Local News Bureaus in China

Here is a story in Shanghai Daily about four cases of criminal offenses allegedly committed by Chinese reporters (you can also check out People's Daily).

Newspaper execs make headlines after blackmail charges are filed.  By Ji Mi.  May 16, 2006.

Four Chinese journalists have been arrested for allegedly blackmailing companies and citizens, according to news media reports yesterday citing the State Adminstration of Press and Publications.  The suspects, who have also been fired from their posts, worked at correspondent offices for four national newspapers based in Beijing, according to the SAPP.

Among the reported offenses, the China Food Quality News established an office in Sichuan Province without approval from the press authority in June 2004, the SAPP said. Last July, the newspaper hired Wang Qiming, an ex-convict, as vice director of the illegal outpost, authorities said.  Wang allegedly threatened to run a bogus news story charging the Jingyan Food Co with improper production practices unless the firm paid him 300,000 yuan (US$37,474).

In another case, Meng Huaihu, head of the Zhejiang Province office of the China Business Times, reportedly signed a contract with the newspaper to generate 400,000 yuan worth of advertising revenue.  Meng allegedly extorted 350,000 yuan from the Zhejiang Petroleum Co, offering to withhold negative publicity after a car owner complained about problems with the company's fuel.  

The SAPP handed down unspecified administrative punishments to both newspapers.

In the other cases, Bu Jun, deputy director of the Zhejiang Province office of the Economic Daily's rural edition, allegedly extorted 18,000 yuan from two construction company employees and took 40,000 yuan from two villagers.

And Chen Jinliang, then deputy head of the Henan Province bureau of China Industry News, reportdly demanded 20,000 yuan from Guangshan County Construction Bureau under the threat of running a story charging corruption. 

The information on each case is one-sided and very sparse, so it is difficult to know what to really think (note: slightly more details can be found at Ta Kung Pao via ChineseNewsNet and China Media Project).  In any case, there is a common thread -- all four cases occurred at the local news bureaus of national-level publications.  

So what is it about local news bureaus that leads to these types of criminal activities?  After all, we don't expect that Beijing bureaus of the New York Times, Washington Post or The Guardian to go around asking for fees to write glowing promotional puff-pieces or not to write acerbic negative criticisms.  In the following, there is a translation of a self-analysis by a person who was a local news bureau chief.

The translated essay is fairly long and employs a lot of jargon.  So I'll try to simply matters by drawing an analogy to McDonald's.

McDonald's is a top global fast food brand name.  Most of the tens of thousands of McDonald's restaurants around the world are not owned-and-operated by the company itself.  Rather the restaurants are franchises owned by local entrepreneurs (who have been screened by McDonald's as being financially sound).  Furthermore, the operating personnel are all trained by McDonald's according to its strict standards (e.g. quality raw ingredients, food preparation, hygiene, employee dress code, service manners, etc).  McDonald's will also send in corporate inspectors to conduct quality control as well as "mystery shoppers" who rate customer satisfaction.  There are reasons why McDonald's is successful.

Contrast this with the situation here.  A national-level newspaper is a media brand name in China.  Most of the local news bureaus around the country are not directly controlled by the newspaper headquarters itself.  Here is how things look (warning: this is an illustrative example, but it does not mean that all local news bureaus are operated in this manner):

So you would like to become a local news bureau chief?  You make an advanced payment of 50,000 RMB as a deposit and then you bring in than 300,000 RMB in advertising sales per year.  The job will be yours.  They don't care about your academic experience, or any past problems with law or discipline, or any experience in journalistic work.  And they don't care what you do as long as you bring the money in.

The newspaper will bear no responsibility with respect to office expenses, wages, travel expenses, welfare benefits or anything else.  You are on your own.  That means you are free to approach government departments or private companies.  You can take payment for promising to write promotion puff pieces.  You can also take payment for promising not to write acerbic negative criticisms for real or imaginary problems.  And you don't even have to keep those promises.  Nobody cares about what you do until you get caught.

What would happen to McDonald's if they ran their business this way?  Conversely, the newspapers can learn a lot from the McDonald's way. 

(Boxun)  Deciphering the Puzzle of the Local Chinese Media Stations.  By Yi Wen.  May 10, 1006.

Friends who have recently visited the China Reporters Net must know that the General Adminstration of Press and Publication (GAPP)'s recent "Notice About Managing The Systematic Development of Newspaper Bureaus" on April 27, 2006.  The purpose of the document is to legally specify the news gathering activities of Chinese newspapers at the local news bureaus.  In the notice, the General Adminstration of Press and Publications stated: After the clean-up activities at the local news bureaus around the country at the end of 2003. the various news publishing departments of the central government, the provinces, the autonomous regions and the direct municipalities have seriously implemented the "Notice from the General Administration of Press and Publications on Re-organizing Local Newspaper Stations" and seriously executed the "Administration Method," and "Management Methods for Newspaper Reporters" and other regulations that reinforced the supervision of news bureaus with obvious results.

