Media and Advertising

Who should be reading your newspaper?

Zhang Rui is news editor at the Beijing Times, and writes an excellent blog about the media business.

Early Friday morning he posted two articles about the media business in China - where it should be headed to do the most good. Translated below is the first of these, which was touched off by a picture he received from another reporter of a beggar reading the Beijing Times.


In the comments, someone named rdzn gives the circumstances behind this photo, which he took in winter, 2003. The man in the photo collected newspapers and other refuse, but every day had a new issue of Beijing Times from which he would read aloud.

Beggars' Paper

by Zhang Rui

I had a guest over in the evening. A Tsinghua doctoral advisor, professor, and an official. During dinner, a reporter Xiao Feng told me that a friend had given him a photo of a beggar reading the Beijing Times at a subway station entrance. This was like discovering a treasure, and I said, yes, yes, send it to me.

That night, I opened up this image.

I'm cranky and abnormal, this I know. I also know that in this abnormal society, abnormality is normal. So when I opened up this image in ACDSEE and covered my whole computer screen, a strange feeling took me by surprise. Yes, a strange feeling - I didn't know if it was happiness, sadness, pride, or shame.

These five years, I have seen every humiliation and injury that this paper has suffered. Our delivery trucks are not allowed to go within the third ring road after 7 am since our competitor and government organs have set up limits. The Zuojiazhuang district (where our agency is located) has set a dense network of one-way and no-entry lines, because a report offended the police in the precinct. We wrote a small piece that said because of a computer problem at the State Administration of Industry and Commerce, taxpayers had to take their computers to get things done, and we were fined 2 million yuan in advertising fee infractions. Such things are too numerous to record.

However, we were like a beacon that could not be blocked, sweeping through the heavens and covering the earth, illuminating the darkness. Beginning in 2003, our circulation topped the Beijing market for morning papers. At this point came the filth, the curses, and the mockery. The defeated, standing in their dank, sticky corners, said: What does Beijing Times have? What's so great about a high circulation, for a laborers' paper!

Those words were an ugly birthmark, a shameful brand, and cast a shadow on the heart of every employee. In the midst of this depression, I kept silently saying to myself, a laborers' paper - what's wrong with a laborers' paper? I said it silently since I didn't have enough confidence, I didn't have the confidence to take away the vanity of the newspaper staffers, to shatter the sense of superiority over the disadvantaged groups, to overthrow the sense of inferiority to our refined, finely-clothed peers spouting off about affairs of state.

They were "papers for white collars"; they wanted to "influence the influential"; they were the "selection of the 3 highs (higher education, high income, high position)"; they upheld the "philosophy of balanced development"; they were "the mainstream papers for mainstream people"! My dear, pitiful, haughty, vain, sycophantic colleagues, this is just the the froth that comes out at advertising sessions - would it be possible for you not to take it to heart?

But all of this was just to myself - I was in the midst of an endless, cold loneliness in an immense vortex of silence.

Today, now that we have some small amount of fame in these circles, we should boldly say, yes, we are a laborers' paper - what of it?! Is it wrong?! Is it bad?! When a laborer holds a steamed bun in his filthy hand and reads our newspaper, when a laid-off worker who makes just 180 yuan a month clutches a 5 mao note to buy our paper from a newsstand, should we be ashamed? Or should we be proud? Should we be thankful? Or scornful? If a paper can be run to the point that even those who cannot buy or read it buy and read it, is this not a great honor? If those "three highs," with their high income, higher education, and high positions make ten subscriptions to Beijing Times, in my view, this would not make me as thankful as if a worker's assistant, a middle-school graduate, or a laid-off worker bought one issue of Beijing Times.

We are not just a laborers' paper. We are even a beggars' paper. This wild-haired beggar with his blackened hands and clothes as dirty as if they'd been immersed in oil, holding our paper, doesn't insult me. It only makes me feel gratitude.

When I was in school, my roommate Wan Jingbo (now associate editor of Southern People Weekly) and I continually argued about popular media and elite media - which one would offer more mercy and salvation to China at that time. Neither of us persuaded the other. These several years, we each continued to hold our own ideas about the news, and slowly drifted apart. Both of us looking at this field, perhaps have a bit more respect and understanding for each others' news outlook. Or maybe one day, we may come together at some splendid occasion and exchange smiles and pleasantries.

Thank God that these years I have had countless opportunities to send off and maintain my news outlook, even to the point of lecturing and promoting my news outlook. Rather than high officials, I am more willing to run a paper for peddlers and underlings. Rather than high elites, I am more willing to speak to the proletarian masses. The grass-roots spirit is not to talk of money over tea after dinner, and it is not charity handed out from the top to the bottom. Rather, it is truly placing yourself to grow among the grass roots - and more than that, where are the white collars, middle-class, and petty-bourgeoisie in today's China? Isn't everyone just a lizard, an ant, a fly in the endless dust of this world?

Opening up this photo, I was first moved by the picture's filename. The filename of this photo was: "A reader (in the midst of recitation)." I thank the person who took this photo for not writing "a beggar," or "a beggar reading a newspaper." He professionally, thankfully, confidently, and quietly said: "a reader."

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