By Emma Lupano — A heated debate about ethical journalism spread through China’s media last October after China Youth Daily exposed the country’s latest “gag fee” case, in which scores of journalists accepted payoffs from a mine boss in Shanxi to suppress the story of a work-related death. [Frontpage photo: “Lucky Chinese Money” by Vanessa Pike-Russell available at Flickr.com under Creative Commons license.]
Last week, just as the Linfen “gag fee” case faded from the national spotlight, China Youth Daily whipped up another hot-button media ethics issue, reporting on the apparently widespread practice of publishing articles in exchange for payments generally referred to in Chinese as “publishing fees,” or fabiaofei (发表费).
The China Youth Daily investigation focused on the national magazine Reportage (报告文学), a once respected vehicle for serious literary journalism that has faced a dramatic decline in both circulation and esteem since its heyday in the 1980s.
In order to expose payment for placement at Reportage, a China Youth Daily reporter approached the magazine pretending to be the representative of a company that wished to have an article published. A magazine editor surnamed Wang gave the journalist detailed information about the relevant fees and how the fictional company could have its “advertisement” published.
ABOVE: China Youth Daily‘s November 20 report on Reportage, outlined in red.
A complete translation of China Youth Daily‘s report can be found at the Zhongnanhai blog. But here are some of our own excerpts:
“A ‘national level publication’ openly sells article space. The fixed price is 1,000 yuan for a 1,000 word piece”
“We determine our fee according to the number of words, normally a 20,000 word article costs 30,000 yuan, which includes five or six images. There might be some margin to discuss prices in more detail once we have seen the draft,” an editor surnamed Wang said in a phone exchange.
Recently, this newspaper was told by a source that just by paying money one could have a large article published in the national journal Reportage. The price [they said] was clearly set — 1,000 yuan per 1,000 words. Our journalist went undercover to contact the magazine to confirm whether or not this illegal practice, which is prohibited by the State Administration of Press and Publications, was still going on.
Our reporter phoned the editorial office of Reportage pretending to be an employee from a company wishing to publish a soft advertisement. An editor from Reportage, surnamed Wang, replied immediately, without asking for any additional information about the company: “Yes, we can do it, have you got someone who can write it? . . . At the moment we do not have enough editors on staff, so it would be better if you could write the piece yourselves and then submit it to us.”
Regarding specifications for the article, this Wang gave the falling directions: “Normally, so long as the content and the language of the text are coherent and smooth, this is fine. According to our needs at the moment, you can write something related to the scientific view of development, maybe giving some details of your company’s own development. Our editors can make appropriate changes, too. Normally, all the articles [we receive] can be published.”
“But doesn’t Reportage have a high literary standard for their articles?”, our reporter asked. “We have two categories of articles. The first kind is published free of charge, and in this case the quality obviously has to be quite high, both in terms of readability and culturally. But for those that are like soft advertisements, if they say what they mean clearly and are basically wholesome that’s sufficient.
As the reporter pressed on with other questions regarding fees, this Wang did not hesitate in her responses: “We need to see how many words and how many pictures you want to publish. The number of words in the piece determines the price, and normally we require 30,000 yuan for an article running to 20,000 words, and this includes five or six image. If you need one of our journalists to write the article instead, we require the fixed amount up front and an additional 5,000 yuan for royalty fees.
The China Youth Daily report also quotes an “insider” referred to only as “Mr. Shen” as saying that this practice is not new to Reportage.
“This magazine has been using this way of ‘circulating money’ for some years already. To have an article published in Reportage is really easy. The standard of the writing is not high. You just fork over some money and the article makes it.”
When asked to comment on the magazine’s practice of accepting payment for contributions, Reportage editor-in-chief Wu Shuang seemed to find nothing wrong.
“We are a cultural magazine, we don’t do news,” he told China Youth Daily. “[These are] the so-called paid contributions. There are some companies that want to publicize themselves, so they get in touch with us about publishing an article. They use our space, but it falls to us to print the article and to check it. We bear these costs, so why shouldn’t they pay us a little fee?”
Wu said, moreover, that this practice was commonplace through China’s cultural industry.
On weblogs and other commentaries on the case, a number of writers naturally linked the pay-for-play practice to the process of media commercialization that has progressed full-steam-ahead in China since the mid-1990s.
Blogger Wei Yingjie (魏英杰) wrote a commentary at QQ.com that voiced a total lack of surprise about China Youth Daily‘s revelations. Isn’t this the way all of these publications work?
Here is a portion of Wei’s piece, translated by Joel Martinsen over at Danwei.org:
On November 20, when China Youth Daily ran the article “‘National Publication’ Sells Article Space for 1,000 yuan per 1,000 characters,” my first reaction was bafflement. Not because of the exposure of Reportage‘s dirty deeds; I simply found it odd that this newspaper had taken a sudden interest in the “pay-to-print” phenomenon. Isn’t that an open secret in the industry? Isn’t selling off pages just day-to-day business at those key periodicals?
