New digital hope for suffering newspapers
How have Chinese newspaper publishers and editors reacted to billionaire amazaon.com 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@ gmail.com