New dig­i­tal hope for suf­fer­ing news­pa­pers

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - COMMENT - BAI PING

How have Chi­nese news­pa­per pub­lish­ers and edi­tors re­acted to bil­lion­aire founder buy­ing the mighty The Wash­ing­ton Post, an icon of Amer­i­can jour­nal­ism?

You can bet that each and ev­ery one of them has fol­lowed the deal with in­tense in­ter­est, be­cause it is widely con­sid­ered an­other mile­stone of the rise of the In­ter­net over tra­di­tional me­dia. Three years ago, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., chair­man and pub­lisher of The New York Times, caused quite a stir in China when he hinted half a world away that the news­pa­per would stop print­ing “some­time in the fu­ture”.

The sale of The Wash­ing­ton Post cre­ates a sense of ap­pre­hen­sion also be­cause it comes at a par­tic­u­larly dif­fi­cult time for Chi­nese news­pa­pers. The sales of mar­ket-driven pa­pers, dif­fer­ent from their govern­ment-sup­ported coun­ter­parts, con­tin­ued to slide last year, with national ad rev­enues post­ing the big­gest an­nual drop ever.

Bei­jing used to be a bat­tle­ground for cut­throat com­pe­ti­tion among a dozen metropoli­tan dailies. But to­day the lo­cal news­pa­per ad mar­ket is dom­i­nated by four or five morn­ing and evening news­pa­pers.

An­other ob­vi­ous sign of the wors­en­ing woes for the print me­dia is the de­clin­ing num­ber of news­pa­per kiosks at street cor­ners across China. In Bei­jing, plum­met­ing sales have forced news­pa­per ven­dors to ei­ther con­tem­plate clo­sure or to rely on the sales of soft drinks, phone cards and trin­kets as their main sources of in­come.

But de­spite the im­passe, very few lo­cal news­pa­per ex­ec­u­tives have fore­seen a sce­nario in which a strug­gling news­pa­per can be sold to wealthy tech­nol­ogy up­starts, partly be­cause of their pride and partly be­cause of strin­gent govern­ment reg­u­la­tions that pro­hibit com­mer­cial web­sites from en­gag­ing in “orig­i­nal” news pro­duc­tion.

At a sem­i­nar on the fu­ture of tra­di­tional me­dia in China be­fore the deal of The Wash­ing­ton Post was inked, a top news­pa­per pub­lisher from south­ern China made what he called a “dar­ing” pre­dic­tion. He said “a great num­ber of suc­cess­ful In­ter­net com­pa­nies” will en­ter the news­pa­per mar­ket through merg­ers and re­struc­tur­ing.

Un­til now, Chi­nese news­pa­per edi­tors and ex­ec­u­tives have been more used to the idea of fend­ing off en­croach­ment by In­ter­net por­tals on mar­ket shares and ad rev­enues. But it has been a los­ing bat­tle so far.

Para­dox­i­cally, com­mer­cial sites have thrived at the ex­pense of news­pa­pers be­cause they are al­lowed to lift news­pa­pers’ con­tent at dirt cheap prices or even for free. News­pa­per al­liances tar­get­ing news por­tals have been formed but have col­lapsed time and again, be­cause there are al­ways some news­pa­pers that want the ag­gre­ga­tors to help them cap­ture larger mar­ket shares even at the cost of free con­tent.

While news­pa­per edi­tors are proud to see their head­lines posted on the home­pages of com­mer­cial sites, their on­line ver­sions are find­ing it dif­fi­cult to take off be­cause news ag­gre­ga­tors carry en­tire sto­ries with­out send­ing traf­fic back to the news­pa­per sites.

Be­hind all this is an­other more im­mi­nent and trou­bling prob­lem. Many news­pa­pers have never pro­duced dif­fer­en­ti­ated con­tent to make their prod­ucts unique and sus­tain­able. Their con­tent even at­tracts scorn from por­tal man­agers, who com­plain that while scoop­ing news­pa­per con­tent, they see four to five lo­cal news­pa­pers in one city pub­lish sim­i­lar mun­dane con­tent.

In re­cent years, mar­ket-driven news­pa­pers have claimed that in­no­va­tion has helped them con­tinue to push through, but their ini­tia­tives seem to have run out of steam and need some dras­tic ideas to rein­vent them­selves and change their os­si­fied news pro­duc­tion rou­tines. Gen­er­ally, it is be­lieved that com­mer­cial news­pa­pers in China will be­come an en­dan­gered species in about a decade and only some qual­ity news­pa­pers will sur­vive.

So will Chi­nese news­pa­pers fol­low the ex­am­ple of The Wash­ing­ton Post in the fu­ture as they fran­ti­cally ex­per­i­ment with new busi­ness mod­els and pol­icy lee­way? The sale of an Amer­i­can news­pa­per that once had it all is cer­tainly an eye-opener for ev­ery­body. The writer is edi­tor-at-large of China Daily. dr.baip­ing@

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