Foreign media on China

TIME's Austin Ramzy on GDP growth, the Global Media Summit and the TIME China blog

Ramzy in Sichuan during the earthquake. Photo by Ian Teh

Austin Ramzy has been reporting for TIME for 6 years, starting in Hong Kong and moving to Beijing in 2007. Since then he has covered the Hong Kong Chief Executive election in 2007, the Beijing Olympics, Wenchuan earthquake and the Xinjiang riots.

Working in regional journalism in the US before moving to Hong Kong, Ramzy has a Bachelor degree in East Asian Studies from Middlebury College and a Masters in Journalism from Berkeley. He was in Harbin for a term during his university days.

His most recent articles in TIME includes ones on the Global Media Summit, China and Russia
seeking an oil pact
, China's 3rd Quarter GDP rise and the economy and Censorship at the Frankfurt Book Fair. Ramzy was also the main contributor to TIME China's blog, which recently stopped operating.

Danwei asks Ramzy questions about his reporting background, the stories that he has written from Beijing (above), and why TIME closed down the TIME China blog.

Danwei: How long have you been covering China affairs for TIME? Did your methods of working change when you moved from Hong Kong to Beijing? Did any new difficulties arise or was Beijing a easier place to be a China journalist?
Austin Ramzy: I started as an intern at TIME Asia in 2003. I was eventually hired full-time and worked four years as a reporter-researcher. That's TIME-speak for a fact checker who is sometimes uncaged to write book reviews, obituaries, short pieces based on reporting from stringers in the field and occasionally even cover stories. The opportunities to cover China from that job were somewhat limited. I did write about Hong Kong politics, but only made a few reporting trips to the mainland.

When I moved to Beijing in the summer of 2007 someone I interviewed often told me that reporters used to sit in Hong Kong trying to figure out what was happening in Beijing, now they go to Beijing to figure out what is happening in Hong Kong. This city has become an important place for journalism, not just for covering China but global issues as well. The variety of interesting people and stories you can find in Beijing more than make up for the difficulties of living and working here.

Danwei: Where do you look when you look for stories? How much of it is already decided for you by TIME?
AR: I search as broadly as I can for stories. That includes domestic and foreign media, blogs and websites, academic journals and conversations with sources. I would estimate that about half of what I do comes from my own ideas and half is assigned by editors.

Danwei: Taking a story that we recently linked to, about the World Media Summit in Beijing. Was there anything genuine about the conference and safeguarding foreign media rights? David Bandurski said it was a bit like the Communists holding court, would you agree?
AR: The World Media Summit story was assigned by an editor as the event was winding up, so I wasn't able to attend in person. What I wrote was based on the speeches that were presented at the event. Was there anything genuine about safeguarding foreign media rights? Hu Jintao made that pledge, which is similar to what the government has been saying for the past few years. I'm not so cynical as to think there was nothing genuine about that pledge, but I think the commitment is limited. China has become an easier place for foreign journalists to work, but the reporting rules are often ignored by local officials when you're in the field. Like many regulations in China, the protections for journalists look good on paper but are easily cast aside when they conflict with the interests of people in power.

David Bandurski is a keen observer of Chinese media and foreign coverage of China, and I quoted some of his comments in my piece. His message that you shouldn't ignore your fundamental responsibilities in a quest for access is important. That said, I think he may have been a bit harsh in that piece. Some of the speeches given by foreign media executives did include requests for China to be more open and fair with access to information. They were couched in polite language because they had to be. That's the only way to get the message across in that environment.

Danwei: You also recently wrote about the astonishing 3rd Quarter GDP growth (8.9%). If you could give us one, what would your predictions for the Chinese economy over the next year or more be?
AR: I think China's recent growth has been uneven and possibly a bit exaggerated, but it isn't completely a mirage. I think in the next year there could be some stumbles as the government is forced to manage the bad debt produced as a result of this year's lending binge and also tries to control the overcapacity produced by poorly targeted investment. There is still an unhealthy reliance on exports, and foreign demand is unlikely to return for a long time. The government still hasn't done enough to make consumption a pillar of the economy. But despite all those obstacles, I think China is in a pretty good position to maintain moderate economic expansion next year, though probably short of double-digit growth.

Danwei: Could you tell us why the TIME China blog got closed down and what did you get out of writing a blog on TIME that is pertinent to reporting on China?
AR: I don't know all the reasons why the China Blog was shut down. I don't think it ever ranked very high among TIME blogs in terms of traffic. If we had managed to sustain a large volume of posts or attract a big readership the blog would have probably survived.

Blogs are useful because they allow a connection with readers that you don't get writing at a big magazine. When I started at small newspapers I would come to work most days to find my voice mail jammed with messages from readers. Usually they were related to what an idiot I was, and occasionally to what a genius I was. But I never lacked a sense of what people thought about my work. As I moved to bigger publications that connection seemed to fade, but blogs are a way to revive that. As you noted on Danwei, the China Blog's comment section was lacking. I wish it could have been more of a reasoned dialogue rather than ranting from various entrenched viewpoints, but sometimes there were insightful comments.

The blog was a good format for covering breaking stories and writing about quirky or personal stuff that wouldn't qualify for a magazine or web story. I live in a courtyard that is divided among 20 laobaixing families. I wrote a story about the neighborhood ahead of the Olympics that ran in the US edition of TIME, but there's a lot of other stuff that wouldn't make it into print. On the blog I wrote about my toilet overflowing and flooding the courtyard, my neighbor creeping in one night with a butcher knife because he thought I was being robbed, another neighbor getting wasted at a dinner party, declaring our courtyard a "harmonious society" and then puking. I found it all interesting and entertaining, but I could see where some readers might find it too personal and self-indulgent.

Danwei: Do you find reading Chinese and English blogs, Twitter and other digitalized information useful for your story needs?
AR: Yes, without a doubt. When I first started reporting the go-to resources were the clips morgue and library card catalogs. It's hard to imagine how anything was possible. There are of course limitations to digital resources. There is still no substitute for being there, especially when you have a breaking event like the Sichuan earthquake. But the Internet opens up a lot of possibilities.

Danwei: In the face of the changing media landscape, where digital and new media is on the rise, would you say that going to journalist school (as you did) is still crucial and road-paving?
AR: I don't think going to journalism school was ever critical. It was useful to me, and there are j-school grads at a fair number of Chinese publications and foreign outlets covering China. Of course, most of my classmates aren't even involved in journalism any more. Part of the difficulty is that journalism is in tremendous flux right now, and a lot of jobs are disappearing, especially at traditional media outlets. So it's hard for j-schools to know what to teach. My advice to people considering j-school right now is to think very carefully about what you hope to get out of it. You could just end up with a lot of debt.

Danwei: Can you imagine a situation where you would dislike reporting from China? What would it be?
AR: I once interviewed an executive in Beijing who said China is a place where nothing is permitted and everything is possible. That's an exaggeration on both ends, of course. But it says a lot about the rewards and frustrations one finds working here. I experience things I dislike about reporting in China on a regular basis. I also experience minor victories and moments of satisfaction. All in all I can't think of anywhere I'd rather be working.

There are currently 3 Comments for TIME's Austin Ramzy on GDP growth, the Global Media Summit and the TIME China blog.

Comments on TIME's Austin Ramzy on GDP growth, the Global Media Summit and the TIME China blog

Killer interview. Bring back the blog. The world needs to know about Beijing's toilets!

Austin rocks. Bring back the China Blog.

Looks like a lot happened at your backyard, Austin. Blog it on.

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