Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Chinese media: Apple Daily makes a splash in Taiwan

Taiwan is a very well-known media hotspot in Asia. I remember 10 years ago seeing a stat that found its population to be the most voracious readers of newspapers in the world. Even with the advent of the Internet, newspapers are still very popular. On a recent connecting flight from the U.S. to Japan, very few of the Japanese passengers read Japanese newspapers during the 13-hour flight even though they were readily available as we got on. Contrast that with the two-hour flight from Osaka to Taipei CKS -- it seemed every third seat was occupied by a Chinese newspaper reader. Many of them were younger people in their 20s, whom I assume are Internet users when back on earth.

Staying with relatives, I observed some changes in people's media consumption habits since I lived in Taipei in the 1990s. One was my brother-in-law's switch from one of the old standbys of the Taiwan newspaper scene -- the China Times (中國時報) and United Daily News (聯合報) -- to the Apple Daily (蘋果日報). The Apple Daily made a huge splash when it debuted in Hong Kong in the late 1990s, and now that I have had a chance to look at the Taiwan version, I can see why it appeals to people like my brother-in-law.

It's not just the "lurid" elements which observers often use to describe the paper. That's certainly part of the appeal -- the back cover of the front section of the April 19, 2006 edition has a motley collection of accident and suicide photos with blurbs explaining the background of each death.

But there's a lot more to the Apple Daily than sensationalism. Many articles include accompanying charts, timelines, infographics that calculate cost (if money is involved), and artists renditions of crime scenes. There's also a huge tie-in to the social aspect of news: short blurbs of man-on-the-street reactions to news stories featuring photographs and short bios of the people being interviewed. This gives readers social cues to how they should be reacting, even if the story might not impact them directly.

These packages aren't just put together for the biggest story; it seems that about five or six stories in the front section of the Apple Daily get this type of treatment. The front-page story, for instance, screams out the main story of the day in 96-point type: "China Petroleum Corp. raises the price of gas $2 NT". No, this is not the type of news that would get 96-point headlines in most other papers (the same news is reported in a much smaller article on page A7 of the China Times), but it's part of the Apple formula, even on slow news days. Accompanying the news article about the price hike are the following elements:
  • An infographic showing recent price rises

  • A chart calculating how much it will cost for a bus ticket from Taipei to other major cities on the island, and a sidebar article on the same.

  • A chart listing the new prices of different grades of gasoline

  • A chart listing discounts available at three gas station franchises

  • Three photographs of people queuing up or filling up at gas stations

  • A man-on-the-street reaction sidebar, which includes photographs and blurbs of three people from different parts of the island reacting to the news.
The man-on-the-street reax were the most interesting to me and I am sure to lots of other readers. Two New Taiwan dollars doesn't sound like much to most people (it's about six U.S. cents) but Apple's reports were able to get some great reactions, including a Taxi driver from Taipei who pointed out that it's going to take about NT$1500 (about US$50) per month out of his pocket, and a guy from Kaohsiung who complains about CPC and notes that his salary certainly isn't rising along with the price of fuel.

The charts are also much different than what the competition prints. The China Times package on page A7, for instance, has a very old-fashioned looking, text-only chart listing the prices of fuel for each grade at each major gas station franchise. The Apple charts go much further, calculating prices for bus tickets and fill-ups for real-world trips between major cities in Taiwan, and also detailing special deals and discounts at gas stations. This is the the type of information people can use and appreciate right away, whereas the Times just gives the bare essentials, and lets people make their own calculations.

Taiwan Apple Daily's 'I'm the Prettiest' subject for April 19, 2006The Internet tie-ins for the Apple Daily are limited. The footer of every page in the front section has an email tips address, but the Web address of the paper only appears in small type below the fold on the front page. On the back cover next to the death photos there is an interesting and incongruous print feature with links to an Apple Blog. It's called "Today I'm the Prettiest" (今天我最美). The explanation says the Apple aims to seek out and print photos of the most beautiful girls the Apple's photographers happen to see "on Taiwan's biggest streets and smallest harbors." The April 19, 2006 "Today I'm the Prettiest" showcases an attractive 30-ish woman in jeans and white top who, according to the caption, happened to be walking down Zhongxiao East Road in front of the Pacific Department Store at 2:54 p.m. Snap! She's now on the back cover of the Apple. No name is given, and it's not clear how permissions work. But there she is in print, and also online, at

One thing I like about the Apple is that it's relatively easy for me to understand. When I was at the Taipei Language Institute (中華語文研習所) I attempted to translate Chinese newspaper articles clipped from the China Times. It was bloody hard. The journalistic Chinese was complex, used lots of unfamiliar characters which required me to constantly refer to my dictionary, and had little in the way of easy-to-understand charts. My wife gets the World Daily News (世界日报) which is printed in New York, and I seldom bother attempting to read it -- Like the China Times, the headlines, articles, and even photo captions in the World Daily News are simply too hard for me. The Apple Daily, on the other hand, seems to use more colloquial Chinese in articles and accompanying package items such as infographics and man-on-the-street interviews. I was able to get the gist of several articles and features without even picking up my dictionary. Maybe foreign readers who attempt to understand the New York Times get a similar feeling when they pick of the New York Post!

When my brother-in-law gets home, I'll ask him why he switched to the Apple Daily. Is it the more interesting story packages? Or "Today I'm the Prettiest?"


My brother-in-law's reasons for buying the Apple Daily every day:
  • "It's popular"

  • "It's cheap"

  • "More information"
My wife's reasons for disliking the Apple Daily, after reading the April 19 issue:
  • "亂七八糟" (messy, confusing, chaotic)

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