Two years ago in Hong Kong, I sat around a conference table with some of the finest journalists to have worked in the Chinese media in the past two decades.
Left and right of me were reporters who had broken major stories of corruption, malfeasance and cruelty, and who had, in the process, shaped the contemporary history of Chinese journalism – a history in which, from time to time, a broader notion of the public interest won out against the narrow interests of the Party-state.
Now, however, all of them were busy with start-ups (“innovation” being the buzzword of the day) having little or nothing to do with journalism. The low point for me came when one seasoned former reporter said with some bitterness: “I no longer think of myself as a journalist at all.”
Over the past few years, it has become increasingly clear that much of the experience the journalism profession in China has gained since the 1990s is being hollowed out by deeper economic, political and technological shifts in the media industry.
Many factors have driven an exodus of older talent from China’s media, from poor pay and the digital transformation of the industry – now hitting traditional Chinese media that for many years had seemed protected from the storms buffeting media elsewhere in the world – to the vagaries of censorship, which can sap the professional spirit.
But the net effect of this shift is the progressive loss of professional journalism capacity in China’s media.
That capacity could take many long years to rebuild, particularly if the stringent controls we’ve seen under President Xi Jinping continue into the next decade, leaving few stories on which journalists can cut their teeth.
Falling pay (relative to cost of living) and rising pressure mean the entire journalism profession is skewing younger in China. A 2016 survey by PR Newswire showed that more than 80 percent of the “front-line journalists” reporting the news in China were born after 1985, meaning they were 30 years old or younger. By contrast, a survey of journalists in the U.S., conducted in 2013 by the School of Journalism at Indiana University, showed the median age had risen from 41 to 47 since 2002.
Just over 80 percent of the Chinese journalists surveyed for the PR Newswire study – 1,477 in all – reported monthly income below RMB 10,000. To put these numbers in perspective, this means incomes for Chinese journalists haven’t budged from a decade ago, when Chinese media were heading toward the tail end of what had been a “golden decade” of journalism development, and when housing prices and other costs in major cities were a fraction of what they are today.
Last month, the youthfulness of China’s journalists became a topic of renewed debate on social media in China after former FT China editor-in-chief Zhang Lifen (张力奋) said at the Bo’ao Forum for Asia Annual Conference that while the journalism profession anywhere in the world must rely on cumulative experience, journalists in China treat the job as a “young rice bowl” profession – in other words, as something to be endured only for a few years early in a career before one moves on to a job with real pay and a real future.
Zhang noted how, during coverage of the annual National People’s Congress that same month, many young Chinese journalists had become distracted from the story at hand, pulling delegates (some of whom are celebrities) aside to pose for selfies.
“Watching them, old journalists like us thought on the one hand that they were just having fun,” said Zhang. “But on the other hand that this was really not how journalists should behave.”
Is Chinese journalism, on top of all of its other problems, plagued with youth and inexperience?
These questions about journalism in China as a “young rice bowl” profession have been kicked around for a number of years now. Following the disappearance in March 2014 of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, a story that drew intense interest in China, many internet users were appalled by the inability of Chinese journalists to get valuable scoops like those reported by the likes of CNN, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.
Columnist Sun Letao (孙乐涛), writing for the Guangzhou-based Time Weekly, noted that youth and inexperience in the media had become evident on a number of stories that spring:
“The MH370 incident just happened to coincide with the two meetings [of the National People’s Congress and the CPPCC], generally a yearly highlight for serious traditional media. And what audiences witnessed were great numbers of young reporters, looking like they had just stepped out of college… diligently and firmly waving down delegates and stopping representatives to ask the same stereotyped questions, and writing the same stereotyped reports.”
For Sun and many others, the failure of Chinese media to compete in reporting the MH370 incident, a story of core interest to the domestic audience, exposed the callowness and incompetence of the country’s journalists. These were not just days of disaster for the aviation world – they were “days of disaster for Chinese media.”
These “days of disaster” have persisted since 2014, as Chinese media have remained virtually silent on major breaking stories of the kind that in years past might have drawn more aggressive coverage. During this period, only the Tianjin explosions in August 2015 have offered a truly notable exception to the lull in quality reporting by China’s domestic media. The explosions were a story of such immense scale, unfolding in a highly populated urban area, that coverage was impossible to quell entirely.
While broader political and industry trends are no doubt having an effect on the staying power of older professionals in the media, some point out that there is also a pre-existing bias toward younger professionals in hiring for media jobs. Many media in China, old and new, routinely advertise journalism jobs by prioritising applicants “under the age of 35.”
In the wake of the comments by former FT China editor-in-chief Zhang Lifen, an article on a WeChat public account shared screenshots of a recent job placement from the Chengdu Evening News, a major commercial newspaper in Sichuan province, which was looking to hire 23 reporters, all “under the age of 35,” as well as six commentary writers “under the age of 40.”
Using age as a hiring standard, said the WeChat article, might seem understandable given the fiercely competitive nature of the news profession, which sometimes requires late or unpredictable shifts to cover breaking stories, or to get print editions out the door. The pressures of the media workplace can demand a great deal of journalists, and younger staff are better equipped – or so the argument goes – to handle that pressure.
Even if all of the above were true – and there are plenty of arguments against – energy is no substitute for experience. If better, more professional reporting is the desired outcome, young journalists need the benefit of working with older and more seasoned colleagues.
The discussion inside China of the reasons for journalism’s flagging appeal among older – even just slightly older – professionals tends not to dwell on censorship, the elephant in the room. But the fact is that media controls, now more stringent and more effective than at any time in the past two decades, have a constraining effect on all aspects of the profession.
The Chinese Communist Party has no interest, ultimately, in more professional reporting. As President Xi Jinping emphasised in his speech on media policy in February 2016, the media must “sing the main theme and transmit positive energy” (唱响主旋律, 传播正能量). They must, in other words, be obedient servants of the Party and its objectives.
All three of the reasons cited in the recent WeChat article for journalism becoming a “young rice bowl” profession in China – poor pay, health and well-being, and murky future prospects – might be resolved if the industry was permitted to develop with a sense of professional purpose.
The article, however, could only hint at this underlying malaise. “Before, we called journalists the ‘uncrowned kings,’” it said. “Now, they are just the temp workers of journalism.”