong Kong Free Press) have steered clear of print altogether. 

Newspaper vendors feel the draught 

Few people would buy newspaper from newspaper vendours, shot in Kennedy Town in Hong Kong on Nov 21, 2021 (Sun). GIF: Hannah Lee. GIF: Hannah Lee.

A newspaper buyer handed in a few Hong Kong dollars, took hold of the latest newspaper from an unremarkable vendor, and began the day with reading. 

Wong Ka-kei, 62, one of the many newspaper vendors whose business was dealt a crushing blow, remembers fondly of what he described as “the good old times” years ago when each stall in general sold 1000 to 2000 copies daily.

Wong said words cannot describe how delightful it was to see piles and piles of print sold out back in the days.

“When explosive news broke out, the sales were even more astounding.” Wong said, “Those wishing to get their hands on a copy had to join a long, long queue.”

Over the years, print news has been an irreplaceable element, implanted in many Hongkongers’ memory.

Wong said that nowadays, newspaper vendors’ could only sell a hundred at best, with some days falling short of sales. Wong said that sometimes it was “even less than the fingers on one hand”.

While the newspaper industry has passed its golden age, Wong’s stall in Yau Ma Tei, could not withstand the expiry date too. He closed it down, albeit reluctantly, last December. 

Newspaper vendors face the competition of convenience stores in Hong Kong, shot on Nov 21, 2021(Sun) at a 7-Eleven in Kennedy Town. GIF: Hannah Lee. Photo: Hannah Lee.

As discussed in Legislative Council meetings in 2019, there were thousands of them present everywhere on the street in the 1990s, but only around 390 newspaper stalls are left in Hong Kong.

Print newspapers are at their wits’ end? 

Not many years ago, the profitability of newspaper vendors was directly impacted by free print newspapers. Now, losing their appeal against the mammoth amount of information, which is readily available, inexpensive (quite often free) and easily accessed at users’ fingertips.

The plummeting circulation and financial woes of the “mainstream” traditional newspaper have led us to a critical question — what else is left for print?

[ Silver lining in the sunset industry ]

Rain Ng Kei-yiu is the chief editor of Tuenmunality, a local community newspaper in Tuen Mun, Hong Kong, shot on 21 Nov, 2021. GIF: Hannah Lee

Rain Ng Kei-yiu, who graduated from Lingnan University with a degree in Chinese last year, is passionate about writing and Tuen Muen, where she grew up. With one-year funding from the district council, Ng set up “Tuenmunality”, a free community newspaper with her friends through Youth Space and became its chief editor last year.

Ng said the team was off to a great start in the first meeting, where each member has found their position easily with their own individual strengths in writing, photography, designs, etc., and the most important thing — they are all devoted to bringing Tuenmunality to fruition.

A small print newspaper in Tuen Muen is determined to get through

Each issue of Tuenmunality introduces the people and places, with stories created against the backdrop of Tuen Muen, shot on Nov 21, 2021 (Sun). Photo: Hannah Lee.

In contrast with the other two community newspapers that focus on the hard news in Tuen Mun, Tuenmunality, published seasonally, sheds light on the softer side of the community.

The publication consists of two parts: introducing a specific place in Tuen Mun, and columns filled with interviews of unsung heroes in the community, “weird and interesting” events and editors’ own experiences (e.g. childhood memories). 

Tuenmunality has launched four issues in total this year, with their latest issue being out last month, , shot on Nov 21, 2021 (Sun). GIF: Hannah Lee.

Doing everything from scratch outside school and working hours, these ten young editors have experienced a fair share of struggles . 

“Particularly in our case, our newspaper is long and elaborate, with more than fifty pages. It is quite difficult to make it pop and keep readers interested, let alone getting people to read them in the first place, ” Ng said. 

Ng lamented that the world has descended into a time where not a lot of people are willing to pay attention to print. This grim truth is not big news to her, she has known it all along.

However, the bleak reality has never hit her as strongly, as during the launch of their first issue dating back to last December  — when the pandemic ran rampant. 

Although the team poured their heart into putting their research and findings together in the first issue, the neighborhood showed nonchalance when it held street stations to distribute the newspapers. 

