Grass-roots journalism meets the modern news weekly

Everyone's a journalist

Mention "participatory media," and what comes to mind are blog conventions, crowd-sourced op-ed columns, Twitter feeds from disaster zones, and citizen journalists typing out eyewitness accounts of local, breaking situations. A slick, full-color magazine sponsored by a state media group does not.

Enter Blog Weekly (博客天下), a new biweekly magazine that uses China's army of bloggers to report on current events.

The magazine's lofty ideals are on display in an ad was placed in a number of traditional news weeklies. Noting that 500 blogger-journalists reported on the nomination of Barack Obama and Joe Biden at the US Democratic National Convention in August, the ad speaks of the power of grass-roots media to change society:

Statistics show that China currently has 1.3 million online BBS forums with 230 million active participants, making it the country with the "largest online population in the world." The rise of the Internet has opened up a new space for public opinion in Chinese society and has had a profound influence on the structural makeup and methods of transmission of public opinion in society, affecting life on every level.

As a first-hand record of the Internet, Blog Weekly greets the historic opportunities of a wired society with a spirit of responsibility, sharing, and personal involvement, and will use the power of the Internet to spur China forward.

In an era of blogs, everyone's a journalist.

Blog Weekly is not the first print publication to recognize the value of web content, but it might be the first legitimate effort. Earlier attempts to print the Internet, such as Net News Weekly or Blogs, employed the dodgy strategy of taking an existing magazine licensed for an underperforming market, dressing it in a web-related motif, and filling it with downloaded material.

Many traditional media outlets supplement their own content with the odd blog post, and Vista (看天下), a Beijing-based magazine which, like Blog Weekly, is sponsored by the Ningxia Daily Group, uses Internet commentary to spice up its digest of the country's major newspapers and magazines. But the new magazine is uniquely positioned to take advantage of the wealth of content available online: according to a magazine employee, it currently is the only publication authorized by GAPP to draw its content exclusively from blogs.

Blog Weekly, October 15, 2008

Adopting the format of a typical news weekly, the magazine divides content into sections for current events, business, society, and entertainment. The most noticeable differences are that every article has a source URL attached, and appended to most articles are a few quotes from netizens that presumably appeared in the comments section of the original post.

When blogs first took off in China, journalists were quick to adopt them as a way to express themselves outside of the confines of the self-censoring mainstream press, and journalist-bloggers continue to be a force behind online public opinion. Blog Weekly takes advantage of the expertise and access of some of those bloggers in this issue.

The first story in the "Live" section (mainly eyewitness reports) is a set of field notes written by Chengdu Commercial Press reporter Huang Xiuli after she returned from the scene of a mudslide in Shanxi. The accident on September 8, which according to official reports at the time had caused 34 deaths (that number has since risen to 261), was blamed on torrential rains. In the course of her investigation, however, Huang learned from local villagers that the rain had been light that evening; she also reported other contradictory information and brush-offs from the authorities.

The Blog Weekly article is sourced to Huang's blog post, which has been deleted from her Hexun-hosted blog.

Space and content restrictions in the Chinese media are issues that columnists and reporters deal with daily, and one solution has been for journalists whose work has been edited for length or content to post "uncut" or "behind the scenes" versions of their articles to their blogs, where length is not an issue and content restrictions are comparatively lax.

Blog Weekly can make use of these expanded versions, but as a print magazine, it faces the same constraints as traditional media outlets. Huang's field notes, for example, filled three separate blog posts that ran into the thousands of words. Even though the magazine gave the story four pages (longish by the standards of Chinese news weeklies), it still had to make heavy edits to the original.

To the magazine's credit, those edits maintained Huang's general picture of obstruction, evasion, and collusion on the part of the authorities, and the sense that locals distrusted the official explanation. Similarly, an account by an Oriental Morning Post journalist of why he decided to mention Sanlu by name in his report on the melamine milk scandal had its overall integrity preserved even as it was slashed by two-thirds to fit onto two pages. The magazine's lead time may allow it to gauge the prevailing winds and print controversial material after it has been given tacit approval by the central authorities.

There's also a question of copyright and financial compensation. Chinese copyright law allows any article not expressly prohibiting it to be republished so long as the copyright holder is properly compensated. Publications that swipe content often rationalize their actions placing a notice at the front of the magazine inviting authors to contact them for payment. As you might imagine, this does not always work out in practice.

If an article's republication escapes the notice of the original copyright holder, the magazine scores free content, but even if it fulfills its obligation to pay bloggers, Blog Weekly may still win by getting bloggers to read it in the hopes of finding their works among its pages. Even in 2008, print confers a legitimacy that online publishing still lacks.

Something else to look at will be how the magazine deals with zhuanzai culture — the largely unattributed reposting of articles that sustains China's blogs and forums. For example, one article in this issue credited to "anonymous" describes a beggar who has an astonishing grasp of economics and SWOT analysis. The URL points to a post made on the Dayoo on 11 September that clearly notes that the piece was originally published elsewhere. A little bit mucking around with search terms on Baidu pulls up what looks to be the original, posted by someone called "mossystone" to the XMFish boards on 25 July.

