Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Quotable: Tabitha Speelman on a Chinese news app

Monday, January 4th 2016
“Before the Internet age, it used to be relatively straightforward for authoritarian regimes to dictate popular news consumption: just control all the major newspapers, as China’s ruling Communist Party has done since the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949. But the advent of the Internet, particularly the rise of the social web, has broken that monopoly,” reported Tabitha Speelman in an article, “Looking for Smarter, Sexier Chinese State Media? There’s an App for That. that ran on the website of Foreign Policy on December 15, 2015.  Speelman reports from Shanghai for the Dutch daily newspaper Trouw.  Here are just a few excerpts from her detailed report:

  • Stiff online competition for the attention of China’s more than 600 million Internet users has become a major challenge for state media and its traditionally stolid reporting style. In response, the country’s leaders are looking for new ways to control how citizens produce and consume news . . . .

  • Enter the Paper, or Pengpai in Chinese, a web-based media outlet headquartered in Shanghai promising to provide news on “politics and thought” and one of the most successful answers to Xi’s call thus far. A start-up launched in July 2014 with enough government funding to now reach over 300 staff members, the Paper is the first Chinese web-based news organization to create a mobile news application featuring its own content.

  • The popular and slick-looking app offers over 100 news and background stories a day in 49 categories that range from rule of law to real estate to art.  It is already a staple in WeChat feeds and web portal repostings, greatly amplifying its influence.  The quantity and range of content attracts readers, most of whom are young and educated.

  • For many readers, their first introduction to the platform, months before its official WeChat launch, came via the Paper’s aggressive coverage of Xi’s anti-corruption campaign. The nationwide graft sweep, tackling an issue that had long been at the top of the list of citizens’ concerns, has been a hugely popular cornerstone of the Chinese president’s tenure so far.

  • The Paper reported extensively on the lives of fallen “tigers,” official slang for high-ranking officials, all across the country. “Part of that was marketing,” said Wei Xing in an interview with Foreign Policy. “There is a huge demand in China today for high-quality political news. People are no longer content with simple stories about local events. They want to know why.”

  • From the start, the Paper, which is part of the state-owned Shanghai United Media Group, had a difficult mission. The expectations from the leadership were clear: gain influence without making anyone up top look too bad. To do so, the start-up had to appeal to online readers, many of whom have an appetite for in-depth news without overt propaganda. “You have the right to know more,” goes one of the Paper‘s advertising slogans.

  • Some hoped that the new media venture, with its ample funding and ambitious aim of becoming China’s premier political news platform, would revive an otherwise ailing media climate. Others, however, pointed to the endorsement of Shanghai Communist Party chief Han Zheng and Internet czar Lu Wei, which suggested the outlet would adopt a moreconservative approach.

  • So far, it seems a bit of both, with the Paper running both critical exposés on social issues that are sometimes deleted post-publication, indicating censors believed them too politically sensitive, as well as propaganda-like pieces.

  • As with other state media, the Paper’s main headlines are almost invariably reserved for Xi, broadcasting anything from his comments on reform to what he eats during state visits. “Why do university students born after 1990 choose Xi Jinping as their idol?” was the title of a piece the Paper reposted on its app. One article last June, praising rescue divers searching for survivors in the Yangtze River after a ferry boat carrying more than 400 had sunk, drew heavy criticism for its uncritical coverage of the government’s rescue operation.

  • Such variety leaves the new outlet’s ideological leaning up to interpretation.

  • So far, the government’s strategy of cultivating online media start-ups as a way to reach new audiences, in addition to boosting the social media presence of state outlets such as People’s Daily and CCTV, seems successful.

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