Most passersby were reluctant about catching our newspapers, thinking that they had to pay for our newspaper because it looked thick.” Ng said. “We had to be thick-skinned, introducing ourselves and inviting them to take a look in a submissive tone,” she added. 

Readers also reflected to Tuenmunality that its content was scattered and loose, a problem that the team addressed immediately for the second issue with in-depth columns focusing on a specific Tuen Mun area steeped in history, architectural and cultural uniqueness and human stories. 

Tuenmunality is responsive to the comments and feedback from their Tuen Mun readers, shot on Nov 21, 2021 (Sun). GIF: Hannah Lee.

Being a free, local community newspaper, Tuenmunality cannot be accessed at newspaper stalls and convenience stores. For each issue, they insist on holding street stations at different times in the center of Tuen Mun with the whole team to deliver the copies. 

“It is also a conversation-starter for us to understand what they think about our newspaper and imagine for the community face-to-face,” Rain said. 

Ng shared about the good and bad over the past year as she looked at the photos, at Youth Space in Tuen Mun, Hong Kong. GIF: Hannah Lee.

Their hard work and weekly meetings paid off as people started to recognise its thoughtful content and visuals. District councilors and small stores are willing to show support near Tuen Mun Town Centre, to display the newspaper and reach more people. 

Tuenmunality has published this year’s final issue (also their first Winter issue) in November.

Preserving memories & leaving footprints for the community

Many places like Wu King Estate in Tuen Mun deserve to be recorded, shot on Nov 21, 2021 (Sun). GIF: Hannah Lee.

The chinese name for Tuenmunality, 溯本尋屯, means tracing the roots to find out about Tuen Mun in english. 

Information is everywhere, but Ng and her team found that few articles and photos have been put on record about Tuen Mun. 

Ng questioned without much records, how could people retrace the root of Tuen Mun.

If twenty years later, young people want to learn about its development in the past, we hope that there are people in the neighborhood who will share with them, and tangible records they can read about,” Ng said.

The everyday life in Tuen Mun is full of dynamics, shot on the footbridge spanning across Wu King Road on Nov 21, 2021 (Sun). GIF: Hannah Lee.

Ng added the community is evolving and everyday is different with new happenings, she hopes Tuenmunality can inspire readers to pay close attention to their surroundings for more discoveries. 

GaangOne is one of the many small stores in Tuen Mun that support Tuenmunality’s work, shot on Nov 21, 2021 (Sun). Photo: Hannah Lee.

Brian Lam Ho-tai is the owner of GaangOne, a fresh vegetable and fruit store that supports Tuenmunality by being a point for issue display and distribution, after being reached out by the team.

“I have lived in Tuen Mun all my life, studying and growing up here, but there are plenty of facts and history of Tuen Mun I have missed,” Lam said. 

Lam is most impressed by the second issue of Tuenmunality that focuses on Sam Shing, where he lives, since it shares “inside-news” even Lam was not familiar with. He was also surprised that the young editors dug up stories he heard years ago. 

The second issue of Tuenmunality was about Sam Shing Hui in Tuen Mun, where Lam grows up, shot on Nov 21, 2021 (Sun). GIF: Hannah Lee.

“Those age-old stories shared about this place help us learn from the past and deserve to be remembered,” Lam said, adding that he thinks it is meaningful that a group of young people is trying to unearth the unknown side of this community. 

Lam would introduce each Tuenmunality latest issue to his customers. Since laying hold of the first issue, these customers have been coming back for more. Similar episodes have been playing out at most small stores in the rest of Tuen Mun, where the scope of Tuenmunality’s affiliation has expanded.

Apart from discovering buried stories, print newspapers are also a gateway to connecting with the older generation.

“Never had we expected we could reach those in their thirties and forties, or even retired groups in the neighborhood,” Ng said, recounting the occasions where the older adults would share feedback and what they learned from our issues enthusiastically.  

Ng said a valuable gain is her closer relationship with the neighbors, helping them establish a stronger “Tuen Mun identity” and sense of belonging. One of her most unforgettable memories is when some of them would make the effort to visit their street station. “It really makes our day when they said they have been waiting for our latest issue for so long,” she said. 

