Author: Fang Kecheng

Fang Kecheng (方可成) is an assistant professor in the School of Journalism and Communication at Chinese University of Hong Kong. Fang was formerly a journalist with Guangzhou’s Southern Weekly newspaper.

Reaching China’s Gen Z Media Consumers

A Game Publisher Becomes an Information Provider

Fang Kecheng: About a year ago I started noticing the stuff “All Now” was putting out. But few people out there in the world may know about your team yet. Could you start by telling us the basic process of how this project developed?

Lu Hui: Our project is incubated by [the online game publisher] Perfect World Group, and we’ve defined ourselves as a quality information portal for global youth. We got started in early 2020, and the team was assembled from February 2020.

Fang Kecheng: At just the time when the epidemic was at its worst in China?

Lu Hui: Right. In fact, when we started planning there was no epidemic. In the beginning, our content was first published through another Perfect World project called “All History” (全历史), a platform dedicated to historical knowledge. We published our content through an information channel there. From July 2020, we had our own independent content channels. First came our WeChat public account. Then, in mid-October, we launched our own independent app.

The headquarters of the Perfect World Group in Beijing. Image courtesy of Lu Jun.

We don’t just have one public account, but seven or eight different ones, which we refer to as our “matrix” (矩阵). At the same time, we’ve opened accounts on Weibo, Toutiao (今日头条), Netease, Phoenix and other mainstream platforms. We also have audio and video now. We have audio programs on Himalaya (喜马拉雅) and Netease Cloud Music (网易云音乐). And our video is mainly distributed through WeChat Video (微信视频号). We also have some content out there on [the question-and-answer service] Zhihu and [the video-sharing platform] Bilibili (B站).

Fang Kecheng: Were you in charge of the project from the very beginning?

Lu Hui: Yes. In early 2020, I left the “Our Video” section at The Beijing News and came over to do this on my own. It took me more than half a year to assemble the main team, which at our height was more than 100 people. It’s shrunk down a bit now.

Fang Kecheng: Perfect World is a game company. When you first made contact with them, did it strike you as strange that they wanted to do this?

Lu Hui: When I was recruiting, basically everyone who came to interview asked me that question. Perfect World’s business straddles the three major fields of gaming, film and television. It’s also listed on the A-share market. So why would it want to run “All Now”? Because the company has always wanted to expand and diversify its business. For example, it has created a product for vocabulary memorization. It’s tried social networking, e-commerce, and a life information service called “All Future” (全未来). With “All History,” “All Now” and “All Future,” everything is basically accounted for.

As “All Now” is an information platform catering to young people, we hope to create a strong connection with Perfect World’s original business, particularly in education, so it can be seen as the development of our own line of business.

Fang Kecheng: Will Perfect World expect this project to make money?

Lu Hui: Of course I hope our project can be profitable. As a company, we definitely need to consider income from our commercial activities. But from the very beginning, it was clear that a project like ours could not earn big profits and high returns. We can’t be as profitable as the game business. And for Perfect World, there is an interest in expanding the company’s influence and gaining intangible assets in branding and communication.

An advertisement for the “All Now” app appearing on the platform’s official Weibo account, with the motto: “Big News / New Knowledge / In-depth / Interesting.”

Fang Kecheng: Yes, it’s surely a challenge to make a lot of money with information projects (资讯类的项目), and in the beginning it’s definitely all about input, right?

Lu Hui: Yes, we are definitely prepared for long-term investment, and we aren’t looking for immediate profitability within a year or two. Perfect World will allow us a relatively long incubation period.

It should be said that Perfect World is not an angel investor for us, so we are not a venture-backed startup but a project incubation. That means we are now a subsidiary of Perfect World, and can be regarded as a new business unit of Perfect World. In the case of angel investment, investors may not put in additional money after the initial funds are used up. But we are similar to a new division formed within Perfect World, with a designated annual budget. That means we may not have the same freedom angel investment projects have, but the continuity of our funding is more secure.

Fang Kecheng: I see. So when you chose to sign on, were you also considering this relative long-term stability?

Lu Hui: Yes. It means greater stability for me personally and for our team. We won’t face strong pressures on profitability right away. Instead, we can pursue content better suited to our ideas and to the media logic (新闻传播的规律).

Fang Kecheng: Just now you mentioned that Perfect World hopes this new business will be profitable. But we also know that content can come with risks. I wonder how the company handles the question of risk?

Lu Hui: Yes, of course the question of risk is something they have always raised. From the company’s point of view, they naturally want to avoid such risks as much as possible. That’s why our position from the beginning is to not be a news media, but rather a youth information platform. In terms of content, we try not to become too involved in current affairs, disaster reporting, crimes or other relatively sensitive areas. What we do is still focused on topics of interest to youth.

