The Secret of the Southern Metropolis Exclusive Reports

(Southern Weekend)  The Secrets of the Exclusive "Net Eyes" Reports.  By Wang Xing.  December 27, 2007.

[in translation]

The field of journalism is vast, so there is a lot that we can talk about.  But usually the third last sentence that we say with a degree of resignation is this: "We can't publish that.  So we won't discuss that."

The second last sentence is: "We can keep talking about this, but there is work to be done here.  So let's get our spirits up and look towards the sunrise tomorrow."

The last sentence ... what is the last sentence?  "Let's chat the next time!"  Then we all scatter back to our own corners of the world.

In the following, we review some news stories of the year.  These are all the things that we chatted about before the last three sentences.

This year, there was a great deal of overlap in the top public affairs stories as chosen by the newspapers and the Internet-related incidents as chosen by the websites.  It makes me and my colleagues proud that the Southern Metropolis website had many of the exclusive initial reports for those incidents.

While I think that we may have missed a lot, we covered some very important things.

On Wednesday, March 7, 2007, we decided to put the story of the "most awesome nailhouse in history" in the "Net Eyes" section.  There was a very striking photograph, in which a lone house stood in the middle of a hole more than 10 meters deep.  We wanted to make this a news story for the next day.

First, we needed to verify whether this was a nail house?  Where was it?  Why has the owner not moved?  Why wasn't the house demolished?  Our reporter Tan Renwei contacted the local Chongqing reporters for confirmation, and found out that this house was located in Yangjiaping (Chongqing).  Okay, so we can begin the news gathering.  Tan Renwei took care of the investigation in Chongqing.  He interviewed the real estate developer, the housing administration and the local citizens (although he did not locate the owner Wu Ping on that first day).  At the same time, our Shanghai correspondent Wang Jilu went out to the "most awesome nailhouse in Shanghai."

The local Chongqing reporters said, "We know about this case, but we are not allowed to report on it."  The local Shanghai reporters said, "We know about this case, but we are not allowed to report on it."  No problem.  We know about these cases and we can report on them.  We used the term coined by the netizens: "The most awesome nailhouse."  At the time, we never imagined that the phrase "the most awesome ..." would become one of the most frequently used descriptors in the year 2007.

That was how an influential news story got started.

The most awesome nailhouse in Chongqing; the murder of the bank customer by the security guard in Shenyang; the real name registration system for Internet usage; Red Diamond Empire and the Jinan rainstorm; the death of a Lianyungang deputy bureau director at the hands of the procuratorate; the harmonization of World of Warcraft; the South China paper tiger; the stitching flaws in the Chang'e photograph of the moon ... "Net Eyes" was there for many of the news stories in 2007.

"Net Eyes" was established in October 2006 when Southern Metropolis Daily underwent a re-design.  We followed the spirit of the tradition of opinion monitoring at Southern Metropolis Daily.  In 2007, the Chinese Internet had moved away from obsession with the popular Internet personalities to focus on news stories, to the point of affecting the developments and outcomes of these stories.  Public participation and judgment became the mainstream of the Internet.  Many news stories originated from the Internet before turning into a media feast.  Between the "origination" and the "ultimate development", "Net Eyes" was often present.  It was the times that created the heroes.

In the case of the "most awesome nailhouse in Chongqing," it is not certain whether this would have become such a long-lasting and influential news story without the "Net Eyes" coverage.  In August 2006, there were already some Internet postings about the "most awesome nailhouse in Shanghai."  The photograph of that house was striking and the story behind was quite moving.  Netizens discussed that case, but there were no media reports.  More than half a year later, we linked this Shanghai nailhouse to the Chongqing nailhouse, and this was the first time that the mainstream media reported on the Shanghai case.  That was how most people learned about that case.

One week after our report, the Internet and other media began to publish more reports about the most awesome nailhouse.  Meanwhile, the Shanghai nailhouse had already been demolished.  So it was gone before it ever became a full news story.

Later on, "Net Eyes" followed on the Japanese airport nailhouse and the nailhouse in front of the commercial building in Changsha.  In 2007, relocation was an major source of social conflict.  Even though we did not want to hype this issue, there were still other reports on the middle-of-the-night demolitions of the Xian Tang Dynasty Art Museum and the Shengyang Temple.

The murder of the bank customer by the security guard in Shenyang, the sealing with bricks by the Family Planning Bureau of the entrance to the post office, the SMS protests by the Xiamen citizens against the PX project, the death of the deputy director of the Electricity Department at the hands of the procuratorate, the Interpol warrant on the "modern Lei Feng" Kenneth Lee Rothey ... the Southern Metropolis "Net Eyes" gradually established its unique style of hard news.

