Sunday, 13 November 2011

A week in Beijing with China Daily journalists

I have been suffering withdrawal symptoms from Twitter as my wife, Pam, and I have been working in Beijing with the editors of the China Daily. Western social media sites are banned in China. There are ways around it ... but not on our hotel LAN line. Instead everyone uses the Chinese equivalent, Weibo, which has 140 million users. No good to me though and I soon discovered how Twitter-dependent I have become. It is certainly a relief to be back and able to get my daily fixes again. 
I was running an editorial management course on behalf of Press Association Training, looking at newsroom structures, leadership and performance management. It was a one of the most challenging things I have done but a fantastic experience. 
The mainly young journalists are really keen to learn, eager to expand the title into new areas and continually exploring creative ideas. The English language paper, circulating in China, Europe, America and selling a total of about 500,000, is looking to attract more international readers. With its smart-design and a more liberal outlook than most Chinese newspapers, it is an interesting read and increasingly Westernised. It is state-owned so has controls on its content and stance but the editors are working hard to report as objectively as they can. There is an interesting difference in outlook from the journalists though. Whereas we place the highest value on freedom of speech, they believe citizenship and responsibility are more important. Another key difference is, as a state-owned paper, China Daily has none of the commercial difficulties facing most Western newspapers. Don't be surprised if you receive a copy of the weekly European edition and an offer of subscription ... the paper is making inroads in the UK and is increasingly looking at content that will interest Western readers. With China now playing such a pivotal role in the West's economy, there's plenty of content for it to go at ... beyond the usual food, medicine, travel and feng shui. Anyway, here are ten things that I learned from Beijing.
i) Whatever culture we belong to, newsrooms are broadly the same. Passionate journalists working long hours and trying to juggle their time between management issues and journalism.
ii) China Daily recognises that not all good journalists make good managers and has introduced a structured career path that allows people to progress without having to take a desk job.
iii) There are opportunities for Western journalists who fancy a cultural change. Whereas most of the staff are Chinese there is a smattering of foreign editors helping with the language and copytasting.
iv) All pages are red-penned by the editors and put on the newsroom wall ... every day. Great feedback.
v) The paper does not sack anyone or make any staff redundant ... ever.
vi) Beijing, with 20 million people, is a sprawling metropolis with traffic jams, pollution and few quiet spaces.
vii) Traffic is such an issue that you can only drive every other day. If you take your car out on your banned day it is a £20 fine every time you drive past one of the many cameras.
viii) Beijing may be a cosmopolitan city but, apart from at the Forbidden City and Great Wall, we rarely saw a Caucasian face. On our trip to the Great Wall we were accompanied by seven wild members of Spanish band Lapegantina who were on tour. There is some great footage here.
ix) The food is very special - and very cheap. A six-course meal for four people won't set you back more than about £14 in total. I don't think I will be able to eat Chinese food in the UK ever again. In China it is fresh, spiced and delicious. No coffee or tea for breakfast though ... just soup. Special bonus was we did manage to find a bar, Laker's, which served free beer from 9-11pm each night. And among the gifts we came back with was a pack of our favourite green tea. Thanks Ying Xiong
x) The people couldn't be more friendly and hospitable. Special thanks to our hosts Dr Yuan Zhou and Ying Xiong aka Anastasia. They helped make it a very special week.

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