In this process we are constantly adjusting and balancing risks. Fortunately, the company offers us a high degree of freedom and basically does not interfere with our content.

Fang Kecheng: Does the company worry about not having a license to publish original news content (新闻资质)?

Lu Hui: They do worry. We also explained the situation to the company at the beginning. Of course, we can’t just wait for the problem to be resolved. We know that most of the new media projects on the market now are unlicensed (没有牌照的), which is a common problem we all face and is always a sword hanging over our heads.

In a messy information environment, the demand for original and high-quality information is on the rise.

Fang Kecheng: As a media professional with deep experience in the field, what drew you to join “All Now”? What do you hope to achieve here?

Lu Hui: Actually, my thinking wasn’t too complicated. One day I just realized looking all around that there was nothing particularly good on the news and information app front. Traditional media haven’t really done a good job [in this area], and the major internet portals that we habitually used in the past, like Netease, Tencent and Phoenix – what about their news clients? I found that they were all Toutiao-ified [imitating the Toutiao app, which generates tailored news feeds for users based on algorithm models], or you could say they were “self-mediazed” (自媒体化), meaning that they adopt a lot of content from self-publishing media. In fact, traditional media content has now become drowned out in the sea of self-published media.

Self-published media don’t follow the reporting norms of traditional media. They often stir up emotions, and they don’t separate facts from opinions. Open up these news apps and you find that every single day they contain sensational and vulgar content. In fact, this owes to the influence of Toutiao, which led the transformation in this direction.

An app download add from “All Now,” reading: “See a different world!”

The emergence of Toutiao has led to a broad change in the media ecology (媒体生态), and this has been a troubling turn of events for people who have relatively high expectations in terms of information quality. It’s not just me. My peers in the media, and those who are more culturally informed, all generally feel that the whole field of news and information is in decline.

Of course, this decline is not entirely a bad thing. It allows more people to access information more easily. But those who do have higher expectations and want quality information just can’t find a suitable news and information app on the market.

Fang Kecheng: That’s a very interesting observation. Do you think this change in the media ecology is unprecedented?

Lu Hui: Yes. More than 10 years ago, when portals were dominant, they actually did not constitute a major blow to traditional media. In one sense, even, portals helped traditional media expand their influence. For example, the Southern Metropolis Daily or The Beijing News, which were local media, were able to gain national influence through portals like Sina. [Editor’s Note: Internet portals, which had national reach, typically republished content from Chinese newspapers and magazines, but were prohibited from conducting news reporting themselves.]

The launch of Toutiao, together with WeChat public accounts, made a dent in the traditional media, suddenly stripping traditional media of their authority. You basically don’t see publications like Southern Weekly, Southern Metropolis Daily or The Beijing News setting the agenda anymore.

Now, the traditional media themselves moving in the direction of self-media, and they are creating more and more content in the self-publishing style. So you’ll find that traditional media are becoming increasingly indistinguishable from self-published media. On the whole, you can say that there is quite a strong trend of anti-intellectualism in the information landscape.

Fang Kecheng: Yes, there seems to be less and less quality content.

Lu Hui: I think more and more users, especially more discriminating users (高端用户), are dissatisfied with this situation, and even have a strong sense of disgust. Even at the lower end of the market, with information becoming more and more abundant, more users are now demanding more quality information. With the massive decline of traditional media, however, in-depth and professional information is growing ever scarcer.

One of the trends we’ve noticed over the years is that the demand for in-depth articles is now on the rise on WeChat public accounts. Fragmented information tends to be ignored in this WeChat public account market, while reader demand for more in-depth information increases. So, that demand drove my original intention to make “All Now” happen at the time. In the game of publishing quality and original information, there are virtually no players.

Fang Kecheng: So, when Perfect World sought you out, you had this idea in mind to define the direction “All Now” would take.  

Lu Hui: That’s right. Once I pitched it, it was approved by Perfect World. At the time, we proposed that our target users would be young people who were inquisitive and curious about the world, who were tired of fragmented information and tired of short videos. So, I positioned “All Now” from the beginning to serve a niche market for quality, serving a small group of people.

Fang Kecheng: Do you have an estimate of how many people there are for such a market?

Lu Hui: It can be estimated, but not very accurately. I would say about 10 million or so. If you think about it, Toutiao has about 800 million users, and we may be able to reach one to two percent of that.

Fang Kecheng: Is it possible for you to reveal your reach right now?

Lu Hui: We are still very far from that. We have only a few hundred thousand users. About ten million is the ultimate goal we hope to reach.

