Rewriting the news for Yazhou Zhoukan

Yazhou Zhoukan
January 20, 2008

Hong Kong-based newsweekly Yazhou Zhoukan (亚洲周刊) was informed by its distributors last December that it could no longer accept subscriptions from mainland China.

Under Chinese press regulations, as an overseas publication, Yazhou Zhoukan was never able to be sold outside of high-end hotels, and its subscriber base was limited to overseas passport holders.

Translated below is a column by Tsui Sio-ming (崔少明), a Hong Kong journalist who was involved with Yazhou Zhoukan in its early days, when the magazine was little more than a digest of regional newspapers.

The mainland newsweekly South Wind View recently recruited Tsui to write a column about Hong Kong media based on his own experiences in the sector. Tsui was involved with the founding of both Yazhou Zhoukan and Jimmy Lai's pioneering weekly, Next Magazine (壹周刊).

My Life in Magazines

by Tsui Sio-ming / SWV

Recently, Hong Kong newspapers ran an incongruous piece of news, the gist of which was that hotels on the mainland can no longer sell the Ming Pao Group newsweekly Yazhou Zhoukan, although foreign nationals and citizens of Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau are still able to subscribe.

Foreign reporters are free to conduct interviews in China because of the upcoming Olympics, so many people believed that policies would be loosened rather than tightened. But the circulation of information is directed, and in general, its inflow is restricted while its export is relaxed. That is, foreign journalists may freely gather information for export, but bringing in information still requires discretion.

From the perspective of the mainland, the magazine's covers were highly provocative. But that's just the standard set of tricks used by magazines in Hong Kong and Taiwan; it's not unique to that particular magazine.

Frankly, if you want to talk news, it's only the current Yazhou Zhoukan (abbreviated YZ, perhaps the only Hong Kong magazine that uses the Pinyin version of its name as its English title) that delivers. When the magazine was launched two decades ago, it was the equivalent of the mainland's Reference News (参考消息).

I joined the team during YZ's planning stage and worked for two years following its formal launch. I left around Autumn, 1989. I'd even written a lead editorial back then. Later, an "enthusiast" wanted to start a "city weekly," and the boss recommended me. So after YZ, I became one of the senior members of Next Magazine.

When I was at YZ, the magazine was a little brother to the English-language Asiaweek (AW), which at the time was a competitor to the Far Easter Economic Review (FEER), the pioneering English-language east-Asian newsweekly. Although it could not compete in influence, it nonetheless occupied a stable position in southeast Asia. At that time, China's economy was gradually opening up, and the vibrant atmosphere held a vast thirst for information. Michael O'Neill, the New Zealander who founded AW, added a Chinese-language edition in the hopes of expanding northward.

This idea was common idea in the Hong Kong media world, but the key was making it a reality. O'Neill was a newsman; he was not proficient in Chinese, but he believed in the superiority of the AW model, which he copied for the Chinese edition. AW was printed in full color, comparable to the South Wind View you're reading now. In comparison, the Chinese-language publications in many places of southeast Asia at the time were crudely-printed with tightly-controlled news. The Chinese language was practically ostracized, so Chinese readers were naturally flabbergasted at the prospect of a current events magazine printed in color. But Hong Kong did not lack for full-color magazines, and the AW content model was not a sufficient selling point.

What was the AW content model? Originally, the magazine was supposed to cover all of Asia, but manpower was limited, so it mainly relied on rewrites: picking and choosing from wire reports and the newspapers from across Asia that were air-mailed to Hong Hong, and then doing a comprehensive rewrite. Your own news-gathering would make up less than half. This was incredibly common in the Hong Kong media world. The city's newspapers were small-scale, and for some stories it was impossible to send someone to the scene, so you'd record TV and radio reports and use them as a "staff report." At the most, you'd call up someone involved and quote a sentence or two.

Although this violated intellectual property rights, there was no way to cover everything that happened every day, so in most cases a line or two would be sufficient. But it was different for a weekly. If rewrites made up most of the content, then you couldn't call it "news"—it'd only be a "digest." Of course, given the demands of life these days, being able to quickly and easily read up on the week's major events is an important thing. Bearing the name "Asiaweek" meant that YZ could not just report on Chinese affairs: it had to talk about the Middle East and Southeast Asia, too. But Hong Kong's buildings were climbing as fast as its stock market, and it cared little for those "backward regions."

O'Neill's deep belief in the superiority of the AW model was founded on the fact that after the scribes had finished pasting their clippings up into a draft, another research team would verify each word against the clippings before the magazine hit the streets, in order to insure that everything was completely accurate. However, if you pick up any three Chinese-language newspapers, you'll discover that their reports on a single incident are far from identical—not just in their positioning, but in details as well—meaning that the reader has to judge which version is most responsible. So which clipping should a scribe rewrite into a report? And which clipping should a researcher verify the report against? If you trust in something merely because it has been printed in a newspaper, that's dogmatism, not checks and balances.

This system reduced newsmen to "word processors." YZ ran only 50 to 60 pages a week, and the boss had final say in the subject matter. Everyone else in the editorial office just sat at their desks, a newspaper in one hand and their manuscript paper in the other. The writers were responsible for rewriting the newspapers, while I and the other editors took charge of rewriting their manuscripts. Five days a week. We rarely made any phone calls to an outside line.

I worked quickly, so most of my time was spent waiting to get off work. The pay was decent, but it was a waste of my youth. Later, when I submitted my resignation, the foreign boss invited me to dinner to urge me to stay on. But a colleague who knew me relatively well and who was quite well-liked by the boss told him: he has the title "assistant manager," but he's really just a "glorified copy-editor."

As for the editorial I mentioned earlier: it wasn't actually a YZ editorial, but rather the boiling-over of Hong Kong's public opinion. The manager couldn't write Chinese, and as his right-hand man I was duty-bound to do it. Per YZ practice it was published unsigned. We had this rule to make it a collective product, not the work of any single individual. But apart from the typing (because PCs were not widespread, we still wrote out drafts by hand) and copy-editing, I took did all the work for that piece. To tell you the truth, authors' names were not attached for fear that competitors would recruit them away.

Links and Sources
  • South Wind View 《南风窗》. "My Life in Magazines" 我的杂志生活. 2008.1.30-2.12, #351, p 94. Not currently online, but it may appear in the archive of South Wind View columns on Tsui Sio-ming's blog
  • Image from Taobao
There are currently 1 Comments for Rewriting the news for Yazhou Zhoukan.

Comments on Rewriting the news for Yazhou Zhoukan

well, quite good magazine ,and pity couldn't read it if not subscribe.

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