A couple of months ago I visited Xinmin Evening News. The Shanghai based newspaper is one of China’s largest and with a circulaton of give or take a million copies, also one of the biggest newspapers in the world.
The original idea was to stay at the newspaper for one day to find out how a large newspaper in one of the four fast developing countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China) is interpreting the current world affairs at that particular day. During the same day other fellow correspondents in Brasil, Russia and India would do the same. Due to logistics the idea in the end didn’t materialize like we hoped, but I did end up spending a whole day at Xinmin, which offered me a great opportunity to see the inner workings of a Chinese newspaper.
The people at Xinmin were very attentive to my needs and gave full access for one day to their newspaper and let me attend all their meetings in which the topics for next day’s newspaper were being discussed or the articles of the day before were being evaluated. At the start of the day a symbolic key of Xinmin Evening News was handed over to me.
Although I only stayed for one day, I was able to speak to a lot of reporters and the editor in chief. I also visited their online department.
Being published in China, Xinmin is a state-owned newspaper. In China it means the content of the paper is not as critical as it should be in my view. This was apparent for example in the decision not to report on the strikes that were going on around that time in Shanghai’s port. ‘We would be in trouble if we did’, one business reporter told me frankly.
During my visit I discussed sensitive topics like self censoring and also talked about the directives of China’s central propaganda department. On my phone I showed them the directives on the China Digital Times website. The response from the deputy editor in chief was that those directives were more targeted to online publications and mostly considered an advise. I find this hard to believe, but there may be differences indeed in how different media handle these directives.
Anyway, all in all I very much appreciated the hospitality I was greeted with at Xinmin and the willingness to show me around and talk about so many topics so openly.
After my visit I was asked to write about my stay at Xinmin and the differences between journalism in Holland and China. I started writing and agreed to let my piece be published in their monthly magazine. I wrote honestly about my views and experiences and had it translated in Chinese by a friend. Xinming then published my piece without any alteration whatsoever, which I greatly appreciate.
You can find the English text below the picure of the article.
Bert van Dijk
Writing always has been my passion. Already at a young age I loved to write for all kinds of publications, whether it be a school newspaper or the inhouse magazine of the local tennis club. Fast forward thirty years or so, and now here I am in China as the correspondent for the leading business newspaper in The Netherlands: Het Financieele Dagblad. Living in without a doubt the most dynamic and vibrant city on the planet I report on all kinds of economic and social developments in China that I think are relevant for my readers in Holland to learn about.
Het Financieele Dagblad, is one of the oldest newspapers in our country and a respected voice when it concerns political, economic or business news and issues. I’ve been at the newspaper for over 13 years now.
Being such a long time at a newspaper provides one with a lot of insight and experience in the art of making an everyday newspaper. So. it was a great opportunity for me when Xinmin Evening News invited me to join them for one day at their newspaper to see how one of the biggest newspapers in the most populous country in the world is being made.
As a journalist, to me this was a rare insight in the inner works of a well respected medium, here in China. Obviously, I was very much interested in the differences of approach in making a newspaper in China compared to making one in The Netherlands. So, without further ado, let’s analyze the differences between newspaper production in China and The Netherlands.
Not to spoil the rest of the analysis upfront, but I guess the most ‘revealing’ insight I had was that making a newspaper in China is not that different from making one in Holland. Just like Xinmin Evening News, at my newspaper as well we start the day with a meeting to plan ahead for the day and collect the best ideas for stories and news to publish.
There are differences though.
Although I now live 5500 miles away from Amsterdam, where the headquarters of my newspaper is located, I still remember vividly the countless morning meetings I had. Every reporter is supposed to be present at the meeting to let his chefs know what he is working on. Our newspaper very much encourages the writing of exclusive news. We publish news events as they develop of course, but we emphasize our own findings and revealings. Whether it be the revealing of a big corruption case in the real estate market, an insider trading case, or the acquisition of one company by another, we always try to find out ahead of our competitors through our network of sources.