Fang Kecheng: Is Perfect World likely to find this figure too small?

Lu Hui: No. Actually, it is not all about the number of users, but also the commercial value of users and about [audience] precision. For example, there is some niche content in vertical fields (垂直领域的小众内容) with relatively strong commercial value.

The concerns of young people are different from those a decade ago.

Fang Kecheng: How do you break into the business of providing original and high-quality information for young people?

Lu Hui: At the start, we wanted to focus on the topic of “globalization,” so we built a relatively large team for international news. But then the situation changed drastically, along with the Covid-19 pandemic and an intensified anti-globalization sentiment around the world, including calls for the decoupling of China and the United States and so on.

So afterward we adjusted our approach and started to focus only on “Generation Z,” what we call the post-95 and post-00 groups, and the issues they face. We found that this generation of young people is a very anxious generation. They live in the so-called “involution era” (内卷时代). [Editor’s Note: This is a reference to the idea that young people today work in a highly competitive environment with few prospects for real advancement, and become more and more exhausted in the process.]. While the post-80s and even the post-90s youth grew up in a period of rapid economic development and accelerating global integration, Generation Z is living in an era of slowing growth and even stagnation. Globalization is receding, and isolationism is becoming more prevalent, which makes young people feel greater competitive pressure and see fewer prospects for upward mobility.

China’s younger generation, though digitally connected, feels increasingly detached from the competitive environment that surrounds them. Image by Gauthier Delacroix available at Flickr.com under CC license.

We can observe the trajectory of mentality among young people today. In the beginning, young people remained idealistic. Then they turned to the concept of “little happiness” (小确幸), [the idea that contentment could be found in the small things], but they found that even “little happiness” could not be sustained. So then they tried to become “Buddha-like” (佛系), [living with a sense of indifference]. Once they gave up being “Buddha-like,” then became “sang” (丧), [which describes a state of discouragement]. Finally, as even the culture of “sang” no longer seems to work, they have turned to the idea of “lying flat” (躺平) and “freeganism” (不消费主义).

This is a downward spiral. And so our content is aimed at the anxiety that youth feel in the era of “involution,” making a record of their demands and the real life conditions that they face. You could say this is our new character design.

Fang Kecheng: Specifically, how do you choose topics concerning this concept?

Lu Hui: I found that some of the topics that we paid most attention to as media people 10 or 15 years ago, like disaster reporting, mining accidents, explosions, fires, earthquakes, cases of injustice and so on, are not of particular concern to young people today. Young people pay more attention now to a number of other topics, such as gender and questions of fairness. You people today, I think, are more sensitive to fairness than our generation. Related to these issues, there are some topics like the “996” work culture [the idea that workers should expect to work from 9AM to 9PM six days a week]. In addition, there are new lifestyle choices such as freeganism. We’ve increased our coverage of these areas and found that the click rates were higher.

Fang Kecheng: How do you personally know what young people are thinking and what they care about?

Lu Hui: I still have a pretty youthful mentality. In fact, I’m a pretty typical anime, comics and games (ACG) geek, and in that sense I’m not quite like other traditional media people who like to get together for drinks. I think we can no longer use the approach of enlightenment (启蒙) or instruction (教导) to communicate with young people. The times have changed. Young people these days are actually very conscious, and they have many sources of information. Their capacity to act is really strong too. They don’t need or want someone to enlighten them in a condescending way.

On the other hand, though, there is a problem of “youth worship” (青年崇拜), exemplified by Bilibili’s [May 2020] viral video “Rising Waves” (后浪), which praised everything about young people today. This isn’t right either. My approach is to try to give everyone more room to explore freely. You shouldn’t tie your hands with old experiences from the newspaper era already past, thinking that you know best.

An emotive viral video on the Bilibili platform in 2020 portrays young people in China today as having infinite opportunities in a newly strong China.

Fang Kecheng: How much of the traditional media experience is still worth inheriting, and what should be discarded?

Lu Hui: I think that some things at the core of journalistic professionalism, such as truth-seeking and balance, are definitely still necessary. However, many of the formal rules, like rules of style and writing, require new exploration and breakthrough in this generation. This process of exploration and breakthrough, though, hasn’t yet resulted in a consensus on rules, so right now things seem really chaotic.

Fang Kecheng: Like what kind of breakthroughs? Do you means things like allowing for a first-person narrative in writing and more self-expression?

Lu Hui: I think so. Some self-published articles are hard to classify according to the traditional news style, but they contain good exclusive reporting (独家报道). Our colleagues often feel a sense of frustration, that the pieces they really invest themselves in writing aren’t read by users at all, while some of the stuff they write quite casually gets higher click rates. To put it plainly, a consensus and rules have not yet formed.

