Stop Press: The Rapid Demise of China’s Newspapers
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2018-02-04 09:57:44

On the last working day of 2017, 14 Chinese newspapers announced that they would cease publication, and another four said they would publish at longer intervals. The news came as Chinese media companies are adrift in an increasingly frigid business climate, with more than two thirds of print media in China facing permanent shutdowns, temporary suspensions of publication, mergers, or content overhauls. The outlook for 2018 conforms to predictions first made by Tencent content chief Wang Yongzhi two years ago, when he claimed that the print media industry must consider how to die with dignity, not how to weather the storm.

Wang was once a reporter with state media outlet Xinhua and previously served as editor-in-chief of Tencent’s online news portal, so he has significant experience in both traditional and new media. In his view, most newspapers have no choice but to go under. To Wang, it is largely irrelevant that the government has urged print media outlets to merge with their online counterparts, because the former model is too costly, too inefficient, and now, obsolete.

Some media commentators argue that the future of print media will be akin to a boutique store selling luxury goods. Wang, however, views this as mere wishful thinking. There’s nothing wrong with turning print media into a kind of souvenir, he says, but doing so will never be enough to support an entire publishing house. In addition, the vast majority of print media companies have missed the chance to embrace online and app-based models. Consumers have gravitated toward one or two news apps that they deem authoritative, like Caixin, Tencent News, and The Paper.

If Chinese print outlets want to produce content their online competitors can’t, they have to focus on in-depth investigations and authoritative commentaries. But most of them have abandoned both of these paths.

I agree that Chinese newspapers are doomed. Print media has peaked in terms of both technology and innovation. Media outlets that still privilege paper-based news over online content have generally failed to invest enough in technology and now lack skilled technical officers. The country’s media sector has around 250,000 reporters and editors on the payroll. Many of these people, typically veteran journalists at local or regional news outlets who have not become computer literate, are likely to be jobless in the future.

No matter how efficiently traditional media outlets publish news, they can’t match the speed of their online counterparts. In the future, Wang predicts that machines may be able to take on 90 percent of the work currently performed by human reporters. Online news platforms, which rely on computer-generated recommendations, have much larger readerships than traditional outlets and are better positioned to offer readers an experience tailored to their interests. If Chinese print outlets want to produce content their online competitors can’t, they have to focus on two areas: in-depth investigations and authoritative commentaries. But most of them have abandoned both of these paths due to a weakened talent pool and restrictive policies.

Although the government pays lip service to a mix of print and online media, deep down, it knows that the game is up for the printed word.

Wang’s prediction was greeted with much controversy in both the domestic media and the academic world. Cao Lin, a senior commentator and editorial board member of the state-run China Youth Daily, was among the most vocal of Wang’s critics. To Cao, morbid pronouncements on the fate of print media are common in China, but it was absurd for a public figure like Wang to directly predict not only the death of the industry, but to go so far as to attach a date to such demise, claiming it would take place on a massive scale in 2018. “Print outlets are indeed in crisis,” Cao said. “But they are by no means without a future.” He went on to decry Wang’s comments as “pure sensationalism.”

Late last year, a number of Chinese newspapers closed their doors. In September, Chongqing Daily Media Group announced that it would merge three of its newspapers. Then, on Dec. 1, the Hubei Daily Media Group ceased publication of one of its papers. The message is clear: The market for newspapers is shriveling up, and once the imbalance between supply and demand reaches a certain point, print media will have to choose between one of two options: fade away or merge with the competition.

In an era of shrinking readerships and rapid, constant change, daily newspapers are the first to fall. Looking ahead to the future, an aging society does not offer any hope of marked increase in the number of readers, as younger consumers of news are already tech-savvy enough to get their fix online. Indeed, China’s online outlets now compete with their printed peers for talented employees, advertisers, readers, and influence. They generally succeed, because new media outlets are the only ones perceived as having a sustainable future.

Of course, not every print outlet is doomed. The majority of orthodox state mouthpieces and big-name market-based papers will survive and industry statistics suggest that several dozen papers remain in good shape. Yet the vast majority of their peers are in dire straits. A number of newspapers in central and western China are now unable to find advertisers and seeing their funds drying up. Although the government pays lip service to a mix of print and online media, deep down, it knows that the game is up for the printed word and has phased out funding accordingly. The country’s journalists can plug their ears if they like, but Wang may well be brutally proven right as the year progresses.

Translator: Kilian O’Donnell; editors: Lu Hongyong and Matthew Walsh.

(Header image: A shopkeeper reads a newspaper in a newsstand in Nanjing, Jiangsu province, Sep. 09, 2009. Anxin/VCG )