Sure, I’ll admit that it isn’t proper to think that. As illegal dealings clearly prohibited by law, paid articles and compensated news should be relentlessly exposed, and no exposure comes too late. Hence, didn’t the newspaper display an utterly uncompromising attitude by turning over so many column inches to this report? Maybe the magazine’s executive editor respond without batting an eyelash because of that same indifference: “China Youth Daily knows the way things are because we’re both in the same line of work. Name me someone who doesn’t do it.” The guy’s in trouble because those unwritten rules haven’t been legitimized as “written rules.”
Wei also took issue with the notion, which added to the newsiness of the China Youth Daily, that Reportage was a “national publication.”
But there’s another thing: it’s not really accurate to call Reportage a “national publication.” The magazine was founded in 2000 (it is unrelated to an earlier publication of the same name) out of Hubei’s Contemporary Writers (当代作家, some sources say “Contemporary Literature,” 当代文学) and is published under the authority of Changjiang Literature and Arts Press. In 2002, the publisher invited the China Reportage Association to assume editing duties, and the magazine moved north to Beijing. But the magazine still lists itself under the administration of Hubei’s Provincial Administration of Press and Publication. The magazine is hardly a “national publication” and might not enjoy the same sort of “consideration.”
Since the Reportage scandal broke, the online Donghu Commentary (东湖评论) has published a number of responses to the case, including one in which columnist Deng Ziqing (邓子庆) compares the “publishing fee” phenomenon with the “gag fee” phenomenon, thus drawing a straight line between two of the latest hot spots in media ethics in China.
The editorial, which was republished in Guangzhou’s Yangcheng Evening News on November 25, suggested that Chinese academics are only too familiar with the “pay for play” practice, and speculated that “researchers and university professors were not at all surprised by this news.”
Portions of the Deng Ziqing editorial follow:
What is the difference between the “publishing fee” and the “gag fee”?
Recently, this newspaper [China Youth Daily] was told by a source that just by paying money one could have a large article published in the national journal Reportage. The price [they said] was clearly set — 1,000 yuan per 1,000 words. Our journalist went undercover to contact the magazine to confirm whether or not this illegal practice, which is prohibited by the State Administration of Press and Publications, was still going on . . . [China Youth Daily, November 20].
I’m confident that many researchers and university professors were not at all surprised by this news, and many of them have probably personally experienced the “pay for print” phenomenon. Yes, so it is with national-level publications — you pay them and they print you. I believe that while these “publishing fees” and the “gag fees” that so recently caused a stir are different approaches, they yield the same result. The “gag fee” mutually benefits the mine owner and the journalist; the “publishing fee” is a “win-win exchange” between the writer and the editor.
If you are afraid of a negative report, you can pay money to have it removed; if you wish to have a positive report, you can pay money to have it published.” This is as good an explanation as any of the phenomenon of “paid-for news.” Gag fees basically mean that anything can be withheld in the face of money, whether it has news value or not. Here, we can view thesis papers as a kind of report, and in the face of “publishing fees” academic magazines do not care whether something is of quality or not — so long as you pay according to their standards, it can be published. Can you say the “publishing fee” is not cut from the same fabric as the “gag fee”?
In my view, even the publishing serious academic works faces this same problem, that without paying a “publishing fee” they have trouble getting published, and this type of academic corruption has already reached the point where action has to be taken. If this environment persists, there will be not place for quality works while shoddy ones will be everywhere, to the point where good authors will cease to improve their ideas. The quality of scientific papers will go from bad to worse, and, in the long term, this will be a disservice to scientific development in our country.
I believe that apart from fostering sound and ethical practices among journalists and academics, we must severely punish those responsible for “gag fee” and “publishing fee” cases, killing one as they say to send a warning to hundreds. At the same time, relevant units, particularly universities, should change the concept by which the publishing of thesis papers determine graduation and promotion, and should establish expert panels to focus on whether papers already published show plagiarism, whether they have any influence [of thought], are full of old ideas or show creative new concepts. We can’t simply look at whether papers are published or not.
Obviously, another necessary step in order to avoid the decadence of science and literature is for the administrations involved to reinforce their dynamism in supervising news companies and individuals. If a company has to control itself, that is a situation in which the left hand controls the right hand — so this “publication fee” trend could become worse and worse. As Wan Junchao, associate professor at the School of Journalism and Communication at Qinghua University, puts it: “Thee kinds of paid-for reports are really not an exceptional phenomenon. All the media occupy some position in this big environment. If you add the decline of professional ethics among news employees and the flagging resolve of related departments to punish them, all these factors encourage the propagation of paid-for news”.
Zhang Tieying (张铁鹰) comments on the Reportage affair at Donghu Commentary
“Deep Shame on Reportage for Paid-for Reports,” China News Service, November 21, 2008
“Paid for No News and Paid-For News,” Liu Haiming (刘海明) Donghu Commentary
“Media That Openly Sell Space Display the Restlessness of Our Society,” Zhang Rusheng (张如晟), Donghu Commentary
[Posted by Emma Lupano, November 28, 2008, 9:33am HK]