Chinese digital paper breaking new ground

The Paper's editor Wei Xing in its Shanghai office on Tuesday. It was due to launch an English- language version called Sixth Tone yesterday in hopes of making its recipe for success in China work abroad.
The Paper's editor Wei Xing in its Shanghai office on Tuesday. It was due to launch an English- language version called Sixth Tone yesterday in hopes of making its recipe for success in China work abroad.PHOTO: NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SYNDICATE

The Paper covers contentious issues despite being overseen by Communist Party

SHANGHAI • The Paper in China is a new media success story in a fast- changing marketplace for news. It covers contentious issues - such as official corruption and a recent scandal involving improperly stored vaccines - with a clutch of digital bells and whistles. Its smartphone app, it says, has been downloaded about 10 million times.

But it is different from BuzzFeed, Vice and other digital voices that have risen up to challenge traditional media: It is overseen by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), prospering at a time when the country's leaders are increasingly restricting what their people read and watch.

Now The Paper's owner has set its sights elsewhere. It was due to introduce yesterday an English-language version called Sixth Tone in hopes of making its recipe for success in China work abroad.

Some government pressure is inescapable, says editor Wei Xing, The Paper's former deputy editor- in-chief. "There are two paths you can choose," he said. One is to simply complain, but "we want to be part of the conversation, both global and domestic".

It is a complicated time for the news media in China. Appetite at home is voracious: Nearly 555 million people use online news portals, according to a Chinese government-backed Internet agency, a jump of more than half since 2010.

China has also encouraged its news outlets to go abroad, with President Xi Jinping urging them to "tell the China story well".

But those trends face China's increasingly tough media crackdown. The authorities have tightened limits on who can disseminate information in China, tamped down on reports about its environmental and economic problems, and restricted what its people see online.

"There's this very modern infrastructure, all these apps and very modernised packages that they're disseminating, and it's like a beautiful, beautiful house where the electrical wiring is missing," said Mr Kerry Brown, the director of the Lau China Institute at King's College London.

"You're not going to be able to say things about the party that are really critical," he said.

Mr Wei argues that Sixth Tone will have an easier time. While all Chinese media outlets are to some degree state-controlled, it lacks a politics-saturated bureaucracy because it is a start-up, he said.

In traditional English-language Chinese media, "some reports could appear because of government promotion. I don't think we have this so-called task. We just tell the stories with a more human factor", Mr Wei said.

Still, he recognises the limits, saying: "Maybe sometimes when reports are published there may be some comments from certain government departments."

Asked for examples at The Paper, he said, "for me, it's difficult to specify one case".

The Paper appeals to the educated and millennials in China, known as the "post-90s" generation.

"I feel like many newspapers or news portals just copy each other," said financial analyst Feng Jingya.

The 24-year-old singled out The Paper's recent coverage of the sale of improperly stored vaccines, a scandal that has called into question the ability of the authorities to regulate healthcare. "I bet not many news organisations [in China] are willing to spend time on the first-hand reporting or have the guts to break this kind of news first."

NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 07, 2016, with the headline 'Chinese digital paper breaking new ground'. Print Edition | Subscribe