Perhaps articles can abandon some of the boundaries about objectivity and start from the writer’s own experience. The writer has to become an observer, and the observer has to take a stand. It can’t be the purely objective and impartial (客观公正) stance that we used to talk about. In fact, that is not necessarily being objective and impartial either.

Fang Kecheng: It’s more the pretense of objectivity and impartiality.

Lu Hui: Right. The direction of change now may be that I have my perspective, but I can explain to the users really clearly what that perspective is. The user can accept information from the perspectives of numerous observers and in the process arrive at more comprehensive information.

Kecheng Fang: I couldn’t agree more. I remember one general trend in American press circles last year was that several influential journalists left the New York Times or other reputable media outlets to write their own newsletters, and there were plenty of people who paid to subscribe. People seem to be more willing to follow an individual rather than large news organizations.

Lu Hui: The trend for media organizations is to become personalized (人格化). Institutionalized media often give people a feeling of coldness. But now readers prefer media with personality. We used to call it market positioning, but now we refer to it as “character development” (人设). Each WeChat public account needs to have its own personality.

Fang Kecheng: What kind of content is most popular among your readers right now?

Lu Hui: Looking at the data, the more upbeat articles, like the “Internet Surfers Weekly Topic Handbook,” which is a collection of the past week’s hot topics and new ideas on the internet. This column has the most clicks. So I think users are sometimes conflicted. On the one hand, they want in-depth stuff, and on the other hand they click on more fragmented and entertaining stuff. But I think it’s okay. We want to provide both kinds of content. In fact, a person can be more refined in their spiritual pursuits, and want to read more philosophy books, but also watch variety shows, funny short videos and so on. These two needs are symbiotic.

Expanding brand influence with the help of external platforms

Fang Kecheng: What is the internal structure of the “All Now” team and how does it work? Is it very different from traditional media?

Lu Hui: In terms of content production, the atmosphere is still relatively similar to that of traditional media. We are divided organizationally into five sections according to content: international, finance, culture and entertainment, city, and technology. In addition to the content team, of course, we also have a relatively strong technical team and product team.

Fang Kecheng: I see. So is there deeper integration between the technical team and the content team?

Lu Hui: To be honest, we are still relatively separate and have not integrated extensively yet. However, we are experimenting with ideas such as introducing automated writing, and later we may also add more interactive content as well as community-based content.

Fang Kecheng: Those sound quite promising. Though, as far as I know, automated writing solutions can still only write short messages that are more structured.

Lu Hui: Yes, they are relatively simple articles, but they can complement our fully original content at present. Right now we don’t have a lot of information. While we do have an app, it’s more like a larger public account, so automated writing could help us supplement in terms of volume.

Fang Kecheng: You put out content on a lot of platforms. For you which platforms are most important right now?  Is it still the most important to have your own app?

Lu Hui: Yeah, we are definitely still focusing on our own app, but its growth is still relatively slow. Our content is distinctive, but in terms of functionality what we are doing is providing articles for reading. The next step will be to add new features, but at this stage, it’s still purely articles. For this reason, user growth for our app has not been very rapid, and we need to use external platforms to expand our brand influence first.

Among external platforms, the one we prioritize the most by far is still WeChat and our public accounts there. We find that it still has the highest commercial value. Although our readership is not huge, an article does well if it is read more than 10,000 times. When you compare other platforms it’s clear that a read on a WeChat public account has the greatest impact.

On the audio side we’re not producing a lot in terms of quantity right now, but there’s a lot of growth. For example, we are growing quite well on the “Himalaya” audio app, and are gradually becoming recognized. The audio medium might appeal to young people more, the popularity of “Clubhouse” being a prime example.

Fang Kecheng: Audio is very personalized.

Lu Hui: Yeah, we will progressively strengthen our investment in audio and video.

Fang Kecheng: I take it you don’t have any plans right now to expand commercially?

Lu Hui: That’s right. When I set up the team at the beginning I didn’t set up any sales positions. And now I am basically sitting at home, and many people are reaching out to us to invest. They were probably drawn to our tone and our growth potential, which makes them willing to take the initiative in coming to us. Soon we’ll begin to set up a commercial team and start to bring in some revenue, but it is unlikely that we will be able to turn a profit right away in the short term.

Finding a Niche With Innovative Stories

From Southern Weekly to Jiemian: Tangled Interests and the Decline of Print Media

Fang Kecheng: It’s been a long time. It was years ago that we were colleagues at Southern Weekly. I left the newspaper in 2013? And you?