Adapting and overcoming

Understanding that solely relying on the quality of print publications is not enough to sustain Tuenmunality, the team also goes extra miles to share bite-size information, mostly “fun, cold and encyclopedic” facts, about Tuen Mun on social media to attract young people’s attention. 

Understanding that solely relying on the quality of print publications is not enough to sustain Tuenmunality, the team also goes extra miles to share bite-size information, mostly “fun, cold and encyclopedic” facts, about Tuen Mun on social media to attract young people’s attention. 

Ng said although print and social media are two different streams catering to the older adults and young people respectively, they go hand in hand together to generate more discussion and care about Tuen Mun. It also helps get more people interested to get hold of the publication, sit down and read it. 

In less than a year, Tuenmunality has become the most followed community newspaper in Hong Kong, shot on Nov 21, 2021 (Sun). GIF: Hannah Lee.

It is a triumph for the team when Tuenmunality became the most-followed community paper on Instagram, having captured the interest of even people outside of Tuen Mun. 

Despite the aim to connect the community with words, the team knows writing exerts imperceptible influence, albeit powerful, and passively responding to trends is not beneficial in the long haul. The team has been actively planning physical activities and classes for more engagement and a bigger impact. 

They will organize their first activity — a guided community photography exploration series — this month, aiming to allow participants to learn more, appreciate and capture the beauty of Tuen Mun together in person. It appeals to people who want to polish up on their photography skills, too. 

Tuenmunality set off with a one-year funding plan of Youth Space, a youth social entrepreneurship unit in Tuen Mun, which only covered publication fees compensated in their first year. 

Tuenmunality would surprise its readers with self-designed souvenirs along with the latest issues, shot on Nov 21, 2021 (Sun). GIF: Hannah Lee.

Creation should be valuable but it hardly pays back these days. Ng admitted that the team had been working hard for free this year. Coming to the end of 2021, the team has to secure funding for the new year. 

 Tuenmunality has also taken “the leap” to be sustainable, preparing to transform from free to paid publication, since as Ng explained, it is important to give the writers, editors and designers a reasonable remuneration that they rightfully deserve. Starting from the coming fifth issue, Tuenmunality will no longer be distributed free of charge. They will be experimenting with a subscription plan as well.

What is wrong with seeking the easier route?

Despite financial difficulties and popularity on social media, Ng said the team insists not to go digital completely even though it would save them a lot of troubles, since the gritty texture of print is irreplaceable.

Many readers of Tuenmunality feel the same way, too. “Some of them live faraway and outside of Tuen Mun. When I told them we also offered a digital version, they said they preferred holding the print in hand,” Ng said. A smile could be heard in her tone of voice under the mask. 

Below is a comparison of the print and digital versions of Tuenmunality's latest issue.

There was also an instance where some readers especially came to the team, saying that they wanted to pay back for the copy because it was well-crafted, Ng said. 

Ng added that some of their target audiences do not use social media, using the most traditional method is the most effective way to reach them.

Sunset at the famous Tuen Mun Ferry Pier, which is the theme focus of Tuenmunality's third issue, in Tuen Mun, Hong Kong, on November 21, 2021. Photo: Hannah Lee.

Ng believes that the future of print is not entirely hopeless.

If you are willing to set your heart on refining the collection value of your newspaper and make people fall in love with reading print again, there are still chances for print media to survive,” Ng said, stressing that a spot-on design is vital in catching and keeping people’s attention. 

Tuenmunality works hard for good-quality design of its print publications, including the self-designed map as a souvenir for the second issue, shot on Nov 21, 2021 (Sun). Photo: Hannah Lee.

“To be honest, without the quality of our designer’s work, people would not have picked it up and taken it back home,” Ng admitted. She added that although a unique branding and eye-catching design can be all it takes, it takes plenty of efforts, too.

Print media is indeed a sunset industry but there are ways to adapt and break through so that it will not be lost in time. Tuenmunality is case in point.

[ Another way to sustain the diversity of print ]

 In fact, many budding community newspaper from almost all the districts in Hong Kong have not given up on print and are committed to continuing publication, breathing new life into the declining print industry. 

( hover over the map to find out the number of community newspaper(s) in each district )

Support the print newspaper of your own district when you still can, 

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