Media & Gaming

Paper losses

Launch of a Huffington Post-like news website in Shanghai causes stir

Chinese man uses a magnifying glass to read a newspaper in Shanghai.

For those who prefer not to go online to get their news

The People’s Daily started out as a highly sought after publication (it sounds unlikely, we admit). But its origins lie with journals run by underground Party members in the 1940s in Northeast China, a region which was first under Japanese occupation and then (during the Chinese civil war) controlled by the KMT. At that time it was widely read by intellectuals, despite the great risks. Those who helped circulate it, or sometimes simply just possessed a copy, might be tortured.

Today, it’s hard to imagine anyone risking jail for the chance to read it. Propagandist monotone and tightly-censored content has undermined much of its initial appeal. The newspaper also has plenty of competition. By the end of 2012, there were nearly 3,500 state-run media firms publishing newspapers and magazines (and on top of that, more than 1,416 state broadcasters or movie producers). Most of them are struggling financially. The website of the People’s Daily, which was listed in Shanghai in 2012, only survives on hefty state subsidies too.

The leadership in Beijing is well aware that the state media is declining in effectiveness. After chairing a powerful committee on reforms in August, President Xi Jinping called for measures to be taken to develop new media organisations that are “diversified, advanced and competitive”. Xinhua quoted Xi saying he wants: “Several new media groups that have strength, communication capacity, credibility and are influential to be established.”

Shanghai has been leading the charge for this sensitive initiative. Late last year two of the city’s oldest newspapers merged to form Shanghai United Media Group (or SUMG, see WiC218). It is now the biggest print media group in China by assets and its creation is being trumpeted as a turning point for state-run newspapers, which have been losing readers to online news providers and weibo commentators.

In July, SUMG began the counter-offensive by launching The Paper, an internet newspaper. Its Chinese name Pengpai sounds like “paper” but it is also an adjective for raging sea waves. And indeed the new venture has been making a pretty big splash.

Some say that The Paper is supposed to resemble the popular American internet newspaper the Huffington Post. Also available via mobile apps such as Tencent’s WeChat, The Paper has already become “one of the hottest words on China’s social media”, says the Global Times. Financial Times columnist Xu Danei has blogged too that The Paper is the most ambitious debut in the Chinese media world since 2010 when influential journalist Hu Shuli kicked off Caixin, publisher of Century Weekly.

What is so special about The Paper? Financially it is backed by the Shanghai government but also by private sector investors such as Hony Capital, an investment firm linked to PC-making giant Lenovo. It is also the first internet media firm to be awarded a licence to cover politics and current affairs. (Other licence holders: the websites of traditional newspapers, which remain tightly censored.)

The Paper’s editorial staff largely come from SUMG’s Oriental Morning Post, one of the country’s more highly regarded newspapers (it broke the news in 2008 that Chinese dairy firm Sanlu was one of the culprits behind a tainted milk scandal). According to Foreign Policy magazine, The Paper looks like a “news site trying to find the sweet spot where public service journalism converges with Party objectives”.

One of the objectives is to bolster Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption drive. Since commencing operations a couple of months ago The Paper has already published two exclusives on graft involving government officials. It also appeared to be testing the censor’s bottom line when it wrote a glaring exposé about health problems at a mercury mine in Guizhou province.

State-run counterparts are giving The Paper positive reviews, including comments in the China Daily that the launch is “one small step for the internet but a giant leap for the newspaper industry”.

But others still need to be convinced.

Shanghai Jiaotong University professor Wei Wuhui told Foreign Policy that The Paper faces an uphill battle as a new media platform. For such sites to be successful they normally require more interaction with readers, as well as user-generated content, he says, and that is something that is extremely difficult to police.

In fact, while The Paper offers tentative hopes for a freer media sector, the authorities are also ratcheting up the scrutiny of business journalists. Last month police detained eight reporters from the financial newspaper 21CN Business Herald on allegations that they have been collaborating with public relations firms to extort money from listed companies in return for positive coverage (see WiC252). Last week, the 21CN’s chief editor and general manager were also detained.

The 21CN is operated by the Guangdong-based Nanfang Media Group, which has nurtured some of China’s more liberal newspapers including Southern Weekend and Southern Metropolis Daily. But the crackdown on privately-run media organisations seems to be helping the state press regain investor attention. For example, Guangdong Guangzhou Daily Media has seen its Shenzhen-listed stock climb nearly 80% this year. Shares at Zhejiang Daily Media have also risen more than 30% during the same period.

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