Media

No longer black and white

Newspaper closure shocks the domestic media industry

An industry spoilt for choice

In the history of men’s fashion, a very small chapter should be devoted to Don Johnson’s contribution to the sock.

Johnson’s Miami Vice character Sonny Crockett famously eschewed the footwear altogether, starting a minor 1980s trend in which men went sockless in their loafers.

Johnson rendered socks defunct – albeit only temporarily. Are newspapers now facing their own ‘Don Johnson’ moment, in light of the internet challenge? Or like socks will they be making a comeback?

In America, newspapers look like they are in trouble. Closures of city titles are on the rise – 105 have been shuttered in 2009, according to the Business Insider website. Even the venerable New York Times fired 100 journalists last week.

Perhaps what’s more surprising is that the debate is also reaching China, with news that a national newspaper (the China Press Journal) will close too.

Most of China’s national newspapers do not have the huge circulation that you might expect. The China Press Journal peaked at 100,000.

But the shutdown has still proved a shock to the nation’s journalists.

According to local terminology, China Press Journal was a ‘central-level newspaper’, meaning it carried ‘China’ in its name, and had national rather than merely provincial or city distribution.

A bit like a bank being too big to fail, it was assumed in Chinese media circles that a central-level newspaper would not be allowed to go down – and would end up being bailed out by the state.

But, as China Youth Daily reports, the closure could herald a new “survival of the fittest” era for the national media.

In China, as in the US, the internet is proving to be a game-changer. Many of the 342 million citizens currently online are going to websites like Sina for their news.

Officially, China remains the world’s largest market for daily newspapers, with a circulation of 96.6 million. (In reality, this is likely to be an overstated number, as publishers tend to pump up circulation figures in pursuit of higher ad sales.)

The paper that tops the circulation rankings is called Reference News – and you’d be forgiven for not being aware of it. It’s the official internal paper of the Communist Party and sells 2.62 million copies a day. In all there are 2007 newspapers registered in the country, of which 436 are daily and 206 are ‘central-level’.

Even for a country as large as China, this seems a few too many. It explains too why circulations at individual titles are less than you might at first guess.

But contrary to conventional wisdom not all local papers act as mouthpieces of an Orwellian state.

Several titles have a more independent tone and attempt a more investigative approach – particularly those in the south of the country such as 21 CN Business Herald, Southern Metropolis Daily and Southern Weekly.

But China Youth Daily – which also has its punchier moments – still acknowledges that most of the industry “is the product of the planned economy”.

It posits too that the closure of China Press Journal is “a harbinger of reform” in the industry.

Liu Binjie – the director of the General Administration of Press and Publications – agrees that there is a wave of closures and mergers ahead. The goal, says Li, is to create seven top quality, internationally-renowned newspaper and publishing groups with sales of Rmb10 billion ($1.46 billion) a year each. He wants to get this done within five years.

In America, the internet may be sounding the death knell for large numbers of unviable newspapers. But in China – as with many things – the state will manage the cull.


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