Shou Ye: I joined Southern Weekly in 2010, and left in May 2014. Even though I no longer wanted to stay with print media, I still was really interested in journalism. At that time, preparations were just underway for “Jiemian News,” a new media experiment in the Shanghai newspaper market. So I went to Jiemian, because I was really interested in new media. When I went to Jiemian, the team was just 30 people. Now there are more than 1,000.

In those early days at Jiemian, everyone actually had few ideas about the future. But everyone believed that the whole environment had already undergone major change. The print media were finished, and even if you stayed on somewhere you were only managing your way through its death. Everyone could see where things were heading. 

Do you remember when Deng Ke (邓科), who was on the editorial board of Southern Weekly and head of the Beijing news desk, left for his own entrepreneurial venture?  Before he left he brought a number of us together at a café for a meeting. He said that print media were like the horse and cart industry at the end of the 19th century, and that it would slowly vanish. As soon as Deng said that we further lost our confidence in the print media.

I was on the economics desk at Southern Weekly, and actually I was quite bored at the time. Around 2015 there was this intern that put together these materials about which articles over the past four years had been removed (被和谐) from the Southern Weekly website, and mine were at the top of the list.

Fang Kecheng: So what did you decide then?

Shou Ye: So I went to Jiemian to lead the real estate team. There were maybe 10 of us. Later on, actually, it went beyond just real estate. We also did some more investigative reports. That was the best team they had at Jiemian at the time. Jiemian had been live for one year at that point, and most of the stuff that got the most traffic was stuff we contributed. And in China, the most core advertising revenues come from real estate and from the auto industry.

Later on, I left Jiemian for my own reasons.

Innovating to Make Financial Journalism “Cool”

Fang Kecheng: After you resigned from Jiemian, how did you begin your own new media venture?

Shou Ye: It was during the first half of 2017 that I resigned from Jiemian, and after that I took a break for about half a year. There were two other reporters who left Jiemian along with me, and they had been with me since they were interns. They waited for me, wanting to do something together. I said, OK, then let’s open a few public accounts [on WeChat] and rent ourselves an office. Let’s keep doing what we did before.

“Shou Lou Chu” (兽楼处) was actually a WeChat public account that I had registered in 2016, and in 2017 I started writing a bit for it, maybe one piece or so a month. Then, from the end of 2017 and into 2018, we started updating it on a regular basis. [NOTE: “Shou Lou Chu” here is a homophone of the word for “property sales office” (售楼处)].

Toward the end of 2017 we had two articles in particular that had a major impact. At that time the “Shou Lou Chu” fan base was only around 200,000. In November we finished writing an article about the campaign in Beijing to clean out the “low-end population” (低端人口). That one was called, “Beijing Finally Collapses” (北京终于折叠). Suddenly our fans doubled from 200,000 to 400,000, but afterward our account was blocked for a month.

I had another account called “Free Shipping Zone” (包邮区). The second piece, which was published on “Free Shipping Zone,” was called, “Wang Jianlin’s Waterloo” (王健林的滑铁卢). That piece had a huge impact, and our fans shot up to 300,000. This piece [which looked at Dalian Wanda Group’s widespread sale of assets] was probably for Wang Jianlin at the time a really bone-crushing piece, and it was really stressful for us at the time. But our [professional] position in the entire industry was immediately established.

In March 2018, we rented our first office, this really small 60 square meter space. At the time we had just the two public accounts in our hands, with around 700,000 fans. The three of us continued writing things as we always had, using pretty much exactly the same methods we had at Southern Weekly and at Jiemian. But we packaged our stories more nicely.

When we were at Jiemian, in fact, there were certain things  that vexed us. Because the team I led wrote  really decent articles —  the best in the business, you might even say. We involved ourselves in all of the major stories in the real estate sector at that time, from the listing of Wanda to the dispute between Vanke and the Baoneng Group. And our reports were really the best in the industry. But you find that its impossible to compete with the self-media (自媒体) [on platforms like WeChat]. They change the headline around [on your report], slightly change things, and then their readers go through the roof.

Image of Chinese real estate mogul Wang Jianlin run with the report “Wang Jianlin’s Waterloo.”

The clearest example of this was during the default of the [Shenzhen-based] Kaisa Group [on its US-dollar denominated bonds in 2015], when our report actually influenced the way things developed. The crux was that our exposé put an end to the planned acquisition of a controlling stake by Sunac. At that time PricewaterhouseCoopers was preparing to report Kaisa, and report [Sunac chairman] Sun Hongbin (孙宏斌). As soon as we reported this, Sun Hongbin ended his buyout plans, and there was no way that the purchase of the controlling stake in Kaisa was going to succeed.  

