News playing second fiddle to advertising

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 24 February, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 24 February, 2008, 12:00am

What change has surprised you the most in the nine years you've been in the industry?

I don't think there was anything that could be called a surprise. In terms of changes, I think the growing importance of advertising and distribution departments in my newspaper has been something no one would have believed 10 years ago. When I first joined the newspaper, advertising and distribution sounded more like a second-tier job because they did not contribute to the newspaper directly as reporters did. But now, without special state subsidies, newspapers have to find a way to feed themselves, and income from distribution and advertising has become the lifeblood of the newspaper. The best people moved to those departments, and editors seem to care more about how our advertising is doing than the quality of our stories.

Do you like this change?

It's not about whether I like it or not. It's a direction. You have no choice but to move forward because everyone realises that the old way of state financing does not work any more. For reporters like me, you have to go after news more aggressively because so many competitors out there are trying to break news. When I first got this job, most news came to you from state departments and it was a five-day-a-week job, but now the direction has reversed and reporters have to be vigilant seven days a week simply so they don't miss important news.

Did your salary rise along with the increased workload?

Of course, but not as fast as I hoped it would. I think our salaries are decent compared with the average industry pay, but it's still much lower than reporters working for overseas media even though we work every bit as hard.

Have you felt the pain of rising consumer prices?

Absolutely. I guess you'd feel it less if you were single. But after you get married and have a family to support, you realise everything goes up but your salary. Fortunately, my newspaper is raising salaries by 20 per cent this year, which could help offset some of the pressure.

When people talk about state-owned media, they usually think of self-censorship. Many believe you have a special system that filters out everything the government does not want to see.

To be honest, I have never been aware of such a system, even though from time to time some sensitive subjects are blocked on a case-by-case basis. The key here is state owned. Just as listed companies have to be responsible to their shareholders, this newspaper also has to be accountable to its ultimate owner, the state. But this relationship does not necessarily mean we have to agree with or support everything the state does. If you follow state media closely, you will realise that more and more stories criticising government policies and behaviour are coming out on a daily basis. In sectors like business and social news where competition is severe, there are almost no boundaries on what you can report - it's about how capably you can report. If you talk about a hidden agenda, I think every newspaper, including foreign ones, has its own agenda, which may vary based on the paper's ownership and the readers it serves. Chinese newspapers do share a mutual understanding with the government - they want China to be a better country and its people better served. If you call that a bias, so be it.

Do you think people respect journalists in this society?

It depends. Like any other industries, people respect those who work hard and deliver accurate news and despise the ones who compile news simply to get a reaction. I know there have been reports on how reporters cheated or faked stories, and the whole industry felt ashamed. But looking from a different angle, it just reflects how fast the industry has grown in the past decade and how deep the media's influence has penetrated into society. People know when you are wrong because they pay attention.

As a reporter, are you excited about the upcoming Olympic Games?

I'm looking forward to it, but not necessarily excited about it. I don't think most reporters will have a chance to cover the event, but it feels good to be in the heart of such a global sports party. I think it gives Beijing and China the opportunity to showcase to the world what kind of an event they are capable of hosting.

What do you think of claims that Beijing's Olympic Games organiser broke promises to give overseas media the freedom to report the event?

I don't know where those complaints came from, but personally I think the organising committee has been great about openness to the media. Many of my friends in the Chinese media would agree with that. The Chinese government said it would keep the openness accorded to the overseas media well beyond the summer Olympic Games and many Chinese media are excited about that because extended freedoms for foreign media will of course be shared by mainland news outlets.

Will there be a spike in newspaper advertising during the Olympic Games?

Only for the ones that are prepared. I see some performing well while others doing just so-so. I don't think companies will advertise their products by buying space in every newspaper. Only papers with excellent creditability and penetration will have the chance to benefit from the short advertising boom. Luckily, my newspaper is doing well so far in Olympic advertising.