Despite Crackdown, Chinese News Outlet Looks for More Readers Abroad

By Tatlow, Didi Kirsten | International New York Times, April 6, 2016 | Go to article overview

Despite Crackdown, Chinese News Outlet Looks for More Readers Abroad


Tatlow, Didi Kirsten, International New York Times


The Paper, a digital success in China, launches an English- language version as the country's leaders set conflicting goals for news outlets.

The Paper 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 The Paper 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, and is prospering at a time when China's leaders are increasingly restricting what their people read and watch.

Now The Paper's owner has set its sights elsewhere. On Wednesday it is set to publicly kick off 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 Wei Xing, its editor and the former deputy editor in chief of The Paper. "There are two paths you can choose," he said. One is to complain, he said, but "we want to be part of the conversation, both global and domestic."

The debut comes at a complicated time for China's media. Appetite at home is voracious, with nearly 555 million Chinese using online news portals, according to a Chinese government-backed Internet agency, marking a jump of more than 50 percent since 2010.

China has also encouraged its news outlets to go abroad. President Xi Jinping has urged the Chinese media to "tell the China story well."

But those trends come amid 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 modernized packages that they're disseminating, and it's like a beautiful, beautiful house where the electrical wiring is missing," said 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.

Already, many other Chinese news outlets just parrot the party's stilted language. (One recent sample: "Chinese vice premier expects steady, healthy growth.") Then there are the examples of a tin ear, such as when the English website of People's Daily reposted an article from The Onion, the satirical website, that declared Kim Jong-un of North Korea the sexiest man alive.

Mr. Wei says that Sixth Tone will have an easier time. While all Chinese media outlets are to some degree state controlled, it lacks a politicized 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, Mr. Wei recognizes the limits. "Maybe sometimes when reports are published there may be some comments from certain government departments," he said. …

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