Taiwan’s Changing Media Landscape

The Taiwan media, once tightly controlled, is now considered the freest in the region. But much criticism is directed at the quality of the content, especially for television news, where competition among the seven all-news cable stations has led to an emphasis on sensationalist and often trivial stories, with scant international coverage.

Amid public concern that Beijing may try to influence the Taiwan media to impact the pace and direction of cross-Strait relations, the government has sought to keep out direct or indirect investment from China in local media companies.

Just a few decades ago, media activity in Taiwan was heavily restricted under the martial law then still in effect. Today, Taiwan is a regional beacon for press freedom. In its 2015 World Press Freedom Index, French-based non-government organization Reporters Without Borders rates Taiwan as having Asia’s freest media. Overall, among 180 nations, Taiwan ranks number 51, slightly behind the United States at 49, but ahead of all other Asian nations including Mongolia at 54, South Korea at 60, and Japan at 61. In contrast, China stands at a dismal 176.

Telling a similar story, U.S-based Freedom House ranks Taiwan’s media freedom as second only to that of Japan in its report Freedom of the Press 2015. Before the martial law regime ended in 1987, only 31 newspapers were licensed. Now, with robust democratization, there is a proliferation of over 2,000 newspapers and around 4,400 magazines, as well as a competitive cable-TV industry that offers 277 channels via 56 operators.

The biggest change in Taiwan’s media scene in the 21st century has been due to the rise of the Internet. While only 18% of the population accessed the Internet daily in 2000, the rate has leapt to 79% in 2015, according to Nielsen Taiwan. Television remains the most popular platform for receiving news, but its viewership is declining, with penetration currently standing at 88%, down from 93% in 2000.

According to Nielsen Taiwan, TV news shows receive the highest ratings, with their popularity even outshining dramas and variety shows. Meanwhile, traditional print newspapers are suffering the most, with penetration having dropped from 59% to 33% since 2000. The situation for magazines and radio is similar, although the drops in penetration are not as drastic.

The most popular publication among Taiwan’s four main newspapers is the pro-independence Liberty Times, owned by the wealthy Lin family (see sidebar.) According to Nielsen figures cited by the 2015 annual report of the Hong Kong-based Next Media group (which publishes Taiwan Apple Daily), the Liberty Times had an average daily readership of 2.55 million in 2014, followed by Apple Daily with 2.45 million, the United Daily News with 993,000, and the China Times with 692,000.

Next Magazine, also owned by the Next Media group, is the island’s most-read weekly, with an average weekly readership of 1.55 million, followed by Business Weekly at 1.18 million and the China Times Weekly at 437,000. Among television stations, media experts say, two of the most popular channels are TVBS, which has been a subsidiary of Hong Kong broadcaster TVB but is now being sold to local interests, and SET News, the 24-hour news channel of Sanlih Entertainment Television.

Despite the Internet’s expanding role, so far online news sources are not displacing traditional newspapers or making them look like dinosaurs. Rather, it is the traditional major newspapers that are leading this transition from print to digital multimedia. They have been improving their web portals and focusing on mobile platforms, while offering online videos and live broadcasts.

For example, Taiwan’s leading online media publications, The News Lens and Storm Media, declare that they have 5 million and 4.6 million monthly unique visitors respectively, representing remarkable growth as both are only a few years old. But Taiwan Apple Daily says its online portal attracts a whopping 35 million monthly. The entire Next Media group is still making a profit that partially derives from its digital business division’s side business of developing online games, but newspaper revenue in Taiwan declined by around 18% in 2014 and circulation by 23%. Generally, Taiwan’s advertisers now prefer to advertise online, which encourages newspapers to further shift resources away from their print businesses.

In addition, the major newspapers are still also setting the news agenda in Taiwan, in large part because their reporters tend to be relatively senior with professional training. “At the end of the day it still goes back to quality content,” notes Fupei Wang, managing director for Ogilvy Public Relations in Taiwan. Kung Ling-hsin, chair of the Department of Journalism at Ming Chuan University, says that even though Taiwan’s millennials may go to online media such as Facebook and share commentary, the original source for the news that interests them generally tends to be mainly the newspapers, and sometimes television.

