OUTSIDE THE CONFERENCE hall, the reporters queue up for information packs from the company making the announcement. Inside are pages full of sales figures, glossy photographs of new products and an envelope with cash, usually 200 yuan (about HK$187) to 500 yuan. This is the low end of one corner of China's grey economy - paid news. At the high end, it is city mayors and company executives offering tens of thousands of yuan to television companies for favourable coverage. It is expensive, but a good investment if it earns the mayor a promotion or a company sees a surge in sales. 'Everyone knows this is going on. But it is hard to get evidence,' said a reporter with one of Beijing's best known financial magazines. So serious is the problem that the Communist Party's propaganda department held a meeting last Tuesday in Beijing attended by the most important newspapers and radio and television stations to urge more effort in the battle against paid news. Deputy department head Ji Bingxuan told the meeting that, while there had been successes in finding cases of paid news, problems remained and that it was taking new forms, with improper advertising and fake and dishonest news, which were influencing the image of the media. He urged the media to improve their internal discipline and sense of morality and recognise the threat posed by paid news. Shao Huaze, chairman of the All-China Journalists' Association, told the meeting that it was up to the profession to take this advice seriously and implement measures to ensure it behaves in a moral and healthy way. The meeting is unlikely to have much impact on practices that have been established for years. Such a meeting is held each year in Beijing, with similar denunciations but little result. China's media market is diverse and booming, with 8,000 newspaper and magazine titles. Paid news comes about because journalists and editors want to complement their modest salaries and because companies find it cheaper to pay them to obtain space on a news page than pay for an advertisement which lacks the credibility of a news item. The pay comes in the form of cash, free meals, gifts and free hotel accommodation and travel. Liu Bing, a media consultant who used to edit a successful magazine, Celebrities, said paid news continued despite many meetings aimed at wiping out such corruption. 'The rule is that, before a news conference, you prepare a red packet with at least 200 yuan along with the press release. All the companies who want to have a press release must follow the rule. If they do not include the red packet, the reporters are not happy,' he said. 'If you are a small company or organisation and want to be interviewed by a big newspaper, you find a go-between who will negotiate the payment that you make for this. This is all done in secret, so that it is hard to catch people. Neither party has an interest in revealing anything.' A woman reporter in her 20s who works for a newspaper that belongs to one of the most powerful departments in the government said she had been able to buy a Jetta passenger car for 120,000 yuan from commissions she had obtained from soliciting advertisements. 'I select the people to interview according to the likelihood that they will place an ad in our paper. If they do, I get a commission. That is my criterion, not news. My editors want advertisements more than news,' she said. Her newspaper is one of dozens in China that depend on a subsidy from its owner and compulsory subscriptions from government departments as well as advertisements. 'The efficiency in my office is very low. There is no sense of competition because we live off money from the organisation that owns us. People freelance for other publications. In this atmosphere, paid news is normal,' said an editor in a big newspaper targeting women. Media from outside the mainland are gradually entering this market, legally and illegally. Some jointly publish magazines on computers, fashion and lifestyle and others have set up legal joint ventures in advertising, which then take over the editorial - which is illegal. At a seminar this month in Hong Kong, Wang Huapeng, director-general of the Department for Foreign Exchange and Co-operation at the General Administration of Press and Publication, said that China was drawing up regulations on co-operation with foreign media in health, tourism and science and technology magazines, which he hoped would be published this year. 'We have applications from many foreign media companies to set up publishing joint ventures,' he said. 'We have strict rules in this industry. To publish a magazine, you need a licence. To sell these is illegal. We plan to gradually open the market to foreign firms.' But will this opening up put an end to paid news?