Although the results are obvious, the General Adminstration of Press and Publications is still making a big fuss this year.  The reason is simple.  The General Adminstration affirmed its accomplishments, but it also identified the imperfections in its work.  The "Notice" made a point of targeting newspapers that built bureaus against the regulations, news bureaus that were conducting illegal marketing activities and even individual reporters blackmailing enterprises by threatening to run exposés.  Those types of activities have damaged the fundamental interests of the people and created bad social influence.  The "Notice" enhanced the administration of news bureaus, it severely restricted the work conduct of the news bureaus and the editing/reporting activities of reporters.  It resolutely corrects and forbids paid and false news, it determinedly targets illegal activities by the news bureaus and their reporters, it protects the fundamental interests of the masses, it promotes the establishment of ethical standards for journalists, it sets up a good professional image and it develops a large-scale professional administration of news bureaus.

The following are examples of activities at local news bureaus that were against the laws and disciplines:

Prior to the re-organization of the local newspaper news bureaus, the China Reporters Net announced that in issue number 1, 2004 of News Reporter, the "Top Ten Fake News Reports of 2004" identified the authoritative reports from the People Daily and Xinhua Agency of February 15 and April 4 of 2003 on SARS as "fake news" and therefore created a bad influence.  

The Chinese Quality News established an illegal reporter's station in Sichuan province and its news bureau director Wang Qiming was approved for arrest by the procuratorate on suspicion of extortion.  The newspaper's Anhui news bureau also produced a for-pay promotional feature page on March 15, 2003 (=International Consumer Rights Day and also Month of Quality) and this contravenes the regulations by the General Adminstration of Press and Publications with respect to marketing activities at news bureaus.

Legal Daily's Henan news bureau was established without any approval procedures and published three issues of Henan Legal Internal Reference News.  Legal Daily's Zhejiang news bureau unilaterally used its brand name to actively solicit sponsorship and donations from organizations.  Fortunately, the headquarters leaders put a stop to the activities and forced them to return the received donations to the sponsoring organizations.  Legal Daily established test news bureaus in Zhejiang, Guangdong, Sichuan, Guangxi and Liaoning without approval and imposed distribution quotas there.  These contravened the administrative regulations for newspaper publications.

China Industrial News's Henan news bureau director Chen Jinliang took advantage of the existing programs at a certain organization in Henan province and demanded 20,000 RMB from the organization.

City Economic Herald 'reporters' Mu Chuangming, Wu Yu and Zhou Wan were actually unemployed people who pretended that they worked for the newspaper and they also used the title of reporters at Government And Law's Shaanxi news bureau to swindle people.

China Newspaper Group's China Art Painting Forum's announced publication in the Boding city, Henan province was determined by China Newspaper Group to be fraudulent, so that the publication is in fact a fake.

Economic Daily News (Rural Edition)'s Zhejiang news bureau deputy director Bu Jun was approved for arrest by the procuratorate on suspicion of swindling. 

The most fundamental reason why these legal activities were taking place at the local news bureaus at the newspapers is economic in nature.  More precisely, some of the activities by the news bureau chief were "passive."  They were often forced to look for ways to survive.  They must generate fixed levels of income for the newspaper, or else they must concede their news bureau to someone else next year.  

This writer recalled that China Regional Economic News (today's Economic News (Rural Edition)), Western Times and Contemporary Civilization Pictorial contacted this writer in the hope that we would be their partners in establishing news bureaus in Zhejiang province.  Their most basic requirement was that the potential news bureau chief must make an advanced payment of 50,000 RMB as a deposit (or the so-called page pre-payment fee) as well as deliver more than 300,000 RMB in advertising sales per year.  The newspaper will bear no responsibility with respect to office expenses, wages, travel expenses, welfare benefits or anything else.  If you can accept these terms, you will become that newspaper's local news bureau director.  They don't care about your academic experience, or any past problems with law or discipline, or any experience in journalistic work.

I remember that when I first joined a national-level newspaper, the local news bureau chief at the time completely affirmed what I said above.  That director entered journalism for the first time when he joined that newspaper.  He did not know how to write, not even the most basic press release.  Anything that was published under his name was ghost-written by someone else.  For him, he used his status as a reporter to get connections up and down the government and then he could generate some income.  His wallet was bulging, and the newspaper also got a lot of economic benefits although it did not expect that its reputation was suffering locally as a result.

