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2022-10-11 06:58:58

In February, Wang Yun received a message from the audio production company where she worked: her job was being “optimized.” Suddenly unemployed in her mid-40s, the situation didn’t seem all that optimal to her.

Wang has spent much of the past 20 years racing to keep up with China’s fast-changing media landscape. During the newspaper era, she was a reporter rushing to meet print deadlines. When news went online, she became an editor fighting to boost traffic by landing exclusives. And when big tech took over, she jumped ship and ventured into the new world of podcasts.

Now, like many Chinese journalists, Wang finds herself out of a job — and unsure where the next one will come from.

During the 2010s, China’s internet companies carved up the country’s media sector: acquiring or crushing the traditional market leaders. Awash in investor capital and tantalized by the billion-strong Chinese audience, tech firms were often willing to invest huge sums in content. Creators were lured by the offer of generous salaries, big budgets, and the freedom to build a following over the long term.

But the money has dried up — and tech firms are now firing staff as quickly as they hired them. It’s leaving Chinese creators wondering where to go, and whether there’s a future for the new media they’ve helped pioneer.

China’s tech sector is in bad shape. As elsewhere, investors are increasingly looking for profits today, not the promise of returns tomorrow. Meanwhile, the Chinese economy is slowing, and Beijing has tightened supervision of internet platforms.

The result has been what tech insiders are calling a “capital winter,” as investors flee the cooling market. Several big tech companies have seen their valuations plummet, and been forced to make their first large-scale layoffs in years.

Expensive content ventures are often first on the chopping block. Last year, tech giant Alibaba axed its music-streaming site Xiami and dumped its shares in TV company Mango Excellent Media. More recently, mass job cuts at streaming giants iQiyi and Bilibili, as well as podcast startup Ximalaya, have made headlines.

Sea change

Things looked so different just a few years ago, when Wang was weighing up a career in podcasts. At the time, joining a new media company seemed like a no-brainer.

By 2012, it was already clear that the future of Chinese media lay online. Tech platforms were beginning to pinch top talent, produce more creative content, and generate serious revenue.

“A large number of TV dramas that would be strictly controlled on television, such as thrillers and crime dramas, began to appear on online video sites,” says Wu Changchang, an associate professor of communications at East China Normal University. “Many outstanding leaders of traditional radio and television entered the field of internet content creation.”

People’s attention to traditional media was completely snatched away by social media. So was its commercial value.

Meanwhile, a huge online “paid knowledge” sector began to emerge, as Chinese users became willing to spend money on high-quality content — especially content they considered self-improving. This spawned a wave of successful startups, including Q&A site Zhihu, audiobook platform Dragonfly FM, and podcast app Himalaya. By 2017, paid knowledge was a 4.9 billion yuan (then $725 million) market in China, according to market research firm iResearch.

The impact on traditional media was devastating. Wang, then editor-in-chief of a business magazine, saw her advertising revenues “fall off a cliff” from 2012.

“You could clearly feel that people’s attention to traditional media was completely snatched away by social media,” says Wang, who — like the other sources quoted in this story — spoke with Sixth Tone under a pseudonym for fear of harming her future employment prospects. “So was its commercial value.”

Wang hesitated a long time before leaving the magazine. The tech industry seemed mercenary and amoral. But by 2015, she knew that she had little choice. She took a job at a fintech startup, before moving to an audio production company two years later.

Shijue/VCG

Shijue/VCG

Swimming in cash

Wang arrived at the company — a startup specializing in audiobooks — at the height of China’s tech boom. Capital was flooding into online media, as investors became excited by the potential of the “paid knowledge” space.

Hired as a content director, Wang helped the firm develop its first in-house podcast series. It was an instant success. On its first day after launching, the show generated over 4 million yuan in subscription revenue.

“That success happened at the pinnacle of paying for quality content,” she recalls. “Capital rushes in when it smells blood. And the more capital rushes in, the more prosperous it (the industry) will be.”

Capital rushes in when it smells blood. And the more capital rushes in, the more prosperous it (the industry) will be.

Thousands of journalists and other creators took jobs at tech companies during this period. Huang Xuan, 34, quit her job at a TV production company to join a major Chinese streaming platform in 2020, helping the company launch a new TED talk-style video series.

“When I joined the TV industry, it was already going downhill,” says Huang. “I wanted to ride the internet boom and make something influential … Also, the salary would allow me to finally live a decent life in a big city.”

Lu Qiao, a screenwriter, left the film industry the same year. He was enticed by the prospect of working on an ambitious new interactive drama inspired by “Bandersnatch” — the choose-your-own-adventure episode of the Netflix sci-fi series “Black Mirror.” The project was being run by two companies owned by the Chinese tech giant Alibaba, which was pouring money into content at the time.