Taiwan’s constitution provides for freedom of speech and the press, and the Freedom House report notes that the government and the courts generally respect this protection in practice. Publication of defamatory words or pictures can be punished with a maximum of two years in prison, while the Freedom of Government Information Law enacted in 2005 provides for public access to information held by government agencies, including financial audit reports. Violence towards journalists is very rare, although some isolated incidents have occurred.

Areas of criticism

But despite the flourishing press freedom, Taiwan’s media performance has also come in for considerable criticism. One is that many media outlets lean heavily towards either the relatively pro-China Kuomintang (KMT) or the more independence-minded Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), at times creating politically biased reporting – and overall presenting a more polarized picture of Taiwanese society than is actually warranted. For example, the Liberty Times is widely viewed as blatantly leaning towards the pro-independence camp, and over the years there have been many complaints about the China Times for touting a pro-Beijing line. Although Apple Daily specializes in tabloid-style sensationalism, political scientists say it tends to offer the most neutral news reporting.

Freedom House notes that in the run-up to the municipal elections in 2014, Taiwanese journalists told the Committee to Protect Journalists, another international, non-profit organization, that news organizations were pressuring them to take sides in national political contests.

But in the end, the impact of the media on election results remains uncertain. “The media matters, but it may not be the decisive factor,” says Feng Chien-san, a professor of communication at National Chengchi University.

Another frequent criticism is that the local media places too much stress on cheap, entertainment-oriented and even sensationalist news reports as a result of the intense competition for profits. This phenomenon can even be seen as another form of censorship, and appears to be a marked change from a few decades ago when investigative in-depth stories were more common in Taiwan. “In order to stay alive, local media outlets sometimes resort to distortions, such as making mountains out of molehills,” says David Chard, a longtime executive with Edelman Public Relations and founder of Engaging Minds, a leadership development consultancy.

Chard notes that Taiwan’s trigger-happy reporters tend to “report first and sort out the facts later.” Such stories, many of which “turned out on closer examination to lack actual substance,” often plunge companies or organizations that are victims of the misreporting into crisis. Retractions are rare in Taiwan, as are corrections, Chard says. “Companies that fail to monitor social media stories, and nip them in the bud, do so at their peril.”

Giving an example, Chard notes that Next Magazine a few years ago ran a presumed exposé of the Taipei American School, alleging that rape was common among the students, based solely on the allegations of a distraught mother who claimed her 14-year-old daughter had been raped by a another student. The report was accompanied by a cartoon characterization of the alleged “rape.” In reality, Chard notes, the daughter used the family home for consensual liaisons with her boyfriend, with the knowledge of her older sister, when the mother was away for long periods in the United States. And overall, it had nothing whatsoever to do with the school.

“We assisted TAS by staging a news conference to clear the air and the story died an instant death,” Chard reports. While mainstream media reported on the incident in a sensationalist way, to their credit all later ran detailed clarifications setting the record straight.

Much of the current criticism of the quality of Taiwan’s journalism focuses on the numerous TV stations, including Taiwan’s seven 24-hour cable news operations. In that hyper-competitive environment, most seem to be investing less and less in programming, despite their attractiveness to advertisers because of TV’s high penetration rate.

To save money, the stations tend to frequently air content such as talk shows, which are inexpensive to produce. They also look for cheap sources of “news,” playing accidents recorded on car dashboard video cameras or trolling social media for videos involving cute animals, notes Mattel Hsu, an adjunct research associate at Australia’s Monash University.

During the recent cold snap, says Ogilvy’s Wang, TV stations sent their SNG trucks to shoot snowscapes, and some stories consisted chiefly of shivering reporters stressing how cold they were. Wang says these “daily-life nonsense stories” are a result of a mad scramble for ratings. Kung of Ming Chuan University adds that news stories in Taiwan are becoming more like entertainment, with the result that there is now dwindling respect and even contempt for journalists. With the local media losing credibility, Chard notes, many people tend not to believe reports until they are confirmed directly by the players involved.

