How I’m Learning To Love The Web -Chen Feng

Chen Feng.jpg

I’ve asked a few of China’s more celebrated journalists why it is that they tend to neglect their celebrity blogs. The main reason, they say, is because the same Chinese portals who so wish to host their blogs often cannot publish their posts.

In his own roundabout way, Sohu.com news editor Chen Feng ÈôàÂ≥∞ (pictured) mulled the relative constraints in print versus online on his own celebrity blog last week. His ruminations have since hovered near the top of the charts on the BBS Journalists’ Home.

Chen happened upon fame in 2003, as the Southern Metropolis Daily reporter who scooped the story of Sun Zhigang. A disciple of storied Southern Metropolis editor Cheng Yizhong, Chen moved to Beijing with Cheng and clan in 2003 to start The Beijing News. There he served as metro editor. Once that paper imploded at the turn of this year, Chen made the jump to Sohu. He’s not always been the happiest camper. With the author’s permission, Biganzi translated his essay. It’s titled, “China had no CNN, so came the news portals”:

I was watching a TV program a few days ago. An advertising industry whiz was saying, the premise of making an ad is that your product must do the talking. If it doesn’t, then better the ad is, the faster the product will die.

After I arrived at an Internet company, a lot of the language changed…


…Now we don’t call content “content”. We call it a “product”. Of course the substance is the same. In [traditional] media circles as well, we once had a popular saying, that news is the product we sell. What the readers wants, we provide.

Yet this saying is well worth questioning. First of all, it’s very hard for us to know for certain what our users want in the end. Foreigners have a classic saying: readers can’t criticize what they haven’t seen. In other words, readers can only judge what they’ve already read. When they say something’s good, perhaps it’s just that under the current circumstances, they feel it’s not bad. Give them something better, and perhaps they’ll say what they have right now is no good.

So if we say that readers only like pornographic news (ȪÑËâ≤Êñ∞Èóª), perhaps that’s just because among the contents you provide, only the pornographic is interesting.

One other reason to question is that it’s very hard to gauge readers’ reactions to news with absolute certainty. With news, another saying in journalistic circles goes, half the game is science, and half is art. Conversely, people responses are also very hard to accurately describe and analyze. When readers say something is good or bad, the factors involved are all too undefined. It’s also possible that in a readership analysis report, one half is scientific, and one half is totally imagined.

That is the reason why in online news, machines can never replace people. Because machines can never know people’s feelings. It’s impossible to figure out people’s feelings by relying on algorithms alone. We’ll often say that a certain editor’s feelfor news is really good. This feeling, I’m afraid, is not something that can be worked out by algorithms.

At newspapers, ordinarily, the most confidential thing is the editorial outline. The core of the editorial outline is not about operational things, but rather ideas of journalism. Put bluntly, it is the journalistic orientation. This journalistic orientation takes market positioning into consideration, but I’m afraid that it is more of a sort of analysis of the reader. You see all of the ideas. There are few statistics, and much more descriptive language. It looks the same as mathematic axioms. You have a hard time telling from where it all emerged.

We say that news about society, to a large degree, is a kind of conversation piece,and we say that readers of international news, to a large degree, are males getting in on the excitement, as a kind of disguised expression of their hope to take part in society. Do we have proof of this? Do we have data? No, we don’t. Readers themselves would never utter these things. The reason why we think this way in the process of journalism is nothing but a certain understanding of life and of readers.

Of course that’s not to say that editors should sit in a room every day teaching readers lessons. After attending Internet meetings, in chats with colleagues, I said that as an editor from traditional media going to the Internet, I should feel excited. One of the important reasons being, the Internet offers editors the best means of analyzing readers. It’s like a data log, and at the same time provides the best channel to get close to readers, like following them.

As long as you have an understanding of life and of readers, then these tools have such tremendous use. They allow you to effectively analyze readers’ needs.

To return to my subject, back in the day, Sina took advantage of 9/11 to spring to its feet. It satisfied the Chinese people’s hunger for national and global news and information. Actually, this was also an unfilled opening. In the “The Way of Sina.com”, it says that [SIna VP and news editor] Chen Tong (ÈôàÂΩ§) first started to produce news by posting the scores of sports matches in chat forums. After that, he broadcast games live. Yet at the time, television and newspapers were still leisurely preparing their reports to go out few hours or even a few days later.

So this also was a kind of opening. When I’ve trained new people I’ve said that, the rise of the Internet portals, in fact, tapped into two different openings. One, indeed, involved awareness of copyright protections. But more important at that time, or you could say up to the present day, was China’s system of controlling the press. Both of these factors left a huge opening for the Internet portals.

China has no CNN. It has no New York Times, Washington Post, or USA Today, or this kind of rolling news organization. CCTV isn’t one, and the People’s Daily certainly isn’t one. China’s only developed [media] are metropolitan newspapers and local television stations. Therefore, the trans-regional Internet naturally have become the best carrier of news and information. Not to mention that when 9/11 happened, the Internet could also make immense use of foreign wires, so the speed with which it reported international news was even faster.

In fact it’s the same as with QQ. It gives utmost play to the features of Internet communication and broadcast channels (a couple days ago, I heard an old-school [sic] say, the essence of the Internet is an organizational tool; this is also most interesting.)

So, traditional media can complain that the Internet is wresting away their readers. But what they should complain about is the control of the press. Control of the press has not granted traditional media the opportunity to free themselves (ÁøªË∫´). In the United States, there is not the kind of Web portal news there is in China. There are the media’s own news websites. This [difference] has to do both with control of the news and with copyright awareness.

Similarly, from the moment [Sina's] Chen Tong started to post up-to-the minute scores in online forums, actually, the sports papers were destined to meet a dead end.Gone are the days when you could just print a few scores and a few match reports mingling truth and falsehood, and sell it.

And by the same token as well, why is it that to this day, none of the local news portals have been successful? Naturally, most of the local news portals are Web sites run by newspapers themselves. So they’re still traveling the old road from print to the Web, artificially hindering the timeliness of Internet news. But to reshape the media, so that its train of thought moves from the Web to print, would require the formation of a whole new system. Just the cost of reshaping the internal structure, might already be too high. (Xiao Liu’s [editor Liu Xinzheng] Zheng Weekly has talked about this problem).

But an even more important reason, perhaps, is that the local news market is already too dense. What big city doesn’t have a few metropolitan papers, a few television stations and a few radio stations. Factor in the pass-on rate of newspapers (one paper might be read by an entire office or a whole family), and it’s extremely difficult for the Internet to squeeze into the local news market.

But too small an opening does not mean there is no opening. Up to the present, the Internet companies that have been successful have taken two approaches. One is to tap into an opening left behind by the traditional media; for example, news. The second is bring into play all of the Internet features that traditional media don’t have, and better satisfy users demands; for example, e-commerce.

Online gaming and QQ do both of these things, and thus are even more successful.

In journalism training courses, I spoke about the four characteristics of Internet news as I see them. One is timeliness; two is the archival feature; three is interactivity; four is multimedia. Actually there is also a fifth, the limitlessness to traverse the boundaries of space and time.

If you want to establish a local portal, and compete with the other highly crowded channels, I’m afraid that the portals’ same strategy of collecting information on the basis of super-capacity cannot be repeated. You have to think more from the basis of the Internet’s own characteristics. Right now among local Web sites, the successful ones are mostly in communities. I’m afraid that that’s the best manifestation of the interactivity of the Web.