After we finished our report, we had around 10,000 hits on the story on our own website. Other self-media, though, would just sit and wait for our stuff to come out, and then they’d immediately change the headline and re-run it. There were two self-media accounts that would wait on us every day, and would get around 100,000 reads [on their re-posts of  our stuff], while on our own WeChat public account [for Jiemian] we would get maybe 5,000 reads.

At the time I spoke to our leaders at Jiemian and said we definitely had to change the way we wrote. Our way of writing was entirely no good, already so outdated. Our writing was from the last century. It was the writing style of the 21st Century Business Herald, of China Business News, or even you could say the writing style of The Wall Street Journal. This style of writing was completely unsuited to the times. I spoke to the boss twice about this. I said that our style needed to be innovated, and that if we didn’t no one would read our stuff. No way, the boss said. This was too risky.

Fang Kecheng: Why risky?

Shou Ye: Well, first of all, the language would be too lively, too sharp. Our sponsoring institution (主管部门) would probably not have agreed. Secondly, a more innovative stylistic approach might have mean an even bigger impact on the companies about which we were reporting, and the exposure to risk would therefore be greater.

Fang Kecheng: If you think about it, using a “Shou Lou Chu” style of writing at an institutional media outlet does seem pretty unlikely.

Shou Ye: We made a proposal at the time, that we register a public account and use the public account as a way to innovate the way we wrote – not putting it on the official website.

Fang Kecheng: The same way that the People’s Daily public account tries to be down-to-earth, with content that differs quite a bit from the newspaper.

Shou Ye: But later on I dropped this proposal. After I resigned, I started doing it this way myself. I thought for perhaps six months about resigning, because in 2017 I felt that the whole self-media industry might have peaked, and that there wouldn’t be any opportunities to break new ground.

On March 8, 2018, we rented that first office. And on March 9, I called a meeting there and said three things. First, we had only a one-year window to get this thing off the ground, and if we managed to seize the opportunity then we could make it work. We had a definite foundation with our two public accounts, which had some influence within the real estate and financial circles even if our fan base wasn’t huge. With this foundation, if we could seize on the first year to get things going, then I felt there wouldn’t be too many problems.

Second, there was the question of our core competitiveness. We had all been in the media before, and in the traditional media we had excelled above others. In the self-media era we could also innovate stylistically (文本创新), and our articles would be better than others’.

Fang Kecheng: How did you arrive at this stylistic innovation? What was your method?

Shou Ye: By dint of our own efforts, I guess. Actually, there was no point of reference. The core value was really about everyone feeling after reading something that it was cool (爽). We were using a “cool style” (爽文) of writing to approach financial reporting. Coolness is also a value, an if the information is there then it will have a huge impact in the market. I think maybe this also came from having in the past read online novels in the “cool-style” (爽文类).

Fang Kecheng: Do you feel that if the writing of financial journalism borrows from online novels this will in any way compromise quality?

Shou Ye: There is no compromise on quality. Actually, you take the reports themselves and the core content is basically the Southern Weekly report. It’s only that in order to create a sense of excitement in the reading there might be stylistic changes to different parts. The informative core has not changed. It’s still the Southern Weekly style of reporting.

Fang Kecheng: Do you think there is any change in the way people receive the information?

Shou Ye: First of all, they really enjoy it. It’s really clear that people love reading this kind of stuff. In terms of information, our reports are generally pretty dense. In the past, at Southern Weekly, the core problem was that of the page. You definitely had to fill the page, so you wanted 3,000 characters, or 5,000, otherwise you’d have blank space (开天窗). But now we can just get rid of all the crap and ensure that there is enough information. If there’s not enough information, and there are too many rhetorical flourishes, then people just won’t keep reading.

Fang Kecheng: But in the pursuit of “cool writing” is there a danger that you’ll have more emotive language and a stronger subjectivity creep in? This would be in conflict with the general sense we have of journalistic practice.

Shou Ye: To be honest, what we do does not really resemble news journalism so much. Owing to policy reasons, we can’t really go and do news reporting anyhow. So all along we’ve been experimenting with a “de-newsing” (去新闻化) approach. At its heart this is about offering a statement of opinion as we provide everyone with information, and this judgement is really based in consensus. Those things that may seem counterintuitive, we definitely want to go ahead and say them.

“The Vaccine King” Puts the Platform on Ice

Shou Ye: During the first year, I really wrote a lot of articles. I wrote about things all across the industry, and in a lot of cases had an impact. This includes “The Vaccine King,” which I wrote in July that year. There was immense pressure on us after I wrote it, but two days later the premier [Li Keqiang] added his written comments on it, and after the General Secretary [Xi Jinping] added written comments on day three then there was no longer any danger for us.