Inward looking

Another result of dwindling budgets and fierce competition is that international news and in-depth reporting on television is rare, leading to another common complaint, that of parochialism. “There’s a historic tendency among Taiwan editors to screen out stories and story angles that they don’t consider ‘relevant to our Taiwan audience,’” notes Chard. He says that during his career as a PR practitioner from 1985 to 2010, he was always under pressure to make a story “Taiwan relevant” or see it rejected.

A similar situation exists in many other countries, but is even more serious in Taiwan because of the island’s diplomatic isolation. With only 22 nations granting Taiwan diplomatic recognition, many Taiwanese feel disconnected from global events. In a vicious cycle, local media consumers are thus trapped in a news bubble, lacking exposure to other points of view that could broaden their outlook. Interviewees also cited the drastically decreased number of Taiwanese foreign correspondents in all media categories.

The breaching of journalistic ethics is another area of concern. The China Times was fined by the Ministry of Economic Affairs in 2012 for running embedded advertising from the Chinese Communist government. Chard also recalls that during his PR career, he was offered deals from Taiwanese media outlets to package a client’s story as “news” when it was a purely commercial matter. In addition, local media reports resulting from press junkets to other countries rarely mention that the trip was paid for by the foreign government.

Ultimately, many consider the biggest threat to Taiwan’s media freedom to be giant neighbor China and its economic clout. Freedom House cites self-censorship and indirect Chinese influence as a problem, as media companies increasingly rely on the Chinese market for revenue and therefore wish to maintain a good relationship with the Beijing authorities.

Although direct Chinese media investments are banned here, numerous controversies have still arisen in recent years. Although Sanlih presents news and talk shows seen as favoring the DPP, it also does a profitable business selling its television dramas in the mainland, and critics on several occasions have accused the company of self-censorship. In an academic paper, Hsu of Australia’s Monash University noted that in 2012 Sanlih axed a famous and highly-rated talk show, “Big Talk News” (大話新聞), noted for its China bashing.

The China Times and its owner, Tsai Eng-meng, one of Taiwan’s richest men (see sidebar), have been the subject of even more concern. The China Times was once one of the island’s most liberal papers. But that changed in 2008 when Tsai, who became a billionaire through selling snacks to China through his Want Want China Holdings, purchased the China Times Group consisting of the China Times, terrestrial station CTV, and cable TV group CiTV, among others. Since then, Tsai’s media outlets have been widely regarded as pro-Beijing and Tsai has had a reputation for heavy-handed editorial interference.

Tsai has denied currying favor with Chinese officials to advance his business.

Controversial snack-food tycoon turned media magnate Tsai Eng-meng at a reception celebrating the opening of one of his publications. (Phoot: CNA)
Controversial snack-food tycoon turned media magnate Tsai Eng-meng at a reception celebrating the opening of one of his publications. (Photo: CNA)

Nevertheless, alarm was raised a few years ago when he fired an editor for describing China’s former top negotiator for Taiwan as “third rate” and said in a Washington Post interview in 2012 that not nearly as many protesters were killed in the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre as was widely believed. When Tsai’s son joined a consortium seeking to buy Next Media’s Taiwan operations after founder Jimmy Lai announced a desire to sell, a student-led movement fearing Chinese influence on Apple Daily and the media in general gained steam. Pressure from the movement caused Lai to declare that his Taiwan print holdings were not for sale after all (though he later sold his TV station).

Lai, a flamboyant entrepreneur reviled by Beijing for his pro-democracy stance, was arrested for taking part in the Hong Kong protests at the end of 2014 but later released. Shortly afterward, he announced his intention to step down as Next Media’s head to pursue personal interests. In January last year, his home and Next Media’s headquarters were then firebombed by masked men. Next Media has also been targeted by numerous cyber attacks, one of which caused a total collapse of its websites, causing Taiwanese prosecutors to launch an investigation.