When I took over the local news bureau for this newspaper, I remember that I went to conduct interviews with people in the city and the county.  The feedback was: "Reporters are people who demand money."  Even if they have good work results, they don't want to offer to share them because they were afraid the reporters would come and ask for money after publication.  Certain business people told me that they have deposited tens of thousands of RMB into the account of the local news bureau because the chief promised to reciprocate with news reports (this is what is called paid news).  But nothing has shown up yet (this is swindling by using the reporter status).  There went the reputation of the local news bureau and the reporter himself.

It is one thing to say that there are no wages or office expenses, it is something else to say that there were no royalty payments.  How are the workers at local news bureaus to survive?  Everybody knows that animals need to eat, and plants need sunlight and water.  Even Lei Feng had the military providing for him.  During the two months that I worked at that newspaper, I wrote more than sixty articles and I did not receive a cent in royalty fees.  According to what the newspaper leader told me, the quality of articles from the local news bureaus was not high.  Yet, my articles were frequently carried on websites -- People Net, Sina.com, National Development Reform Net's China Reconstruction Projects; China Net; China Market Guide; China Land Property News; China Real Estate Information Net; China Real Estate Net; China Search; etc.  What does it mean when the websites all over the country are carrying this?

It is small wonder that when someone takes charge of a local news bureau, he has to work hard to come up with ideas to make money.  Worse yet, although the newspaper "entrusted" the local news bureau to my charge, it was unwilling to complete the handover process (as of now, the news bureau registration certificate is still not updated and remains in the hands of a certain leader at the newspaper).  This is newspaper publishing with a Chinese characteristic?  Is this the exhibition of human rights for media workers?  Or is this just rubbish?  With publishers like that, do you expect to have a good newspaper?

The General Adminstration of Press and Publications seemed to be stumped about the administration of the local news bureaus.  But this writer thinks that this is a very simple thing because two pieces of action would solve the "problem of the news bureaus."  

First: news bureau workers must be graduates from university journalism schools with two or more years of practice and training, so that they are qualified as journalists; older journalists with at least five years of professional experience must undergo training so that they can qualify again; all current journalist training shall cease; those who have completed journalist training will be re-examined based upon the aforementioned criteria, and those who do not satisfy the requirements will be disqualified and their reporter license will be rescinded.

Second: the assignment and division of labor at the news bureau must be clearly defined with respect to ad sales and circulation.  Reporters must not be involved in ad sales and circulation.  Those who engage in paid news or promotions will be expelled from the journalist profession for life.  Newspapers which engage in illegal activities will lose their publishing license, and their leaders will be banished from the journalism industry for life.  ...

Real journalists do not need to have the title of journalist.  Only those outsiders who weasel into the profession use the title of journalist in order to commit crimes and damage the reputations of media, news bureaus and journalists.  Real journalists will not damage their own reputations.

Putting aside the remedial efforts by the General Adminstration of Press and Publications, the directors of the 2,140 newspaper news bureaus around the country must have the same feelings that I do.  Who has considered the problem of survival for the news bureaus?  The newspaper does not provide any budget for the news bureaus.  It is not a bad thing to ask the news bureaus to be self-supporting, but there has to be clear division of labor and adherence to journalistic discipline.  Then illegal activities should not be happening.  By that time, the General Adminstration of Press and Publications will only need to offer guidance and oversight on those news bureaus.

The General Adminstration of Press and Publications clearly knew that there are problems with respect to publications, advertising and other marketing activities to various degrees with certain newspaper news bureaus; that some newspaper news bureaus are hiring unqualified people as reporters against the regulations; that some newspapers are establishing local news bureaus without the approval of the provincial press administration; that some local news bureaus are establishing branch organizations without approval; that some news bureaus people are using news reports as the means to engage in paid reporting or even extortion; and so on.  The various law-breaking activities at the news bureaus are providing opportunities for criminal elements.  But their remedial efforts will tend to be subject to doubt in terms of genuine effectiveness.

During the present re-organization campaign for the news bureaus, the General Adminstration of Press and Publications has asked the newspapers to set up detailed regulations for administering their local news bureaus, with the following principles: the news bureau workers must satisfy the qualifications as stated in the relevant regulations from the General Adminstration of Press and Publications; the news bureau workers must also either be direct employees of the newspaper or else employees who have signed formal labor contracts with the newspaper; news bureau personnel files must be set up, and the personnel should be supervised under active management; internal reward/punishment systems should be established.

Could these measures solve the deep structural problems of the "problem of news bureaus"?  Treating the symptom but not the disease does not address the nature of the problem.  Perhaps the General Adminstration of Press and Publications only thinks that the news bureaus are outside departments of the national newspaper publishers.  The news bureaus are tied closely with the local enterprise units and masses.  So this whole thing concerns not just the local image of the newspaper publications, but also the image and trustworthiness of the Party and the Government as well as the interests of the people.

