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A sad end: HK Magazine was the canary in the coal mine

It’s sad but true that HK Magazine is ceasing publication next week after 25 years of providing the city of Hong Kong with an independent voice. The sheer number of people mourning its loss now is testament to the hard work we did over the years in shaping the magazine into a genuine and beloved (and sometimes reviled) alternative voice for the city.

I joined HK Magazine in 2005 and was the Editor-in-Chief from 2008 until the spring of 2015. Right out of the gate in 1991, HK Magazine was more than a listings or lifestyle magazine. It ran important pieces on the many changes and anxieties facing Hong Kong society as the handover approached – usually with a much-needed dose of humour.

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In my time at the magazine, we stepped up to even more big issues, such as human rights, pollution, domestic helper laws, unfair refugee policies, inhuman urban planning, LGBTQIA issues, and heritage preservation. We did all of this while maintaining fair and independent lifestyle media coverage.

It was not always an easy balancing act – we sometimes had angry chief executives on the phone while we were also trying to sort out a review of yet another godawful ramen shop – but it was a necessary one because that’s what we needed to do to keep the magazine free for everyone.

In the last few years of my time at the magazine, our beloved subject, the city of Hong Kong itself, began changing dramatically. In the topics we were covering, and through the people we were giving voice to, it became clear that plucky, little Hong Kong was being consumed, kicking and screaming, into mainstream China.

And so too was it with HK Magazine. The South China Morning Post purchased us at the right time, and for sensible reasons. The media landscape was changing dramatically, as it continues to do, and their ownership bought us a few final years of life. But, like “One Country, Two Systems,” this odd and uncomfortable marriage was never going to last.

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The first HK magazine in 1991.

To be a truly independent press, you cannot be beholden to anyone except your readers. But, to my great dismay, this is becoming an increasing impossibility in Hong Kong, in both the mainstream Chinese and much-smaller English media. The SCMP itself is now owned by Alibaba, perhaps the biggest pro-China organization in the world, if you don’t count the Communist Party. The paper’s business interests are also drifting away from Hong Kong, and toward readers in the United States and the rest of the west. HK Magazine is a canary in the coal mine.

I am very proud of the ten years of my life that I poured into the magazine, and all of the hard work, blood, sweat and tears my immensely talented colleagues put into it. We kept it up, despite libel suits, death threats, various animal-borne influenzas, and practically everything else they threw at us. We kept swinging until the end. And we are almost there…

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But there is one last hurdle we need to overcome. We must prevent HK Magazine’s history from being thrown into oblivion. An SCMP spokesman told Hong Kong Free Press that the HK Magazine website and the archive of 25 years worth of content will be deleted when publication ceases next week.

It is unthinkable that a newspaper of record would ever consider deleting content from its archive. The SCMP should be held to proper journalistic standards. HK Magazine was an important feature of Hong Kong’s media landscape, and it must be preserved. Deleting it would be an utter travesty of journalistic principles – and a slap in the face to SCMP’s readers and to Hong Kong society in general.

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Alibaba chief Jack Ma.

The Hong Kong Journalist Association lodged an inquiry with SCMP management about this decision, and the SCMP has since sent mixed signals on whether or not it will delete the archive, suggesting that they will now migrate HK Magazine content to the SCMP website archive instead of deleting it.

On behalf of HK Magazine’s many loyal readers, I ask that the SCMP issue a formal, public statement regarding their plans for the HK Magazine archive. We should not be left to second guess this vagary.

As this sad end to HK Magazine shows, it is clear that it is time now for someone else to step up and provide an alternative voice for Hong Kong. If you care about free speech and the liberal values that make Hong Kong what it is, say something about it. Do something about it. Support independent outlets like Hong Kong Free Press and FactWire. You have a voice. Use it. Or you will surely lose it.

Update: SCMP says HK Magazine online content will be saved.

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A sad end: HK Magazine was the canary in the coal mine