WORLD: MEDIUM OF THE WEEK - Hong Kong's Apple Daily takes Taiwan by storm

Apple's circulation audit is proof the paper is a serious medium, Jo Bowman writes.

If the UK's number one Sun were to rise in the Far East, it would probably look something like Hong Kong's Apple Daily.

There's no page-three girl and Apple has a broadsheet format, but it has the same combination of the serious and the sensational. Plus, if it breaks a big news story in the morning, the entire city knows about it before lunch.

Topless models may be lacking, but in their place are plenty of paparazzi pictures of local celebrities taken by the teams of photographers who scour the city on pizza delivery-style mopeds.

When Apple launched in 1995, it sparked several cover price wars with the other leading dailies and quickly cemented itself as the city's second-biggest seller - this in a city of fewer than seven million people and with more than 20 other Chinese-language dailies to choose from already.

The news it serves up - under bright-pink-and-yellow headlines - includes gruesome car accident pictures and features about where you can find the cheapest imitation designer handbags.

It is heavy on graphics, to the point where a suicide story will be accompanied by a photo of the block of flats the person jumped from, complete with a bloody puddle at the bottom and a dotted arrow showing the route taken.

But, like The Sun in the UK, Apple is also regarded as a tough news contender - extremely influential because of its mass-market appeal and frequently breaking big stories that set the agenda for rivals.

The paper's publisher, the self-made entrepreneur Jimmy Lai, is a household name - a man who is defiant of authority, disliked by China's communist regime and widely seen as a fearless upholder of democracy and the interests of the common man.

Apple is frequently first with breaking stories that paint the government in a bad light, in a market where other titles are constantly asked about self-censorship in post-1997 Hong Kong.

Lai clearly relishes his role - a TV ad campaign for Apple once showed Lai sitting with an apple on his head, being shot at by bows and arrows.

The arrows all hit his body, then he looks into the camera, takes the apple from his head and starts chomping on it.

Apple sells far fewer copies than the market leader (its circulation last year was only two-thirds of Oriental Daily News') but it makes more money. An Apple-style rival was launched by the ODN group in the late 90s, called The Sun, which has succeeded in becoming Hong Kong's third-biggest seller, but has never knocked Apple out of second place.

Now, the Hong Kong success story is being exported to Taiwan, where Apple's publisher, Next Media, says it is giving the island its first "infotainment" newspaper. More than 400 papers were on offer before Apple arrived in May.

Eight months after launching, it is selling about 400,000 copies a day and has caused something of a sensation and not just by giving away 75,000 apples in the capital, Taipei, to promote its launch. It has also shocked its competitors by having its circulation audited to establish its credibility as an advertising vehicle - no other daily in Taiwan is audited. The biggest three dailies in Taiwan have reacted by dropping their cover price, launching new sections and giving away big prizes to readers.

Publisher: Next Media

Frequency: Daily

Circulation: 355,000

Cover price: HK$6 (about 50p)

Language: Chinese

Advertisers: Standard Chartered Bank credit cards, Hang Seng Bank, New

World Telecom, AIG credit cards, Smartone (mobile phone network)

Full-page colour ad rate: HK$154,000 in main news section,

HK$185,000 for run of paper

Direct rivals: Oriental Daily News, The Sun (owned by the Oriental Daily

News group)