“Netflix created a blueprint for investors in China,” says Lu. “After the release of ‘Bandersnatch’ in 2018, Alibaba, NetEase, and Tencent all wanted to make a similar interactive product.”

Fanatic Studio/VCG

Fanatic Studio/VCG

The tide turns

But the honeymoon period didn’t last long. Within months, many creators found their new companies’ priorities had shifted. Rather than encouraging them to pursue ambitious, creative projects, they’d begun demanding profits.

Wang’s podcast — which digested classic works of literature for the general public — continued to generate a steady income stream, but it never replicated its smash-hit debut. It wasn’t enough for her bosses.

“Within a year, the requirement became: ‘You should make good money,’” says Wang. “But when I’ve done more than 1,000 books, how many books do you think I can still do?”

Wang kept making what she considered a quality product, but the company began cutting her staff. Finally, her podcast was shut down completely.

Huang’s employer was even more fickle: Her TED talk project was canceled amid a “strategic adjustment” just four months after she joined, and Huang became a floating “content operator” without a permanent assignment. 

The streaming company’s relentless focus on data quickly left Huang disillusioned. She often felt like the staff spent all their time interpreting data, and did “no real work at all.”

“Content operators are really data slaves,” says Huang. “Some content operators would write tens of thousands of words for their daily reports, and use various charts and data to show how great their work is.”

We had to put a semi-finished product into the market, and didn’t even have the money to promote it. It was like throwing a stone into the abyss.

Lu ran afoul of the same short-termism. After just three months, his team was asked to wrap up their “Bandersnatch” project as soon as possible.

“The companies soon realized that this product didn’t have a workable business model,” Lu says, adding that they withdrew their promised investment. “We had to put a semi-finished product into the market, and didn’t even have the money to promote it. It was like throwing a stone into the abyss.”

Wu, the media professor, says that this culture of short-termism is inevitable in online media companies. Streaming sites have no choice but to react quickly to the preferences of audiences with near-infinite alternatives.

“One of the biggest differences between watching TV shows on video sites compared with on television is that it’s not linear,” says Wu. “Users can jump forward. It’s very difficult to retain users. So platforms have to rely on backend data to figure out the audience’s preferences, and cater to them.”

alengo/VCG

alengo/VCG

Winter is coming

But the problems in China’s tech industry have heightened this tendency. After the “capital winter” descended, companies could no longer afford to lose money on speculative, or unpopular, projects.

Lu’s employer was hit by twin crises, as Chinese regulators clamped down on Alibaba for alleged antitrust violations and tightened rules for the gaming industry. After his project was wound up, Lu wasn’t assigned any new work for a year. In early 2022, he lost his job.

After suffering months of severe insomnia and depression, Lu has finally managed to recover and find work at a smaller gaming company. But the industry has changed. Lu no longer feels it’s possible to tell ambitious stories through Chinese video games.

“Mobile internet has changed the current production and consumption patterns in gaming,” he says. “Mobile games must focus more on short-term stimulation.”

We’re like mice forced to run on a treadmill in a laboratory. You know you can’t avoid being eliminated, but you keep trying to run toward the end.

Huang is still working at the streaming company, but she feels her job is hanging by a thread. Over the past year, she’s seen more and more colleagues being laid off. Sometimes, she thinks about giving up and moving back to her hometown, but she wants to hold on as long as she can.

“We’re like mice forced to run on a treadmill in a laboratory,” says Huang. “You know you can’t avoid being eliminated, but you keep trying to run toward the end.”

For Huang, the future of Chinese media — or, at least, quality media — lies with small studios and individuals. They can remain less constrained by the need to constantly generate higher and higher traffic, and find a way to express a point of view, she says.

“I’ve always believed that content cannot be mass-produced,” says Huang. “All the viral items that can easily be copied, such as beautiful women dancing, will quickly decline in traffic, and then be forgotten.”

Wang was furious when she learned she was being laid off, but she’s now reconciled herself to this reality. It was just business, she says.

“In the chain of capital, everyone is being oppressed — including my boss, and even my boss’s investors,” says Wang.

Wang says she’s considering becoming a self-employed podcast host in the future, relying on tips from her listeners to make a living. She’s certain about one thing, though: she’s done making content for companies — at least for now.

“All the content platforms now, they don’t want content; they want a platform,” says Wang. “It will be difficult for us to see astonishing work with great investment for a while in the future.”

Editors: David Cohen and Dominic Morgan.

(Header image: Visual elements from 500px and DavidGoh/VCG, reedited by Sixth Tone)