(My talk at the Symposium “Global Communication Research in the 21st Century” on June 16, 2015 at the Penn Wharton China Center, Beijing, China)
Two years ago, I left my job as a journalist at Southern Weekly (南方周末) and went to the U.S. for PhD study. At that time, I carried the pride of being a print journalist, which was reflected in my personal statement. In the not very well-written statement, I said, “I plan to pursue my inquiry into the relationship between media and democracy with a more reflective and scholarly approach.” After the word “media”, I added a note in parentheses: both traditional and new media. I knew that both the industry and academia were shifting their focus to the digital world, but I firmly believed that the new media was still relying on traditional media. The best content, the quality and serious journalism was still produced by print journalists. The digital media were not so much more than plagiarism and clickbait (标题党). So the hidden meaning between the lines in my personal statement was: I know we have to study new media now, but I still think it’s the newspapers and magazines that matter.
I changed my mind soon, not because the American professors asked me to forget about the print journalist pride, but because nearly all my former colleagues have left or are about to leave the newspaper industry.
During past two years, I buried myself in endless papers and books, and my old friends were buried in endless opportunities to start a new career in the digital world. They are now chief editors of websites and news apps, startup CEOs, and executives at Internet companies that were recently listed on Nasdaq. Two of my Southern Weekly colleagues who used to call themselves “the last knights in the digital age who stick to the pride, beauty and dignity of old-fashioned print journalism” are now PR managers at two Internet companies.
For the small amount of journalists who stay in the rapidly declining industry, I see them struggling with keeping the audience from leaving too fast. They try to learn what’s trending among young people, try to write like an 18-year-old. It’s a difficult process and sometimes it ends up with very awkward articles. Naturally, the newsrooms are divided into two parts, half of them are journalists who write for traditional outlets, they were born in the 1970s and 1980s, and their articles are read by fewer and fewer people; the other half are the so-called “post-90s”, or even “post-95s”, they seldom read newspapers and they are running the social media accounts of print outlets, which are becoming the major channel through which people get information. Before long, most people won’t know what’s been printed in a newspaper, but know what’s been posted by the paper’s Weibo and WeChat accounts.
So, what’s being posted? Vastly different from the print version. It’s hard to say if it’s better or worse. But it could be said that sometimes they posted very inappropriate content.
Let’s see an example. Half a month ago, a cruise ship carrying hundreds of elderly tourists sunk in the Yangtze River, more than 400 people died. The next day, the official Weibo account of Hubei Daily, the party mouthpiece of Hubei province, where the accident happened, posted a message that according to the State Council, the strong wind and heavy rain caused the accident. Later it was found to be fake news. Hubei Daily’s Weibo account posted a statement apologizing for the mistake. The last sentence reads, “I, the little editor, was wrong. Could you forgive me and continue supporting our Weibo, OK?” Then, the editor posted an emoji, showing innocence.
The sentence was written in a tone like an 18-year-old girl, and the emoji angered many people. Posting such an emoji showed that the social media editor didn’t realize the importance, the seriousness and the sorrow of the great tragedy.
The new generation who run the social media accounts have an “emoji mindset”, while the older generation don’t have it. Sometimes the use of emoji fun and playful, but sometimes it harms the content and the image of the media outlet.
From the case of Hubei Daily, we clearly see the invasion of the new generation’s mindset into the old print mindset. I know it’s useless to mourn the past glory of print journalism, but I want to emphasize that the unidirectional replacement of old mindset by new digital mindset is not the whole story. It’s also possible that the new media will be influenced by and adopt what’s been regarded as the print mindset.
Take Buzzfeed as an example. This digital media is famous for its viral content such as cute cat pictures, lists and quizzes. It’s a master of clickbait and perhaps the best example of digital media mindset. However, in late 2011, Ben Smith of Politico was hired as Editor-in-Chief. And Buzzfeed has expanded the site into serious journalism, long-form and reportage. Early this year, Buzzfeed got partial seat in the White House briefing room, with traditional media surrounding it.
Snapchat is another example. It’s a popular app among young people. It’s a vanishing-message app, which makes selfies disappear after 10 seconds. Recently, it hired a CNN political reporter to lead its nascent news division. It’s also hiring a number of journalists to cover the 2016 US presidential race. The New York Times asked: “Will 2016 be the Snapchat election?”
The cases of Buzzfeed and Snapchat are really impressive but quite unimaginable to Chinese people. It seems very unlikely that a Chinese digital media focusing on entertainment will turn to serious journalism. But in other areas, there are already some examples of digital media that are doing a better job in providing quality content than traditional media.
One example is Dingxiangyuan (丁香园). It’s an online community of doctors and medical professionals. Recently it launched a WeChat public account that provides reliable health tips to the elders. Most of you know that social media in China are filled with misleading information on health issues. Dingxiangyuan’s account contributes to a better information environment.
Another example is a project run by some friends and me. Its name is CNPolitics (政见). Its mission is to introduce academic work on Chinese politics and society in plain language, in short articles, to the Chinese public. We are a group of young scholars living in different places all over the world. Because our daily work is to read papers and books, and we have the ability to translate and summarize the often very long papers, we consider ourselves to be the best people to do this work, better than media professionals.
These examples show that there are much more possibilities during the transition from traditional to digital media. It should be a two-way converging process rather than the new replacing the old. My former colleagues in the newspaper industry are still trying to adapt to the new digital world, and the new generation should also be influenced by and learn from the legacy of the qualify, serious journalism of the old-fashioned media outlets. They should also have the aspiration to provide quality content, to investigate crimes, corruption and other forms of wrongdoings, to inform the public, to promote civic engagement, etc.
To conclude, the glory of print journalism is past but should not be forgotten. The dream of digital media should be richer, more diverse, and maybe not dramatically different from the dreams of the old world.