Tom Grundy on launching a truly independent English-language news website in Hong Kong

Tom GrundyTom Grundy was one of the most prolific independent journalists covering the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong last year. Less than a year later, the founder of blog HongWrong.com is launching an independent news website, Hong Kong Free Press, at a time when media freedom is believed to be in serious decline. HKFP goes live in under a fortnight.

In this Q&A with Mumbrella Asia’s editor Robin Hicks, Grundy talks about why the website is needed, taking on the might of the South China Morning Post, and whether he’s worried about his personal safety in a city that is increasingly dangerous for critical voices.

What do you make of the response to HKFP so far?

We’ve been overwhelmed. We’ve seen a real groundswell of grassroots support. We only expected to raise HK$150,000 (US$19,000) in a month. We’ve raised four times that [their crowdfunding campaign raised a HK$600,000, the largest amount ever raised in the fastest time on FringeBacker.com]. There’s clearly an appetite for truly independent news that fills the gap between reporting in Chinese and English in Hong Kong.

Has the Umbrella Movement driven the surge in interest in your venture, do you think?

Yes, it’s the right time to launch. It’s soon after the Umbrella Movement, there’s a vote on political reform and elections are just two years away. No matter what shape they take, we need a free press to report what’s going on. In the greatest tradition of journalism we’ll be holding the powerful to account to keep the electorate informed.

Another factor is the press freedom situation. There have been half a dozen attacks on journalists in the year preceding the Occupy protests alone, and multiple international watchdogs have been charting an alarming decline in press freedom in the city [Reporters Without Borders, the Committee to Protect Journalists, the International Federation of JournalistsHong Kong Journalists Association and Pen America have all reported on the recent decline in press freedom]. Hong Kong Free Press is a positive response to this trend.

Watch Hong Kong Free Press’ promo video:

You say there’s been a decline in press freedom in Hong Kong. But from where I’m sitting, in Singapore, it sure doesn’t feel like it (Hong Kong is still 83 places above Singapore in the Reporters without Borders press freedom index, even though Hong Kong fell further than Singapore in the last report in February). Does Hong Kong really need the service you’re providing?

You may look at Hong Kong from Singapore and wonder what we’re complaining about. But Hong Kong is one corner of China where you can have a critical voice. If we don’t maintain our liberties and freedom, where can one turn to in China? We’ve seen a proliferation of independent media in Hong Kong, but nothing in the English language.

Press freedom in English is in serious decline here. There is the South China Morning Post, but it is owned by a large media group and has something of a monopoly, so there are genuine press freedom concerns there.

Speed is another area we want to address. To get an understanding of breaking news in English in Hong Kong, we have to wait for up to six hours or sometimes two days to truly understand what’s going on. We plan to get stories out in English faster than Hong Kong is used to.

We’re looking to introduce China coverage too. There is a surplus of China stories that never make it into English, and a section called SinoBeat will cover news on the mainland.

How worried do you think the SCMP will be about the launch of Hong Kong Free Press, given that the paper decreasingly enjoys a reputation for being free and independent? You have often pointed out on Twitter that the SCMP’s print edition often carries pro-Beijing bias in its editorials…

We don’t really consider the SCMP to be a competitor. They have a much larger infrastructure, more experience and more money. We see ourselves as complementary, an alternative source to turn to. Yes, many have lamented that there are concerns with the editorials and framing in the print edition. Readers regularly raise eyebrows about that. But the SCMP’s hard-news reporting, the front-line stuff, is great.

What response did you get from SCMP to the launch?

Young Post's piece on HKFP

Young Post’s piece on HKFP

We got a mention in the Young Post [the SCMP’s youth oriented paper]. It’s understandable that they wouldn’t want to report on us in the main paper. I doubt they’re losing any sleep over us, but I think we will make the SCMP better, because they will have to be faster. Our speed and volume may cause some ripples. And we have no pay wall.

If we’re consistent, people will turn to us. We’ll be making sure that we are publishing stories around the clock. We need to ensure that someone is getting in early and someone is awake and on duty until late in the day. If a story is kicking off, we will go to where the news is at any time.

Hong Kong is not the safest place to be a journalist these days (Grundy was struck by a bottle during the Occupy Hong Kong protests). Are worried for your safety?

