HONG KONG, June 29 -- Hong Kong's third and newest English- language newspaper, the Eastern Express, announced Saturday it is ceasing publication. A statement published at the top of the front page explained the closure was a commercial decision made by the board of directors of the parent company, the Oriental Press Group Ltd. of Hong Kong. The colorful broadsheet was launched with much fanfare on Feb. 1, 1994 as part of a strategic plan to diversify and expand its publication business in the British colony, the statement said. Executives said they anticipated the hard work, patience and investment that was necessary to make such a project work. But they said they did not foresee difficulties with the editorial management, which in turn diverted corporate attention and resources. Group officials said 'malicious rumors and speculation' from local and foreign media damaged the newspaper's image and staff morale, thereby hampering its ability to attract and increase advertising revenue or recruit quality staff. 'After two years of battling uphill, we have reluctantly come to the conclusion that, although the market for a third English newspaper still exists, in view of the above reasons, it would be difficult for Eastern Express to continue. Eastern Express was never given a chance to establish itself,' the statement said. The closure comes less than eight weeks after the newspaper switched its format from a general news publication to a business daily. About 65 members of the editorial and production staffs face dismissals as a result of the newspaper's closure.
Many of the journalists said they felt devastated by the news and, having finished their shifts late Friday night or early Saturday morning, only learned about the closure by the reading Saturday's newspaper, Radio Hong Kong reported. Eastern Express was published in one of the world's most competitive media markets, with nearly a dozen publications, and it battled for readership against the Hongkong Standard, which is backed by Hong Kong's Sing Tao publishing group, and the South China Morning Post, reputed to be one of the world's most profitable newspapers. Eastern Express claimed a daily print-run of 30,000 copies, compared with an audited circulation of 110,000 for the South China Morning Post. The Express' parent company, the Oriental Press Group,publishes the Oriental Daily News, one of Hong Kong's most widely-read Chinese language newspapers. In a separate front-page announcement, the group also announced that chairman Ma Ching Kwan was resigning July 1 to be replaced by his brother Ma Ching Fat. No reasons were given. Ma Ching Kwan, who oversaw the Express' launch, would remain as an executive director of the group, the statement said. News of the Eastern Express' closure coincided with news that the Hongkong Standard would be switching its format on July 1, the date on which China will take over the colony from Britain in a year's time. Standard officials said the newspaper will switch to a splashier, modular layout that will give it a look similar to USA Today. Stories will be shorter and there will be more of them, the officials said.