(Caijing)  Corruption in Regional News Bureaus: An Analysis.  Zhan Jiang.  May 29, 2006.

The General Administration of Press and Publication recently announced the arrest of four local news bureau executives on charges of extortion. The news of the indictments against Wang Qiming, former director of China Food Quality News’ Sichuan bureau, Meng Huaihu, former director of China Business Times’ Zhejing bureau, Bu Jun, deputy director of the Economic Daily’s Zhejing office, and Chen Jinliang, deputy director of China Industry News’ Henan office, attracted widespread attention within media circles.

The public expects the media to expose extortionists; when reporters themselves become the blackmailers, extensive condemnation follows. However there are “unspoken rules” in operating local news bureaus that complicate the case.

For insiders, the situation is simple. While recent economic and social changes have resulted in more newsmen using their jobs to gain personal profit, the real root of the corruption is the media administrations’ inability to cope within a market-based economy. The scandal involving local news bureaus is a typical example of this incapacity.

In the 1980s, China’s media outlets began transforming themselves from government-affiliated units into limited market-operated facilities. The transition was a win-win situation. The news media attracted large economic interests and gained a more flexible operating space, while the government rid itself of heavy financial burdens.

This sort of media system is relatively new, perhaps even invented by China. According to scholars’ opinions, there are three types of mass media operation systems: the privately-owned and operated kind commonly found in the US, joint public-private operations found in western Europe, and China’s state-owned, state-run system with limited market-oriented operation.

Unfortunately, the good times did not last long. Because of the unique political status and de facto monopoly of the Chinese new media, as well as the fact that they don’t have built-in mechanisms to prevent the abuse of their powers, corruption within the media’s ranks started to grow. Initially, reporters would write favorable stories about certain people or companies in order to secure advertisement contracts from the targets. Media publishers would then benefit from added revenue while the reporters received their own kickbacks. This was the original meaning of “paid news”.

Meanwhile, a new hybrid genre between news reports and advertisement emerged. Commonly known as “infomercials” or “soft ads”, these pieces appeared as “special editions” and afforded a way of earning money for obscure writers as well as uninspired journalists.

In the 1990s, attending press conferences where “red envelopes” containing money would be handed out to reporters became another form of “paid news”. A Beijing reporter once set a record by attending 26 such press conferences in one month.

But the general media advertising market (including that of state-distributed newspapers) turned from the “seller’s market” of the 1980s into a “buyer’s market” after the 1990s. This made the old “paid news” formula more costly and difficult to pursue. That is why we see more cases in recent years of actual extortion disguised under the pretext of “public supervision”.

Ever since state-run institutions like the official news media started operating like market-oriented businesses, media reporters have been saddled with the responsibility of “looking for money” for their organizations. To do so, some reporters receive or even extort money while writing news reports. This arises partly from the degradation of professional ethics among some reporters and the lack of laws governing media operations, but the bulk of the blame should be on the “earning guidelines” and a “rewards and punishment mechanism” most news media have introduced to maximize their profits.

I once worked for a local newspaper when the general manager of its business arm was arrested for embezzling 4000 yuan (US$ 500). After hearing the news, an outspoken staff reporter of a Beijing newspaper told me, “Had I worked for your newspaper, I would have been given the death penalty a long time ago,” implying that he had gained large sums of money on the job through unlawful means. He and some of his colleagues each owned several houses in Beijing in the early 1990s.

We can use the system economics theory to explain this “news bureau phenomenon”. Once a person makes a decision, he is on a forward-moving path. The power of inertia strengthens the choice he has made, making him unable to deviate. This is called “path dependence”. Economic life closely resembles patterns in the natural world where rewards incentivize, and self-strengthening mechanisms exist.

Hence, we should reexamine our system under which state-run news media are now operated as for-profit businesses. As Dr. He Zengke, a political scholar, pointed out in his book, New Road of Anticorruption, “state-run institutions such as newspapers, publications and broadcasting stations have both governmental and commercial characteristics; this is the systematic root of many unhealthy tendencies in the field.”

Recently the GAPP and the Communist Party’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection held a special meeting on news bureau administration of publications affiliated with the central government. Aiming to forestall problems in the bureaus, they required newspapers to launch a self-disciplinary movement in accordance with current government regulations and policies. In particular, officials asked the publications to check if they had assigned circulation or advertising revenue targets to their regional news bureaus, and if their regional bureaus are engaged in illegal business activities.

It seems like state regulators have recognized the seriousness of the problem and have initiated a number of rectifying measures. But if news operations cannot thrive independently from market operations, the aforementioned self-discipline will not take root, and would merely be for show. The task of changing how the news media operates is truly daunting.

The author is a professor of journalism and dean of the Department of Journalism and Communication at the China Youth University for Political Science. 

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