There seems to be certain level of protection from writing in English in Hong Kong. It’s unheard of for English language journalists to be attacked. There’s no evidence to suggest that it will happen and I’m not concerned. We are neither pro-Beijing or pro-democracy. We are progressive and should be on the right side of justice and open to dissenting voices, so I don’t understand why we would be controversial to either side. We’re just sticking to what’s happening every day, without bias or an agenda and reporting the news as we find it.

You haven’t even launched yet and your website was hit by hackers at the start of this month. What do you make of that incident?

Those cyber attackers – I invite them to come and write for us. It’s tougher for us to find pro-Beijing voices than it is those who support democracy. We welcome them all.

So your reporting of the Umbrella Movement did not have a pro-democracy slant? 

Tom Grundy interviews Joshua Wong; pic credit: Francois-Xavier Pasquier

Tom Grundy interviewing Joshua Wong at Occupy HK; Picture credit: Francois-Xavier Pasquier

No, that’s incorrect. I was surrounded 95 per cent of the time by pro-democracy protesters, but when I could grab someone on the other side [an anti-Occupy Central supporter] I would cover their side of the story. I never touched or wore a yellow ribbon [the symbol of the pro-democracy movement]. I reported on Occupy fairly and there was a debate

Many years ago, before I got into journalism, I was more expressive in my writing. But since Occupy Hong Kong, I have stuck to serious news reporting. I made a deliberate effort to quit my job in education to get a master’s degree in journalism. I realised that I couldn’t keep up the blog [Grundy is founder of popular English language blog HongWrong.com, which carries “critical views and irreverent claptrap” on Hong Kong matters]. And a year a ago I met Evan [Fowler, a writer who has been published in the SCMP] and together we launched Hong Kong Free Press. We now have nine members of staff and are sharing offices with D100 [a Cantonese digital broadcaster set up in 2012].

The Hong Kong Free Press team

Top l-r: Erick Cheung, Vivienne Zeng, Ryan Kilpatrick, Vicky Wong, Paul Benedict Lee, Arthur Lo; Bottom, l-r: Evan Fowler and Tom Grundy

Do you speak Cantonese? Surely you could only have been picked up on the nuance of what was happening during Occupy Central by understanding the local language?

That’s a big compliment, but I am the only idiot on our team who doesn’t speak Cantonese! Everyone has been recruited with a particular skill in mind – others are less good with tech, for instance. We all have our strengths and weaknesses. I think reporting on Occupy was just a case of my being here for ten years, understanding the context, knowing what to look for and muddling through like so many journalists do in Hong Kong.

So what will happen to HongWrong.com, which has a sizeable audience?

Tom GrundyHongWrong will continue as a byline under a separate section of the site called HK Buzz. We recognise that there’s a large audience that likes lighthearted and viral stories. We’ll be copying some but not all of the articles over from HongWrong.com. Google does not like replicated content.

So how can brands get involved with the site?

We’re looking for three or four advertisers to have run-of-site for the first month. We’re bringing in that revenue stream slowly, to supplement direct donations.

What sort of ads will run on it?

Display banner ads will come first, and sponsorship and native ads later. Plus we’ll be launching a series of events that brands can sponsor. We’ll be launching a merchandising arm too. We’ll be working with local designers to produce t-shirts, badges, pens, tote bags, mugs and other items. They’ll just be HKFP branded, with the tagline “Freedom of the Press”. All these things will enable us to pay our staff salary. We’re very lean and efficient, and salaries are our biggest expense.

What sort of brands will want to advertise with you?

Those who value a platform for open and independent expression in Hong Kong, and really value and want to support a platform that gives a voice to all sides of a story.

Tell us about the technology you’ll be using. What do you make of Periscope and other live reporting tools?

We’re going to LegCo [Hong Kong’s Legislative Council] this week at an important time [a vote on political reform], and we’ll be testing everything out. We can very cheaply experiment with these things. We’re not doing video or podcasts yet. We need to focus on hard news gathering at the moment. We use Trello [a project management app] and Telegram to chat with each other securely.

We’ve just had an engineer in to give us industrial grade security which no other news website has in Hong Kong. We’re also the only news site in Hong Kong that uses an encrypted channel for whistle-blowers.


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