Fang Kecheng: Why in the first place did you want to write about vaccines on a public account chiefly dedicated to real estate?

Shou Ye: That goes back to an announcement released by the  China Food and Drug Administration in mid-July. It was on a Sunday that I spotted it. We discussed the matter in the group after we read it, and during the discussion, we felt that the vaccine issue was quite serious — more serious than the melamine incident [back in 2008]. But this was something we couldn’t write about. It should be something for Southern Weekly, or for Caijing magazine, or for Caixin. I said, let’s wait and see. Let’s wait for them to report it.

On Monday I went back home and looked through our vaccination record, and I found that our child’s diphtheria vaccine had been manufactured by Changchun Changsheng (长春长生), the very same company. The announcement from the CFDA said that 100s of thousands of doses of Changchun Changsheng’s rabies vaccine had been found to be sub-standard. So I felt even more that this situation was really serious.

Two days after the notice, on the third day, there were media reports, but they had little impact. The fourth day was a Thursday, and we had a planning meeting that afternoon. We felt that if we didn’t write anything about this, the story was just going to pass right by. So, we thought, why not just try?

Another colleague Bao Shu (包叔) and I started doing our homework. He did the core of the writing. I edited the story that Saturday. The gist of it was that as we pored through all of this company’s share prospectuses (招股书) and annual reports, we found a litany of misdeeds. Moreover, this company was linked to several other companies that all themselves had long lists of misdeeds. So we wrote it all up. Once it was written that morning, all of us knew this was going to be a big deal, and also that it was likely to result in a lawsuit.

Around 10AM I had finished editing it, and at 11AM I sent it to our lawyer, who looked it over and changed a few things, because two of the vaccine companies had actually sued media before. Not only had they sued media, but they had sued individual reporters and in three cases had won. We prepared ourselves for a lawsuit. It was around noon that it was finished and we posted it. By afternoon everything exploded.

I fell asleep on the sofa that afternoon, and the whole time the phone kept ringing. That night a friend of mine was having his birthday, and around 8PM I went over to his place for dinner. Sometime after 8, this friend said to me: Your article has been deleted. The next day, Premier [Li] added his written comments, and then the day after that the General Secretary [Xi] added his written comments. Such a thing had probably never happened before within the financial industry – that is, something having such a huge impact, with the premier and general secretary commenting and then eventually a Vaccine Administration Law and China Association of Vaccines being born as a result. In the past, Southern Weekly reported on vaccines, and Caijing magazine reported on vaccines, but nothing had brought change to the industry before.

Once “The Vaccine King” was out, I thought about things for a couple of days. After the premier issued his written comments, I called a meeting with colleagues, because the vaccine story was likely to have a huge impact not just on us but on the entire self-media sector.

Awards received by Shou Ye for his reporting on vaccines.

Fang Kecheng: So on the one hand the written comments were a good thing for this particular article of yours, but on the other hand you felt this would also mean that the industry would face more oversight.

Shou Ye: At the end of 2018 a lot of public accounts were shut down. The first thing to be targeted was unscrupulousness within the real estate industry self-media. In early 2019, Mi Meng’s (咪蒙) [public account] was shut down, and for self-media it would be a year of reshuffling of deck. It was no longer possible to do things the way they had been done before. So it was really obvious that the time window [was closing].

Fang Kecheng: Speaking of oversight. Let’s say that you were in an environment without any oversight, where everyone could freely post content. Do you think that in such an environment content like Mi Meng’s, [on fashion, lifestyle and consumerism], would ultimately win out?

Shou Ye: I think there would be a period of relative chaos, but as to what might follow this chaotic period I’m actually not so sure. It might be like the United States in the 19th century, with its period of yellow journalism (黄色新闻的时代).

Fang Kecheng: Yes, and then the gradual emergence of journalistic professionalism. Do you think that the self-media industry could undergo such a transformation?

Shou Ye: I think there would be a period of self-correction, but whether or not this process of self-correction would lead to a full repair, I really don’t know. There is the capacity for self-correction [in the media and new media], but now is not a time when there is an opportunity for such experiments.

Compared to Mi Meng and others of her ilk, our team is trying to do things better. We actually do our best to do what we feel is right. The values of our entire team are the same as those of traditional journalists in the past, and they are proving to be marketable. But now the government has intervened directly to accelerate the process [of correction], so that certain media of dubious values have been shut down five or ten years earlier than they otherwise might have been. There was one account, for example, that taught people how best to poison dogs. From this vantage point, you can say that certainly regulators have done some good.

Fang Kecheng: Recently your article about Phoenix Tree Holdings has gotten around quite a bit.

