Media snob appeal

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 22 November, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 22 November, 2003, 12:00am

The Beijing News, a new tabloid of impeccable pedigree, appeared on the newsstands last week. The sober front page, with its Xin Jing Bao masthead in the burnt sienna of the Forbidden City walls, did not cry out for attention among the scores of daily and weekly papers, but the 530,000 copies of the debut edition sold out on the day.

The new metro paper is the offspring of the national Guangming News and the Guangzhou-based Southern Metropolis News. The alliance of the stodgy conservative paper, which relies mainly on mandatory subscriptions, and the feisty paper in the entrepreneurial capital, broke all the rules of publishing a newspaper in China. Media observers have been eagerly watching for the changes it will bring to Beijing's fiercely competitive daily news market.

The first edition won praise from journalists and academics alike for its idealism - publishing only 'news that matters' - and its size: 80 pages of in-depth reporting, with few adverts. It reads more like a magazine than a daily paper. Positioning itself at the high-end of newspaper readership, it has put the emphasis on the quality of its commentaries, some of which are penned by nationally renowned writers. The local news section was considerably weaker than its competitors, which include the Beijing Youth Daily, the Beijing Times and the Beijing Evening News, but even the critics admitted that it will take time to get into its stride.

Media experts differ in their prognosis, but they agree on one point: that the competition will force other papers to come up with innovative ways to woo increasingly choosy readers, who will inevitably compare the newcomer with the refreshing variety and occasional behind-the-scenes reporting introduced by the Beijing Times.

That newspaper, launched in the spring of 2001, also boasts a powerful parent - the People's Daily, the official communist party newspaper. Interestingly, some of the paper's top editors also came from the Southern Metropolis News.

The clout of a parent with state-level connections is enormous. The metro papers, as a rule, are under the control of the municipal propaganda department, which decides what can be printed. But the local censors wield little influence on state newspapers. The Beijing Times wooed readers with its exclusive reports on city hall, which caused officials no amount of headaches. With the entry of the Beijing News, the city will now be scrutinised by two metro papers, which will eventually force the municipal government to loosen its control on other local papers.

Launched more than two years after the Beijing Times, which is said to have recently turned a profit for the first time, the News faces a tough time before it can expect to break even - which it aims to do by 2005, with a daily circulation of one million. Industry professionals, however, have done some rough calculations, which show that, with a cover price of one yuan, the newspaper is losing at least 1.5 yuan on every copy sold, based on production costs of two yuan and a vendor allowance of 0.5 yuan. This does not take into account staffing and overhead costs. In the first two years, it could face annual losses in the region of 175 million yuan (HK$164 million).

From Hong Kong's perspective, it is hard to imagine that a new mass-market newspaper would seek to position itself at the serious end of journalism. Even on the mainland, as more papers run lurid stories in an effort to boost circulation, it is a different breed. Perhaps it has to learn to lighten up. But it may not have to. Beijing is a city that attracts culturally sophisticated people from all over China. With the experience of its progressive sister publications, the Southern Weekend and the 21st Century Business Herald, the Beijing News may be able to put its finger on the pulse of the nation and produce a newspaper for the highbrow readers it covets. Nailene Chou Wiest is a Post correspondent based in Beijing