Given Taiwan Apple Daily’s massive circulation, there would be significant implications for Taiwan politics if Next Media changed its editorial direction as a result of pressure on Lai. But Next Media spokesman Mark Simon told TOPICS in a telephone interview that the media group’s position is unwavering. He said harassment of Lai, believed to be connected to Beijing, is nothing new, and that Lai, despite stepping down as chairman, still owns over 70% of the company’s stock.

Continuing controversies

The potential for Chinese influence on the Taiwan media is a frequent issue. Most recently, in November the Los Angeles Times reported that Dan Mintz, chief executive of prominent Hollywood-based media company DMG Entertainment, had agreed to acquire around 61% of the Eastern Broadcasting Co. (ECB) cable TV operation, from the Carlyle Group, a U.S.-based private equity company, for US$600 million.

DMG Entertainment had begun in Beijing in the early 1990s, with co-founders that included Mintz and billionaire Peter Xiao, described by local media as coming from a prominent People’s Liberation Army family. DMG even co-produced The Founding of a Republic, a propagandistic 2009 historical film made with the backing of the Chinese Communist Party. In 2015, the company restructured, with DMG Yinji headed by Xiao listed in China and DMG Entertainment based in Los Angeles as a separate entity. Mintz told the Los Angeles Times that his involvement should be acceptable to Taiwanese regulators. “If a Chinese person and a Chinese company buys it, that’s not going to work,” he was quoted as saying. “I’m not Chinese, so that’s going to work.”

EBC is one of the largest privately owned Mandarin-language TV networks, with 20 channels, including eight in Taiwan that show a mix of news, sports, movies, dramas, and children’s programs. EBC programming also is carried on cable and satellite services across the world, and Mintz says that acquiring it would help his company gain distribution channels for his content across Asia. National Communications Commission officials told TOPICS that the deal is still under review, including scrutiny as to whether Chinese capital is involved.

The numerous student-led protests against Chinese influence in the media led to calls for anti-media-monopoly legislation. In early 2013, the Executive Yuan approved a draft “Prevention of Broadcasting and Television Monopoly and Maintenance of Diversity Act,” but the bill has been stuck in the Legislative Yuan ever since. Several similar bills were also proposed, including one from the DPP that calls for separation of ownership of media content and distribution to prevent a concentration of media power.

A 2013 demonstration outside the United Daily News building by a student group protesting the concentration of media ownership in certain big business groups. (Photo:CNA)
A 2013 demonstration outside the United Daily News building by a student group protesting the concentration of media ownership in certain big business groups. (Photo:CNA)

According to an academic paper co-authored by National Chengchi University’s Feng and Ming-yeh Rawnsley, a research associate with the Center of Taiwan Studies at the London-based School of Oriental and African Studies, media professionals and economists have expressed concern that the DPP’s version could hinder the global trend of digital convergence.

Some also argue that anti-media-monopoly policies may restrict the development of Taiwan’s media, since consolidation could be a good thing, reducing the excessive competition that has caused journalistic standards to slip. Also, anti-media-monopoly regulations could unfairly constrain media companies that have done a good job and wish to expand.

Taiwan’s new legislature, dominated by the DPP for the first time, took office in February. It is not clear whether the DPP will continue to support the previous version of its bill, but the issue is unlikely to go away. As Feng and Rawnsley note, the overall push for anti-media-monopoly legislation indicates strong basic support for stricter regulation of the media after a long period of deregulation following the end of martial law.

Feng also notes that in today’s globalized society, it may simply be impossible to prevent Chinese capital from coming into Taiwan’s media companies via third parties. He and Rawnsley thus advocate a strategy of strengthening Taiwan’s public service television, making it a standard-setter like the U.K.’s BBC or even Japan’s NHK, to balance commercial influences on the media.

Taiwan’s Public Service Television (PTS) was established in 1998 and is available on cable and satellite. In 2006, it was incorporated into the Taiwan Broadcasting System, a public-service-oriented network with several channels, including Hakka and aboriginal television. Average ratings have been low: under 5%. In contrast, surveys have shown that more than half the people in the U.K. regard the BBC as their single most important source of news. Without major legal reforms, however, it would be difficult for PTS and TBS to obtain the funding needed for them play a larger role.

