In the end, the sex was too good to give up.
That was the conclusion reached by editors at Apple Daily after a brief experiment that entailed eliminating the paper's pornography page. Jimmy Lai, boss of the Hong Kong media company that owns the Chinese-language newspaper, had hoped that by scrubbing it clean of brothel reviews, descriptions of adult movies and raunchy tales about sex, the paper could capture a broader cross-section of readers and perhaps regain its title as the city's highest-circulation paper, a position now held by rival Oriental Daily News.
Another goal, say executives, was to draw advertising from companies wary about promoting their products in a newspaper that featured lurid accounts of "full service" massages at Macau bordellos.
But Apple Daily has discovered that morality doesn't pay. "The circulation dropped after we cut this page," says editor-in-chief Ip Yut Kin. Readers also e-mailed and faxed to complain.
Most surprising was the reaction from potential advertisers: They shrugged. Local and multinational companies told the newspaper that the sex coverage had never been a consideration.
And so, a couple of weeks ago, the Apple Daily ended its two months of abstinence. The porn section is back and bigger than before, having expanded to two pages. The editors and executives say the experience is a valuable lesson in marketing: Sex in Hong Kong isn't the hot-button issue it is in markets such as mainland China and North America.
The flirtation with wholesomeness was uncharacteristic for Mr. Lai, who has a penchant for exploring the outer limits of public acceptability. He built a fortune for himself and Next Media, the listed company he is chairman of and owns a majority stake in, by introducing Hong Kong readers to a ribald mix of sex, violence and the skewering of public figures. (Mr. Lai has been forced to pay some of that money back in the form of libel settlements.)
Apple Daily became famous for its blood-and-gore front covers, which readers lapped up. Before long, several of Hong Kong's dozen mass-circulation dailies were following Mr. Lai's formula.
But it was more than pictures that marked Mr. Lai's racy coverage. The Fat Dragon column, an unnamed pimp's first-hand reviews of Hong Kong prostitutes, has been widely imitated by other local papers.
While Mr. Lai's tabloid fare boosted readership -- Apple Daily had a circulation of 369,000 in the first half of 2001 -- it also sparked some criticism. Christian organizations in particular leaned on Mr. Lai, who is Catholic, to scrap the sex page, and he has toned it down over the past year. Apple Daily dropped Fat Dragon several months ago, and in October, Mr. Lai took the surprising step of scotching the porno section altogether, in part, he says, because focus groups suggested it made good business sense.
"I think as the paper matures and the readers mature with us, we don't need those racy things anymore," Mr. Lai said in an interview last month, when the porn blackout was still in effect. "We may have people who shied [away]from us just because we have this kind of thing."
But if so, they didn't rush to embrace the new, cleaned-up version of Apple Daily. While the paper hasn't released hard numbers, Mr. Ip, the editor, says anecdotal evidence from distributors suggests that newsstand sales fell sharply after the section was removed. And the advertising boom never materialized. Mr. Simon says only one company, Dairy Farm International, indicated it viewed the newspaper more favourably on account of the porn ban.
"For dropping the sex, we got not one red cent in revenues," he says. "The argument to get rid of this thing went out the window."