Think media. Think innovation. Think content and presentation for the future. Then blurt out the first newspaper that pops into your head. . . OK, how many of you said the People’s Daily?

It’s no secret to the most cursory of media observers that the People’s Daily and other Party papers — we can call them “the dailies” as most all of them end in the characters ribao (日报), and most all are directly administered by Party committees at their respective administrative levels — more or less missed out on the commercial revolution that remapped China’s media landscape in the 1990s.

Yes, Party media have to varying degrees trailed along behind their commercial media peers, adding pages and selling some advertising. But they remain principally propaganda organs, charged with narrowly reflecting the actions and policy pronouncements of the Party leadership.

While commercial newspapers, which rely entirely on outside sources of revenue (circulation/advertising), have led the reorientation toward the reader since the 1990s, Party papers have had far less need or incentive to respond to the market. Generally, these “mother papers,” or mubao (母报), are supported either by government layouts, or by revenue passed up from their bulkier commercial “child papers,” or zibao (子报).

To understand how their differing orientations — though both of course are ultimately controlled under the mandate of “public opinion guidance” — translated into very divergent media “products,” we need only look at today’s front pages from the People’s Daily, controlled by the Central Committee of the CCP, and its commercial spin-off, the Beijing Times, controlled directly by the People’s Daily as a market-oriented publication.

pd and bj times
On the left, the official People’s Daily: high-density text with few images, dry official news. On the right, the Beijing Times, more vivid layout and a freer hand with headlines.

In light of the very restricted role and reality of Chinese media today, it is often fascinating to look at the official discourse inside China about communications design and strategy. Unable to speak freely about the political restrictions and demands placed on media, ostensible communications experts must nevertheless pontificate about the basic principles of media and communications.