Well-known Henan investigative reporter Zhu Changzhen , 45, used to make his living selling grilled mutton kebabs in a night market in the province's Pingdingshan city. With great admiration for journalists, he joined their ranks in 1997. Now he has decided to return to the grill, at least part-time.
Have you been busy preparing for your mutton kebabs business?
I haven't quit my job. I'm still a journalist with the Dahe Daily.
Before I made the microblog post about returning to my job as a mutton kebab seller, I had already reached an agreement with farmers in Pingdingshan to rent two hills to raise sheep. I recently revisited them and paid the money. That's all I have prepared so far.
Some friends have suggested sponsoring some of my sheep, and I am considering this. They could name their own sheep, visit them when they like and track their conditions by asking for photos if they can't visit. [This would also help promote the fact that the mutton he uses is fresh and its origin could be tracked.]
Do you think you will make more money selling mutton kebabs?
It's hard to say, because there are always ups and downs in operating a business. Being a journalist ensures me a steady income, though not much.
When I was selling kebabs I definitely made less money than a journalist. I made just 400 to 500 yuan a month.
Last year during a visit to the City University of Hong Kong, when I was asked whether the mainland media had made progress in the past decade, I did not answer the question directly. But I gave an example, explaining that a journalist earned more money 10 years ago than a mutton vendor, which drove me to learn about journalism and gradually become a journalist.
My first month's salary as a journalist was 1,300 yuan. When I went back home and handed it to my wife, she checked the notes several times, asking whether they were fake. When we sold mutton, no matter how hard we worked, we could never make so much money.
But now, if I told my friends who are still in the trade that I made just several thousand yuan a month, they would probably laugh at me. As far as I know, they can easily make 10,000 yuan a month now.
Will you quit your job when you open your mutton shop and business gets on track?
It depends largely on my employer now. As an investigative reporter, I don't write that many stories now.
You may know that the entire print media on the mainland used to attach great importance to investigative reports, including the Dahe Daily. Ten years ago it put great support behind such reports, in terms of personnel, funding and pages. But in recent years, amid the rise of new media and the company possibly seeing a decline in business revenue, there are more controls over reporting costs, and restrictions are imposed, especially on investigative reporting.
I can sense this trend from the several hundred investigative reporters across the country. It's already no longer news that investigative reporters are moving out of the profession. Many have already left the front line.
A sense of inferiority has grown within me in these years. I was young when I went to Chongqing to report on a gas explosion in late 2003, carrying a laptop and a camera. But when the Wenchuan earthquake happened in 2008, and once again I went to the front line, I felt inferior to the other reporters, who were about 30 or even younger. It's hard to find a journalist my age who is still at the forefront of investigative journalism now.
When I first got into the profession, my dream was that, when my hair grew white, I would still be carrying a bag on my hunchback and investigating, like many journalists in other countries. But over the years I have started feeling more and more lost.
What is your employer's attitude towards your decision to start a mutton shop?
None of my bosses have intervened. One of them said that it was fine for me to sell mutton part-time but not to quit. He asked me to put more of my energy into reporting.
How did you become a journalist?
In 1995, I had a bunch of foreigners at my stall during a festival in Pingdingshan, where I sold mutton kebabs at a night market. I could speak a little English. The Pingdingshan Evening News then interviewed me and wrote a story entitled A Self-employed Individual who can Speak English. Because I liked writing, I started writing small stories about the night market, such as about drunk girls fighting with each other, for the newspaper. Later the newspaper held a training course for its correspondents, and I attended.
At that time, I usually closed the stall about 3am. After that I would go to borrow books at the Pingdingshan library. When I returned to the library recently, all of the books about journalism still had a mutton smell! I often failed to clean my hands properly.
Later I wrote a story about some local industrial and commercial officials not paying their bills after eating at the night market. This led to the sacking of those officials, and of course I came under pressure and was forced to return to my hometown in Lushan county to farm. About six months later I went back to Pingdingshan and worked with the publicity department of the Industrial and Commercial Bureau, which I became familiar with during the last incident.
After being in that position for less than a year, in 1997 I was hired by the Pingdingshan Evening News. I worked as a journalist at the newspaper until 2000, when I took part in a recruitment examination for Dahe Daily and got the job as its investigative reporter.
Which one do you personally prefer, selling mutton or reporting, ignoring other factors such as salary and social respect?
I like both. I like reporting, especially when something important happens and I rush to the scene immediately, and then show the truth to readers like reeling silk from cocoons. I also like raising sheep in the mountains, selling mutton kebabs, and riding a horse in a wide-open space. It's my dream to raise a herd of healthy sheep, bathe in the streams on the hills I rent, and be with my sheep. When investigative reporters come, I will serve them mutton that they trust is safe. We will drink beer and talk about our experiences during the Wenchuan earthquake and other major incidents we reported on.
Zhu spoke to Mandy Zuo