The Pioneering Demise of the Chinese PressWritten by Julen Madariaga on March 26th, 2010
The debate about the New Media and the Death of the Newspapers has been raging for years on the free internet. In the Chinese intranet , however, this question doesn’t raise so much interest, because journalism here was already murdered long ago by the hideous hand of the censors. It is for this reason that Chinese papers are today at the forefront of the media’s demise.
Without any more preambles, let me introduce you to the Oriental Morning Post, one of the two big morning papers in Shanghai. Here are some of their front pages this week:
Look at these front pages carefully, have you noticed there are adverts? Yes. I buy this paper every morning and I was very excited to see they have found an innovative way to face the crisis: just get rid of the news and replace them with ads. Gray Lady, Mr. Murdoch, are you paying attention? Herein lies perchance the salvation of the press.
Seriously. Let me tell you a funny story about the death of a newspaper.
Like New York, Shanghai has two main morning papers that are in fierce competition with each other, the Oriental Morning Post and the Shanghai Morning Post. The former is a young paper that belongs to the large media group Wenhui, owner of the English language Shanghai Daily. The latter is part of the Jiefang Group, a historic paper controlled by the Shanghai committee of the Communist Party
The struggle between these newspapers reflects a story that is happening all over China, where relatively independent  groups are competing with the party media, and editors on both sides are led to push the thin line of information control in order to attract more readers. The party media has the advantage of established old reader bases and closer political coverage, so it is the “independent” media that is usually more vulnerable to attacks.
In the last few years, just like in the West, the menace of the freebies both online and offline has been a nightmare for these companies. Only in Shanghai the Metro Express reportedly has more readers (~1 million) than the two Posts together, and the internet continues to attract users by the millions.
Some have argued that the key for the survival of the big papers is reference columnists and quality, independent reporting. In a country where being an opinion leader can lead you straight to prison, and most of the news are directly copy/pasted from the Xinhua press agency, it hardly make sense to pay for the morning paper. The Metro has the same news, and the only way to get commentary on any important matter is surfing the internet fast enough to get there before the censors.
Today I asked my Shanghainese friend Mary Fu why she thinks the Oriental is better than the Metro Express, and she answered, literally: “they are similar, but the Oriental has less adverts“.
The Great Leap Forward
But let’s get to the point now, namely: I have strong reasons to suspect that the Oriental is playing a “Great Leap Forward” on its advertisers. In other words, it is reporting completely unrealistic numbers of readers. I have various reasons to believe this, mainly:
- They have been reporting the same figures (400,000) at least since 2008, while the conditions have severely worsened since then.
- They are playing desperate tactics, like the above front pages. In fact, in their table of prices for advertisers the “whole front page ad” is not even an option.
- If I know the Shanghainese well, they are not the kind of people to get ripped off 1 RMB every morning for something they can get for free.
I know it is ugly to accuse without proof, but frankly: doesn’t it look like the guys are struggling to pay the bills, and they have managed to find two wealthy foreign companies confused enough to part with half a million RMB? And perhaps they even cooked it up with an advertisement agency who has some good guanxi  in the group?
Pure speculation. Forget it, don’t listen to me. I recommend everyone to continue buying the Oriental Piaget Post. And I wish all the luck in the World to those 300 employees who are seriously going to need it.
Leading the Way for the Demise of the Newspapers
And now, for the desperate media leaders who are willing to try the new Chinese model, here are some some illustrative examples of the zombie life led by the long deceased Chinese journalism. Most of my examples are taken from Danwei, the best newspapers watching site I know.
Exhibit 1: Classic example of an advert disguised as news in a front page in the Oriental Guardian of Nanjing. With a characteristic lack of ethical principles learned from the censoring authorities, a large part of Chinese mainland newspapers routinely sell news space to advertisers or post adverts without any indication of their real nature.
Exhibit 2: From our very own Shanghai Oriental last week. On that day “Mont Blanc” must have smelled a rat, and the Post had to actually do a front page. In a desperate move to attract some eyes they pasted an unrelated photo of the sexiest woman in China. No article to go with it.
Exhibit 3: This is the kind of clever detail that makes me go back to Danwei all the time. Chongqing journalists are smarter than Shanghainese ones, it seems. See how they use their prime minister Wen to sell reading glasses on the front page. Pure genius!
Exhibit 4: See this Oriental Post from a few weeks ago, where the front page reports on the market price of an alpaca. This is a lame attempt to get back young readers lost to the internet, using an aging meme that is quickly becoming unfunny. Another innovation by the Post editors.
I could go on for ages with examples, I didn’t even spend 10 minutes looking for these. But enough is enough. Now I want to take you back to the West and try to picture the future in your mind.
Do you imagine what will happen when the New York Times follows the downward road pioneered by the Shanghai press?
Tell me, does the future look so bad?
Welcome to the Future of the Paper Media.
CLARIFICATION: There are still many proud Chinese journalists who do their job honestly and the best they can under very difficult conditions. It goes without saying that the criticism here does not apply to them.
- Yes, intranet, from now on I refuse to refer to this joke as the internet until the retards controlling the GFW understand the meaning of World Wide Web [↩]
- By independent I mean companies not nominally controlled by the party, although obviously they are not really independent from the government directives given to all the press [↩]
- Guanxi means relations, often - but not necessarily - implying a shady exchange of favours. If you are going to be reading about China you better learn this word now [↩]