When I was at Xinmin, news just broke about the findings at Osama Bin Laden’s place. The United States supposedly found attack plans on US rail roads. A great news story of course, that Xinmin naturally also reported about. One of the editors told me they were very happy with the news, because they could report it before other newspapers could, due to the evening character of the paper. Other newspapers had to wait a full day before they could publish it.
To me, this sounded a bit strange, since the news already was everywhere. On television, online, on the radio, so you could hardly speak of exclusive news anymore. Yet, Xinmin treated it more or less as such. In Holland we would have considered the Bin Laden-news ‘passive news’, since it was accessible to every news outlet in the world. When we consider news to be exclusive it has to be really owned by us. News, that no one else has heard of yet, but with a huge impact. Exclusive news is what sells newspapers, so that’s what we in Holland are focussing on very much. Especially, since the newspaper industry in Holland is in dire straits, due to decreasing advertising budgets and digitalization.
During the meetings in Amsterdam, there is a very lively debate going on about everything everyone is saying. News and story-ideas are severely scrutinized and questioned for relevancy, and reporters are trying to convince their editors to take their story instead of the story of someone else.
The meetings at Xinmin appeared to me a bit less lively than I remember them to be in Amsterdam. Less discussion about whether the right choices are being made.
On the other hand, the evaluations everyday of yesterday’s newspaper, I found truly inspiring. Only by evaluating the past, will you be able to progress. And although in Amsterdam we do evaluate now and then, it’s not in such a structural way. It not only sharpens the mind, it also forces reporters to be on the edge and to really strive for excellence and make as less mistakes as possible. We could use more of that in Holland.
I also was impressed by the way Xinmin checks competitors to see how they report the news and then adjusts its own angle on the news. I haven’t seen this before, but I think it’s a great way to set one self apart from the rest. When a competitors website focusses on a the value of a deal, it makes sense to then not do the same but perhaps focus on the social consequences of that deal. Without changing the basics of the story, you still will be able to distinguish yourself from others. Again, something we can learn form Xinmin.
Being published in China, Xinmin is a state-owned newspaper. In China that means the content of the paper is not as critical as it should be in my view. By definition, I would say, those who pay, also are in control of the content. It hampers a truly independent monitoring by the media of the government and of wrongdoings or discomforting news in society.
This is a key differentiator with Europe. Our newspaper is in no way affiliated with the government and we as reporters are completely free tot report anything we deem fit to print. Whether the news we report is discomforting for our government or not is irrelevant. The sole motivation for publishing a story is its relevance. The ultimate decision to publish lies with the editor in chief, who in no way is affiliated with the government. This separation is treasured in Holland and Europe and ensures a truly objective monitoring of the government It is the only way to guarantee the most important task of the media, I would say.
I often get replied by Chinese that reporting in my country in some ways also is restricted. I only can say that in 13 years of reporting, not a singe time have I self censored myself or was I prohibited to publish a story. I recognize and respect that different countries have different systems.
But I do feel that in China a loosening of media control will be positive for further developing the industry by stimulating creativity, accountability and debate, which are vital in any prosperous and well functioning society,
All in all though, making a daily newspaper in China is as challenging as it is in Holland. To me, journalism, is one of the most rewarding jobs in the world, because of its importance and the priviliges it provides to you. Reporters talk with some of the most interesting persons in the world, have access to some of the brightest minds on the planet and go to places, many only can dream about. It not only is beneficial for self-development, it also comes with great responsibility.
I only stayed at Xinmin for one day, but my impression is that the newspaper has a very proud and professional team of employees that strive for the best. Maybe one day Xinmin and Het Financieele Dagblad can form some kind of cooperation, so that our newspapers cam learn from each others strengths and challenges. Exchange of ideas and best practices is the best way to progress and will definitely strengthen our mutual understanding and respect.