One of the most important areas for "Net Eyes" is the system of controls on the Internet.

I personally like the report on Red Diamond Empire.  There are many cases in netizens were arrested for "rumor mongering" to the point where one gets "accustomed" to it.  "Net Eyes" extracted Red Diamond Empire from several hundred local news stories and gave her back a flesh-and-blood identity.  The Red Diamond Empire ID is now an unavoidable symbol of the year 2007.

"The 23-year-old female named Li works at a certain bridal shop and uses the Internet ID 'Red Diamond Empire.'  Between July 21 to 22, she deliberately spread rumors at a certain Internet forum in order to create fear among people.  Based upon the People's Republic of China's state security administrative regulations Article 25 Item 1, the police placed Li under security detention."  Such was the local media report in Shandong on July 24, one week after the big rainstorm in Jinan.

On that day, most of the Shandong newspapers reported this news story.   One of the media wrote: "Rainstorms are scary, but rumors are even scarier!"  I found it hard to imagine how rumors can be scarier than a rainstorm which took several dozen lives.  So I decided to investigate the details of the "even scarier rumor."

I read the posts by this 23-year-old girl carefully.  I found out that she never made any original posts.  Instead, she just commented on other people's posts.  She was very insistent about whether anyone drowned in the Ginza Plaza Mall.  But no matter how I looked at it, I thought that she was just an ordinary netizens who might have picked up some hearsay and then had heated arguments with others.  She was just debating with others at a local forum.  So how could she be arrested?  At the time, our reporter Yu Wei was covering the aftermath of the rainstorm in Jinan.  So I called him and asked him to work on the rainstorm as well as Red Diamond Empire.

The ensuing report about Red Diamond Empire caused a storm.  Many netizens rushed over to the BBS where Red Diamond Empire had made her comments.  That BBS had probably never had so much traffic.  I called one of their administrators and he expressed his dissatisfaction about our report.  He said: "Why do you want to bring up that 7.18 Jinan rainstorm post?  What are you trying to do?"

He was referring to the last sentence in that report: "Yesterday, there was a new post entitled <Did it rain in Jinan on July 18? No!> and many of the commentators said that there had been no rain."  I was very proud of the ending of that report.  I understood what he mean.  He said that my writing set a trend -- it rained in Jinan on that day but the netizens were scared of saying that because they could be arrested for spreading rumors.  The arrest of Red Diamond Empire has made it impossible for people to figure out the red line of Internet speech to the point where they didn't know whether they can discuss the weather anymore.

Two days later, Yu Wei made another breakthrough with <Red Diamond Empire was arrested for one phrase>.  We reported some more details about her arrest, although we still held back some information.  We did not refer to her as Ms. Li and we insisted on referring her as Red Diamond Empire.  We obtained the photograph in her arrest case file, but we did not publish it.

On July 27, she was released and returned home.  We did not report that.  At first, we only had internal police information and we could not reach her personally.  Later on, we made contact with her.  She said that she was touched by the concern showered by the netizens.  However, she did not want any reporting that would make her the focus of attention again and thus burden her worried family members.  Therefore, she asked us not to report about her.

I could not convince her.  In consideration of the special ordeal that this 23-year-old girl had gone through, we acceded to her request.  So the Red Diamond Empire affair faded away in the news, but leaving behind a bigger space for public discourse in the future.

The final big event of the year was the South China tiger photographs.  On October 17, the first report on the case by "Net Eyes" was to point out that "netizens boldly conjectured that the photographs might be those of a paper tiger."  This conjecture may just be quite close to the truth.  Actually, I had a huge disagreement with Tan Renwei on the night before that.  He was knowledgeable in photography and he thought that the tiger was fake.  I thought that there was no way that a government could be taking such a huge risk, even though the tiger looked fake.  We argued for a long time, and I was ultimately convinced -- I was lucky to have been convinced.

For more than a month afterwards, "Net Eyes" published many "Tiger Zhou" reports.  Some colleagues thought that we were wasting valuable space on that case.  Other colleagues thought that we did not have enough and wanted us to do more.

After the first round of heated discussion, the story went into a stall because there was no new evidence.  Tan Renwei posted a photograph of the scene that he took when he went to Zhenping county on the Internet.  The wisdom of the netizens awed and shocked us.  Using the details in that  photograph, they deduced so much that they declared that the game was over.  But the problem is that this case did not close even though it had been declared closed several times.  Even when the wall calendar showed up, the case has still not been closed.

Right how, our office wall has one of the wall calendars that Tan Renwei bought for 4.5 RMB with a couplet: "A Fierce Tiger Appears In A Flourishing Age; The Roar Of The Tiger Enhances National Power."