Slumping Economy Hits Taiwan's Crowded Media Market

Newspapers are high-profile businesses often founded by tycoons who hate to admit defeat. But that's what some Taiwanese media moguls are doing as the island's economy slumps and the crowded media market undergoes a shakeout.

Within the past four months, Taiwan's only sports paper, The Great Sports Daily, shut down, along with the Tomorrow Times, the island's first Internet newspaper, which opened last year with a huge bash attended by hundreds at one of Taipei's finest hotels.

Other victims include two newspapers, Taiwan Shin Wen Daily News and Taiwan Shin Sheng Daily News, which were recently sold and are limping along. And the debt-laden Taiwan Daily News recently lost the backing of key investor Wang Yung-ching, chairman of Formosa Plastics Corp., the island's largest business conglomerate.

A combination of factors has caused the papers to hit hard times. Taiwan's economy is slowing down and a recent explosion in cable TV and radio stations has gobbled up advertising revenue that once went to papers, analysts say.

``The years of making big profits are gone, and newspapers are making changes to face up to the unprecedented challenge," said Hu You-wei, journalism professor of National Taiwan Normal University.

The changes may have been inevitable. With a population of only 23 million, the market appears to be too small for 21 national newspapers _ more than twice the number in Malaysia, which has a similar sized population.

Taiwan also has four major afternoon dailies and three English-language newspapers, though the island has a smaller English-reading population compared to other Asian markets, such as Hong Kong, which has two English-language dailies.

The battle for advertising, which account for about 70 percent of newspapers' revenue, gets keener as potential advertisers _ from real estate firms to food companies _ all feel the pinch of the sluggish economy, hurt in part by a global slowdown and sagging demand for a key export: computer parts.

Competition could heat up even more soon when brash Hong Kong businessman Jimmy Lai launches a Taiwanese version of his splashy tabloid Next Magazine, which is Hong Kong's most popular weekly.

Chen Kuo-hsiang, president of the China Times Express, a leading evening paper, agreed competition is tough but maintained that is the way of life for most Taiwanese businesses.

``All business sectors are overly saturated in Taiwan. Broadcasting is even more so than the print media," Chen said.

Taiwan has seven 24-hour cable TV news channels, launched after tight government control of the broadcasting industry ended when martial law was lifted in 1987.

``TV is more a forceful medium," said Chang Yu-jen, an official of the Government Information Office. ``As they get more viewers, they get a larger share of advertisements."

The cable stations have fleets of trucks equipped with satellite dishes and they race around reporting live from the scenes of attempted suicides, drunk driving arrests, prostitution raids and other sensational events.

Taiwan has 1.4 television sets per household, with an 80 percent cable penetration, compared to 60 percent in the United States.

Meanwhile, newspaper reading rate dropped from 86 percent in 1991 to 73 percent last year, according to an AC Nielson survey.

Despite dwindling profits, the leading papers will continue to operate because they carry ``a sense of mission'' to the society, said Liu You-li, journalism professor of National Chengchi University.

Most of the smaller papers, owned by business groups or political parties, could afford the losses because their owners are looking more for political and social influence than profits, Liu said.

Newspapers are taking cost-saving measures to wade through the slump.

Although large-scale layoffs have not happened, vacancies are left unfilled. Less productive senior staffers who were retained during the boom years are asked to take early retirement. Dailies belonging to the same media group pool their reporters and photographers, instead of sending several to cover the same event.

The United Daily News, a leading Mandarin-language paper, has refrained from laying off senior editors and reporters, but would caution them if they are less productive, business manager Ouyang Yuanmei said.

The UDN group continues to buy expensive equipment, such as machines making double-page color printing, in preparation for an economic recovery, she said.

It is also preparing for the worst. The group operates a money-losing online paper and several other Web sites just in case Internet papers become the future trend, she said.

People's Daily Online ---