By Venus Wu
HONG KONG (Reuters) - Hong Kong media company Next Digital Ltd, founded by tycoon and outspoken Beijing critic Jimmy Lai, said on Monday it plans to sell its flagship magazine and four others to a local businessman for HK$500 million ($64.08 million).
Next Magazine is well known for its in-depth investigative reports about Chinese and local politics, as well as gossipy articles about the city's social elite, triads and entertainers.
Some employees questioned whether the magazine will continue with its outspoken editorial stance at a time when some residents and journalists believe press freedom in the former British colony has deteriorated.
"Apart from concerns over jobs, we have deep reservations on whether the magazine can retain its outspoken style," said the Next Media Trade Union in a statement.
The board at Next Digital will negotiate a formal agreement with a company owned by Kenny Wee, a Hong Kong-born businessman and former owner of the free Metro Daily newspaper, it said in a statement to the Hong Kong stock exchange.
"Mr Lai is sad, but what needs to be done has to be done, so he says yes," CEO of Next Digital Cassian Cheung was quoted as saying by Apple Daily, the leading opposition newspaper in Hong Kong that is owned by Next Digital.
Shares of Next Digital surged nearly 18 percent, outpacing a 0.3 percent gain for the benchmark index.
A top executive of Next Digital, when reached by Reuters by phone, said the decision was a "very difficult one" but refused to elaborate.
Lai and Wee could not be immediately reached for comment.
In an internal email sent to employees and obtained by Reuters, Cheung said the deal is expected to be completed by the end of September.
"In the past few years, we have seen the changes in the news media as it transitions from print to digital. This is an unstoppable trend," Cheung wrote in the email. "This decision to sell the magazines is an important part of the transition plan, and it shows the transition work is basically complete."
Vice chairperson of the Hong Kong Journalists Association Sham Yee-lan said the magazine had suffered because of businesses pulling ads due to its political stance.
"Most of Hong Kong's mainstream publications have fallen in line when covering news that China thinks is sensitive. They censor themselves," Sham said.
"Next Magazine is one of the very few outlets that do not try to please Beijing when covering sensitive news. It has guts. So people are worried now ... this will have a huge impact."
Hong Kong is rated number 73 out of 180 countries in this year's World Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters Without Borders.
Next Digital posted losses of HK$394 million for the financial year ending 31 March 2017, according to its annual report, despite Apple Daily's massive online traffic of over 2.4 million unique visitors per day.
Over its past 27 years, Next Magazine has scored numerous scoops, but it has also been repeatedly sued for libel and defamation.
(Additional reporting by James Pomfret and Greg Torode; Editing by Michael Perry)