The financial publisher Caixin has never been afraid to take risks.
During its seven-year existence the weekly magazine has written damning exposés of large companies and powerful people. It has also challenged the government over sensitive issues like censorship, corruption and public safety.
But its latest move is one of its largest gambles yet – on November 6th Caixin will be the first Chinese publication to put its online content behind a paywall. It is charging Rmb298 ($45) for a year’s access to the weekly magazine or Rmb498 for the magazine and website access with daily updates.
“High quality news cannot be free forever,” said the media group’s president Zhang Xiang.
Since its founding Caixin has earned a reputation as a serious, hard-hitting publication.
Its editor, Hu Shuli, 64, broke away from Caijing, the magazine she had edited for more than a decade and which had broken major stories (exposing, for instance, corrupt practices in the bond market).
Hu’s newsroom does not practice “red envelope” journalism – where positive coverage can be bought and negative stories spiked.
Hu also insists on a firewall between the business side of the group and the editorial side so its writers have greater independence.
Of course, in China’s much trammelled media scene there are other limitations. But in an industry where many outlets are state-owned or state-controlled Caixin is a brave outlier. Last March it used its English language website to draw attention to the fact its Chinese-language website had been censored and a few months later it was blacklisted for writing about lawyers protesting new government controls on their work.
“Over the past year, Caixin Online has repeatedly violated news and propaganda discipline and published reports with problematic orientations whose republication elsewhere has had a seriously negative influence,” the notice said.
Other publications were banned from quoting or reprinting Caixin’s articles for two months, according to the China Digital Times.
In recent years it has also been involved in two other high-level spats: one with Anbang Insurance and the other with exiled business tycoon Guo Wengui.
In April Anbang’s chairman Wu Xiaohui threatened to sue Caixin and Hu for defamation over articles detailing the company’s murky finances. The status of the case is unclear. Shortly after Anbang made the threat, Wu resigned and was detained by anti-corruption investigators.
Meanwhile Hu is counter-suing Guo Wengui in the US. Little was known about Guo till Caixin wrote a long, unflattering article about him in 2015. In response Guo accused Hu of getting into bed with his enemies, both literally and figuratively.
But where does this leave Caixin’s plan for a paywall?
The Guo debacle does not seem to have dented Caixin’s popularity and may even have enhanced it.
Readership is going up – in May Caixin.com got 5.8 million visitors according to audience measurement company iResearch – and a recent round of financing saw the company attract the attention of Alibaba, which owns the free-to-view South China Morning Post.
Other shareholders include social media giant Tencent, and state-backed China Media Capital – headed by “China’s Rupert Murdoch” Li Ruigang.
Caixin has defended its decision to introduce a paywall, saying it will “support” news gathering.
In an interview with Sohu News the group’s managing editor Wang Shou hinted that the transition to a subscription model was because the rise of social media was impacting their advertising take – as is the case across the world.
But there was increasing evidence that people are prepared to pay for quality news, he said, referencing the growing number of readers willing to subscribe to the New York Times and Financial Times.
He also pointed out that paying for content in China is not entirely new. In the last few years people have paid for video-steaming services, online TV, audio books and online education.
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