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Zimeiti hunt media profits but they still need to play by the rules

Papa-Jiang-w

A-list zimeiti: Papi Jiang

“Call it ‘We Media’. Journalism is evolving away from its lecture mode – i.e. here’s the news, and you buy it or you don’t,” wrote Silicon Valley journalist Dan Gillmor in the Columbia Journalism Review in 2003.

Gillmor later outlined his ideas in the book We the Media, arguing that the rise of the internet and the proliferation of grassroots journalists would challenge more conventional news outlets.

More than 10 years later some of the same thinking has caught on in China, with smaller news platforms staking claims on the media landscape.

Whether they will upend the information monopoly of the traditional media outlets is more open to question, however.

Fairly typical of the new breed is a publishing account on WeChat adopting the name of Shenye Shitang. The author is Li Ming, formerly a staffer at a minor e-commerce firm in Hangzhou. When he started writing in 2014 Li wrote food and restaurant reviews, but moved into missives on ‘Chicken Soup for the Soul’. He realised they were garnering good feedback, especially from ‘office ladies’, and he began a midnight posting cycle featuring heartwarming articles for young, lonely people in major cities.

Li quit his day job and took up his new profession, which has since become known as zimeiti, or ‘We media’ in Chinese.

Zimeiti typically operate as social media accounts run by individuals or as small firms established by a handful of former journalists. Many are writers who have left state-owned newspapers or magazines. Once they have gathered sizable enough fan bases, they can make stable incomes from advertising, and the most popular zimeiti are attracting investment from venture capital firms and takeover offers from bigger rivals.

This was exactly what happened to Li Ming. Shenye Shitang’s followers had topped one million people by 2015 and it merged with Ergeng, which publishes short videos every ergeng (the 9pm to 11pm period).

The combination with Li’s zimeiti – renamed Ergeng Shitang after the merger – saw the platform grow quickly. According to news portal Huxiu, it boasted more than 50 million followers as of April this year, of which 10 million were devotees of Ergeng Shitang. In the same month its parent Ergeng Technology, with Li as chief executive, pulled in Rmb120 million ($18.8 million) in fundraising from angel investors.

Zimeiti with top-tier popularity are known as key opinion leaders, or KOLs. We have covered some of them in the past, including Papi Jiang (see WiC322). Many are acutely commercial in their focus, promoting brands in the worlds of lifestyle and entertainment, where they are less likely to stray into sensitive political areas. Yet the zimeiti exist in finance, economics and general news too, and a characteristic of the best of them is that they are bolder and nimbler than the state-owned newspapers.

There were early signs of this trend when owners of accounts on Sina Weibo, a blogging platform, started reporting information well ahead of the newspapers almost a decade ago. One example was the high-speed rail crash in Wenzhou in 2011, when news of the disaster filtered through first on individual weibo accounts. State media was slower to react, leading to accusations that it was trying to bury the story (see WiC117).

In other instances the authorities have tried to tap into netizen reporting to target misbehaviour from public officials, including a famous case where a weibo account collected photos of civil servants wearing watches above their paygrades (access to the site was later blocked by regulators; see WiC123).

What’s new about the zimeiti is that the best of the blogging has been professionalised and that the authors can make a living from it.

That’s despite legal niceties in which internet media sources aren’t supposed to conduct original reporting, limiting itself to aggregating approved material.

The zimeiti skirt the rules by commenting on existing articles and there have been plenty of cases in which narrower stories start to snowball into more sensitive areas.

Last summer state media reported that a man had been found dead in a ditch in Tianjin. An autopsy showed that he hadn’t eaten for days. Perhaps the story might have ended there but a former financial news reporter-turned-zimeiti started digging into the man’s disappearance. It turned out that he had been held hostage by a gang who lured him via a job recruitment site. The debate branched out into an exposé of illicit activity by pyramid scheme gangs across the country, a topic that state media was forced to take up (see WiC376).

Last week there were signs of similar zimeiti spillover from a blogger revelation that started with a celebrity focus on Fan Bingbing, and the diva-ish terms of one of her contracts. Within a matter of hours the discussion was morphing into a wider row about potential tax evasion. Editorials in state newspapers were calling for investigations into payments to stars and the share prices of film studios were dipping.

All the same, there are limits to how far this kind of citizen journalism is allowed to flow. It is now two years since Xi Jinping toured the top three state-run media outlets, demanding loyalty to the Party and telling editors to follow its leadership in “thought, politics and action”.

That isn’t a context in which the government looks prepared to cede ground to more independent voices and in March there was another crackdown after the amendment of term limits on the presidency. Even searches for the phrase “I disagree” were blocked online.

The authorities had already banned social media outlets from allowing users to register anonymously and new AI technology should make it easier to pick out content that breaches the rules.

None of that sounds particularly encouraging for zimeiti wanting to break bigger stories, especially news that could take on a political dimension.

At the same time, the state news agencies recognise that dwindling numbers of people are reading newspapers and that the younger audience relies on smartphones for news.

As a result, the newspaper firms are running zimeiti of their own. Led by younger teams of journalists, the material they create is different from typical propaganda, Maria Repnikova, an academic with a focus on Chinese media politics, told a conference at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington earlier this year.

Mixing headlines about the government’s achievements with advice on getting train tickets during peak periods or tips for doing well in the annual gaokao exams, the new platforms adopt the zimeiti style by publishing emotive or investigative stories, with graphics and videos that appeal to younger readers.

Another feature is what Repnikova refers to as “playful pieces” of “cutified propaganda” about the Party and Xi Jinping himself.

Meanwhile the best of the more independent zimeiti have become an avenue for stock market plays. In May Zhejiang HugeLeaf, a Shanghai-listed healthcare firm, announced an audacious diversification, with the acquisition of a four year-old platform called Quantum Cloud, whose core asset is 981 WeChat accounts with an aggregated 240 million followers (officials at the Shanghai stock exchange have asked HugeLeaf to explain how it has come up with the Rmb3.8 billion price tag, however).

More broadly, investors are right to be cautious about the sector. That brings us back to Li Ming and his downfall last month.

Li was sacked by the parent firm after a misjudged post about the case of Li Mingzhu, a young flight attendant who had been raped and killed by a Didi driver (see WiC409). Ergeng had offered its own thoughts on the tragedy, knowing that a post on the topic would draw traffic. “Such a gorgeous girl should have had a life just as splendid,” it said. “But her so-called splendour was to have semen splattered below her waist, and scarlet blood gushing.”

The post attracted 100,000 views, or the 100K-plus status coveted by zimeiti operators. But many readers were incensed by the salacious comments, describing the article as “a blood-soaked bun”, a metaphor for attempts to profiteer from a tragedy. “Although I realise that some WeChat public accounts don’t have a moral baseline when it comes to increasing traffic, what I saw today really shattered the limits of my understanding,” a Beijing-based lawyer lamented on his own weibo account.

The backlash led to the closure of Li’s Ergeng Shitang by its parent firm (perhaps worried the public would shun its other platforms in protest).

Another zimeiti that has found itself engulfed in a media storm was Chaping, which means ‘negative review’ in Chinese. It focuses on the tech industry on its WeChat channel but it has been getting scathing coverage from other zimeiti, who have accused it of ‘article laundering’, or plagiarising their material.

Initially, this reputation didn’t seem to deter Tencent from committing to a Rmb30 million fundraising round last month. But it pulled out of the deal a few days later after a public backlash that it wasn’t consistent with the tech giant’s commitments to respecting copyrighted material.


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