Jimmy Lai draws flak from staff for selling Next Magazine

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Jimmy Lai is seen in an  advertising video for Apple Daily in 2015, when it celebrated its 20th anniversary. Photo: Next Digital, Youtube.

Jimmy Lai Chee-ying, the owner of Next Digital Ltd (00282.HK), has faced heavy criticism from staff after announcing on Monday that he would sell his flagship Next Magazine to Hong Kong businessman Kenny Wee for about HK$500 million (US$64 million).

Next Magazine’s chief editor Louise Wong said in a town hall meeting with editorial staff that Lai’s action was disappointing and like “selling his staff to brothels”, Next Digital’s Apple Daily reported on Tuesday. Wong said it would be better for Lai to close the business rather than sell it.

In the same meeting, some Next Magazine staff called Lai an “asshole”, a word used by the owner himself when he made a vow about not selling assets four years ago.

In 2013, Lai – a staunch advocate of democracy – said that he would be an “asshole” for life if he sold any of his Next Digital assets in Hong Kong. His comments came after his plan to sell Next Digital’s assets in Taiwan failed.

In 2012, Next Digital tried to sell its media business in Taiwan for over HK$4 billion to a consortium controlled by Taiwanese businessmen Koo Chen-fu and Tsai Eng-meng, but the plan was thwarted because Tsai reportedly feared the deal would hurt his snack-food business in mainland China.

Selling flesh and blood for parent

Ip Yut-kin, a former deputy editor of the magazine and current chairman of Next Digital, said in a Facebook post that the sale was like someone forced to sell flesh and blood to save his parent, a reference to Apple Daily. Ip said the paper was the last bastion of press freedom in Hong Kong and that Lai was the only person who dared to bear a bad name for such a decision.

Lai, who founded the magazine 27 years ago, said it was a tough and sad decision for him to sell the magazine, where many of its staff have served for a long time. But he reiterated that he would not sell Next Digital.

Cheung Kim Hung, the chief executive of publishing at Next Digital, said he had to bear some of the responsibility for having failed to turnaround the losses at Next Magazine, which is another media outlet hit by the smartphone era. Cheung said there was no other media boss who safeguarded freedom of the press and editorial independence as much as Lai.

Buyer’s funding sources

Next Magazine is like an American version of “People” and “Newsweek” as the weekly combines the best of paparazzi and investigative journalism and is best known for its democratic and anti-government approach. But the future of the popular weekly has been shaky after a two consecutive years of losses due to a fall in readership as buying customers opted for free or real-time content.

Next Digital had previously planned to close down Next Magazine till it found the buyer Kenny Wee, the owner of Metro Daily, which is a free tabloid given out at MTR stations.

In 2009, Wee became popular after he married TV actress Suki Chui. He started business in the restaurant sector and has shown a mild pro-government political stance over many years, but his funding sources have remained unclear to the public.

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