Jimmy Lai: What's the Hong Kong Media Mogul Up To?

Media tycoon Jimmy Lai at his company's headquarters in Hong Kong, in 2011 Photograph by Mike Clarke/AFP via Getty Images

After struggling for a decade to build a profitable TV and print media business in Taiwan, Jimmy Lai has had enough. Lai, the rare Hong Kong businessman unafraid to pick fights with China’s Communist leaders, should have been a natural fit in Taiwan, the island province that was the final bastion for Chiang Kai-shek’s losing Nationalists after the Communist takeover of the mainland in 1949. But since launching a Taiwanese version of his popular Hong Kong magazine, Next Weekly, in 2001, Lai has struggled to overcome resistance from Taiwanese rivals and regulators uncomfortable with his sharp elbows and tabloid sensibility.

That struggle is ending. On Nov. 28, Lai’s Next Media Ltd. agreed to sell its Next as well as Lai’s Apple Daily newspaper and the company’s TV business in Taiwan to two local consortia for $600 million.

Lai isn’t giving up completely on Taiwan. He is holding on to Next Media Animation, the Taiwan-based division that has won attention worldwide for its animated recreations of news stories and celebrity scandals. (Its treatment of the Petraeus affair is a recent classic.)

Now that he’s scaling back in Taiwan, the big question is what the most controversial media boss in the Chinese world will do next. There’s good reason to think he might take some of the cash from the Taiwan sales and bring it back to Hong Kong to support one or more new businesses in his hometown. Even before unloading the Taiwanese print and TV operations, he started experimenting with a new print and e-commerce business in Hong Kong. Sharp Daily is a free newspaper and Sharpon is a group-buying service that he promotes in the newspaper.

The two go together, Lai told Marketing Magazine Hong Kong in an interview published in April. The newspaper’s business model, he explained, needs Sharpon’s mobile ecommerce platform. “I wouldn’t have launched Sharp Daily without smartphones,” he said. “Frankly, there’s no reason for me to start another newspaper—it’s a dying industry. But the smartphone is changing everything.” Lai wants the free newspaper to support a new mobile app, called Sharpon.

This isn’t the first time Lai has tried to come up with a viable e-commerce business in Hong Kong: During the most frenzied days of the late 1990s Internet boom, he tried with an online retailer, AdMart. Like many other businesses hatched during the dot-com bubble, it went nowhere, and Lai shuttered it in 2000. The man who had stood up to former Chinese Premier Li Peng was done in by joining the crowd swooning for cyberspace. As he told Businessweek back then, “So much money was rushing into the online business, I violated all of my principles in business. … Li Peng didn’t get me. The Internet craze got me.”

Now Lai is giving e-commerce another try. The Sharpon project is still in its early stages, but it’s promising, believes Vivek Couto, executive director of Media Partners Asia, a research and consulting firm with offices in Hong Kong and Singapore. “Jimmy has a big obsession with new business models for content distribution,” says Couto. Trying to find a way to make a free newspaper into an advertising vehicle for an e-commerce platform might make sense in Hong Kong, he adds. If the combination of a print newspaper with e-commerce works, “that’s an exciting business,” Couto says.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.