Feng and other commentators also cite the need for stronger journalist unions, so that journalists have more power to stand up to media owners if they are pressured to violate their professional principles.

Taiwanese still tend to be wary of government intervention in the media, owing to memories of the repressive martial law period. Additionally, Rawnsley and Feng note that Taiwan generally follows the Anglo-American idea that the press best serves society when market mechanisms are under minimal regulatory constraint, protecting freedom of the press and allowing the media’s programming to reflect the tastes and preferences of its audience.

In such a free media environment, says Wang of Ogilvy, media companies espousing an unpopular political line, such as an overly pro-Beijing stance, will feel it in their ratings and advertising companies will ditch them. “Don’t forget we have quite a high reach rate for the Internet, so people can receive all kinds of information freely and quite widely,” Wang says. “The only thing the government should do is not interfere too much.”

The pull of greater China

But at the same time, another trend is for Taiwanese media to reach out to the greater China market. Ambitious Taiwan-based online operations, realizing they cannot easily strike a blow at home at the likes of Taiwan Apple Daily, are hoping to leverage Taiwan’s free media environment to capture an audience in the world’s Chinese-speaking community. One example is the Storm Media Group, whose CEO and principal owner David Chang declares: “We aim to be the biggest independent Chinese media company. Our market is all Chinese readers… because the Internet has no boundaries.”

Chang, a retired Goldman Sachs executive, launched Storm Media in 2014. He says his motivation was to do something good for Taiwan by creating a rational voice, as he was frustrated with the “mess” the Taiwan media had caused with its sensationalism and polarization. He jokes that at money-losing Storm Media he has since violated all the financial discipline he learned as a finance executive.

With 47 full-time staff, Storm Media produces 80% of its own content, with the rest coming from partners ranging from Xinhua to the BBC’s Chinese-language service. Some of Storm’s columnists include dissident Chinese writer Yu Jie and Tiananmen Square student leader Wu’erkaixi. Chang says he receives letter from people in China citing media suppression in Hong Kong and expressing hope that Storm’s voice can survive.

Storm has produced some notable scoops. It was probably the first media outlet to report in September that Chinese President Xi Jinping was targeting the ministerial-level Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO) as part of his anti-corruption efforts. Four months later, Xinhua and mainstream outlets reported that TAO’s deputy head Gong Qinggai was being investigated for “serious disciplinary violations,” a euphemism for corruption.

Although Storm Media’s website is blocked in China, some of its commentaries have been published in the Chinese press. Chang says he is surprised not to have received any pressure from the Chinese authorities, but surmises that China wishes to avoid the public outcry in Taiwan that would likely follow any move to suppress free speech on this side of the Strait.

Joey Chung, co-founder and CEO of The News Lens, an online news publication aimed at the under-40 crowd, also says he is using Taiwan as a base to penetrate the audience of around 330 million Chinese millennials globally. He notes that younger people are fed up with the sensationalism of traditional Chinese-language media and want more objective reporting and well-reasoned opinion pieces.

Founded in June 2013, The News Lens received angel funding from North Base Media, an investment firm aimed at helping independent media in emerging markets. After clinching the deal, Chung asked North Base’s managing partner, Marcus Brauchli, a former Washington Post executive editor, why he was so willing to invest in his company. The response was that Taiwan is the only place in the in the global Chinese market to have a free and independent media.

The News Lens now has 38 full-time staff and has been operating in the black since September. Last March Chung opened a branch in Hong Kong, where traffic has reached 500,000 unique visitors per month, and is soon to open a Southeast Asian office.

So far, he says, he is not on Hong Kong’s blacklist, possibly because his operation is still small, and also because young people rather than older officials are the ones familiar with his company. Chung predicts that over the longer term Taiwan’s media market will attract an increasing number of large companies from China, Hong Kong, and even the United States, hungry to get a piece of the action in what is viewed as a good place to launch online publications aimed at greater China.