Unattributed zhuanzai is a part of life on mainland blogs and forums, even if bloggers themselves often grumble that they're not getting credit for posts that make the leap to popularity. But does a print magazine have a responsibility to uncover the original source?

The copyright issue gets a little thornier when a blog post is only an intermediary source, as in the case of translations. Examples:

  • "Dear Recession, You're Not So Bad," by Paul McDonnold (Christian Science Monitor, 2008.08.25). The URL in the magazine is for the original, English-language version, but the translation is actually edited from a version done by the collaborative translation website Yeeyan.
  • "Lessons in Love, by Way of Economics," by Ben Stein (New York Times, 2008.07.13). The magazine references a post on the Canadian news aggregator, which clearly notes the original translation was done by Xiao Xuehua for the Ta Kung Pao.
  • Hillary Clinton's speech announcing her withdrawal from the Democratic primary. The magazine links to a video of the speech on Clinton's campaign website but draws netizen comments from an analysis of the speech by blogger Ruan Yifeng. Ruan's post only offers a partial translation of the speech; the magazine's text is actually a translation done by Zhao Feifei for Xinhua.

Examining a few other articles reveals the limitations of blog-based media, at least at the present time. First-hand reportage published outside traditional media channels does exist, as the field notes of Huang Xiuli and the Oriental Morning Post reporter show, but the majority of current events blogs in China tend to be commentaries on the news. Sourcing a magazine from opinion pieces means that readers may not have the background information to put the arguments into context.

Blog Weekly deals with this problem in two ways. In-depth reports like the cover feature on the Sanlu melamine milk scandal start off with a short original summary of the situation. For other topics, the URL for the "blog post" actually points to an online edition of an article from a conventional publication: a profile of Madonna in Mangazine, a complaint about Beijing subway crowding from novelist Qiu Huadong in Southern Weekly, or a profile of Huiyuan boss Zhu Xinli (inexplicably re-edited into the first-person) from The Founder, to cite three examples in this issue.

So as a grass-roots news magazine, Blog Weekly is not entirely successful. That aspiration may not even be possible in China, where regulations require reporters to obtain official GAPP certification and unlicensed "citizen journalists" run risks by their very existence. The magazine does offer 0.5 yuan per character for first-run eyewitness blog accounts of major incidents (up to 4000 characters in length), so it will be interesting to see what stories it features in the future.

Like a traditional current affairs magazine, Blog Weekly is geared toward a general readership. In your correspondent's eyes, it may appeal to the same audience that reads yWeekend, a Beijing Youth Daily-affiliated newspaper that explains the latest online memes and digs behind the week's most controversial stories through interviews with reporters and analysis of Internet commentary. But that's a weekly newspaper that sells for 1 yuan and has a distinct editorial personality, not to mention original reporting. By comparison, Blog Weekly is bland, expensive at 8 yuan, and at least two weeks behind the pace of Internet public opinion, which is notoriously mercurial in the first place. It does have lots of pretty pictures, which is a plus.

Can it succeed? If it finds an audience and tailors its story selection to their tastes, it may. Participatory media may be the solution here, too: readers are rewarded 100 yuan if a story they recommend gets printed, and additional bonuses will be given out for audience favorites. If enough people are looking for a print summary of substantive online discussion or a record of what bloggers are talking about, Blog Weekly just might have a future.

A trial issue of Blog Weekly was published in September; starting with the 15 October issue, it will be published on the 1st and 15th of every month.

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There are currently 4 Comments for Grass-roots journalism meets the modern news weekly.

Comments on Grass-roots journalism meets the modern news weekly

The best thing about reading a blog is that one page takes you to another and this "surfing" is the soul of online journalism. Just ask yourself when you start to read a blog do you read a post and then you simply close the window?

Elder Jones - São Paulo, Brazil -

I second Elder Jones' comment.

Q: What does browsing without links feel like?
A: Reading a magazine.

A magazine filled with blog posts is just another thrash in the death-throes of old media.

Fascinating overview. Joel writes: "But the new magazine is uniquely positioned to take advantage of the wealth of content available online: according to a magazine employee, it currently is the only publication authorized by GAPP to draw its content exclusively from blogs."

He adds: "The Blog Weekly article is sourced to Huang's blog post, which has been deleted from her Hexun-hosted blog."

So reporting unauthorized online is being legitimized in print, at least in certain cases. A screwy yet predictable loophole. Q: Is this in any way a policy breakthrough on GAPP's part part, or is it just informal, tacit approval (moxu)?

And what are the magazine's "hidden rules". As you note: "The magazine's lead time may allow it to gauge the prevailing winds and print controversial material after it has been given tacit approval by the central authorities."

Any more info on Blog Weekly's self-censorship regime, or on the people behind it?

Thanks, fascinating. Not really sure who's the readership base for this magazine though.

I'd like to join Jonathan's question: Any more info about the people behind Blog weekly?

There seems to be some original content on their website (but maybe I'm wrong about it. my Chinese reading is quite bad).

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