Shou Ye: That one is Chicken Soup for the Soul. It’s basically about my experiences in the past living in a basement apartment (地下室).

Fang Kecheng: Do you involve first-hand interviews in the writing process? Or is it all second-hand analysis of information?

Shou Ye: We don’t call it interviewing. It’s actually conversation. Often I just need to send off a WeChat message to get information. For us, it’s not too difficult to locate people [to comment on a story]. Because in real estate, finance or internet circles, we can usually reach the core people within 10 minutes. Our core information is all exclusive, and all first-hand.

Fang Kecheng: As you observe the self-media industry, what do you see as the difference between those who have been in the media industry before, and those who do not come from media backgrounds? Of course Mi Meng also could be considered someone coming from a media background, but the nature of what she is doing is very different from what you are doing?

Shou Ye: Actually, for someone like me who has come from a professional [media] institution, and from a clean background in writing, I find that the articles written by those who didn’t have this background are unreadable. We know what it means for something to be good, and what makes something bad. In fact, most of the people on Mi Meng’s team do not come from a media background.

Fang Kecheng: But is that content we find it impossible to stomach actually more competitive in the marketplace?

Shou Ye: Most definitely. They speak to some of the darkest aspects of people. And the headlines are so successful that basically when you share the article within your circle of friends, the headline is the whole point of view. You only need to share the headline, and there’s no need for people to click in and read at all. They know what kind of person you are, what you want to say and who you want to say it to.

The In-Between Space of Social Media Vlogging for Institutional Media

Chen Di’s program, “Chen Di Says” (陈迪说), just five minutes in length, is one of the successful results of traditional media transformation in China, and Chen’s experiences between institutional media and social media can be regarded as a model for others working in the media today. In 2019, Chen Di was named by China’s New Weekly (新周刊) magazine as a “Knower of the Year” (年度知道分子). The magazine said of Chen: “He excels at cool analysis, his discourse refined by a range of disciplines, from political science and sociology to communication. . . . Throughout, he uses his own voice to convey a sense of goodwill and justice to the world.”

The Decline of Institutional Media Power

Fang Kecheng: Greetings, Chen Di. While you’re a well-known media personality, I know this wasn’t your background in terms of training. You didn’t study journalism and communication. Is that right?

Chen Di: Yes, that’s right. Originally, I studied political science at Sun Yat-sen University. After that I went to Johns Hopkins, where again I studied policy – something that has always been a subject of interest to me. After graduation, though, I felt I was a bit short on real-world experience. So I came back to China one year after I graduated in the US. As I went out looking for work, I really wasn’t prepared. My family thought since I had been on the debate team as an undergraduate, and since my presentation was pretty good, maybe I could look into working for a TV station. My family is from Guangzhou, and I was thinking about proximity. So I set my sights on Shenzhen TV. Among the 30 or so satellite TV stations in China, Shenzhen TV was in the top-ten. I was determined to make it there. That was the second half of 2014.

The environment in the Chinese TV industry is really different from what you find in the US and other international media. There’s something really Chinese about it. What I mean is that those who deliver the content and those who actually produce the content are completely separate. You just don’t have one person serving both roles. Which means the person you see on TV can read the script but they can’t do anything else, and the people behind the camera writing things will never appear on screen. So it’s really not what you might imagine.

I was in the news section at that time, and they set up this “commentator” (评论员) role. Actually, it was a really niche role. They never formally hired for a commentator. This, actually, was how leaders at public institutions (事业单位) generally tried to carve out a tiny bit of innovative space in a really rigid system, trying to find a bit of wiggle room. They might feel a certain young person has a lot of ideas, presents themselves well, works on camera, and so they’ll give them an opportunity. In my case, I had been behind the scenes for six months when suddenly, in early 2015, they stuck me in front of the camera when there was no other commentator available. That’s how it started.

Fang Kecheng: Did commentators write their own scripts?

Chen Di: That’s right. The producers might give the commentators ideas, but they wouldn’t write the scripts. News releases, on the other hand, were all written by the editors for the anchors.

Chen Di at Shenzhen TV.

Fang Kecheng: I see. Was it back then, during your time at the station, that you started exploring social media?

Chen Di: It was maybe six months after that, once I’d become a commentator. Sometime in the second half of 2015, I registered an account on Weibo to see what expressing myself there was like. What I realized at the time was that essentially everyone speaking within China’s traditional media organizations, whether they were on camera or appearing by name as writers or editors, they all lacked real substance once they found themselves in a user-centered evaluation system [like that on social media]. At a seemingly glamorous TV station, the hosts are heavily made up every day. But the reality is, once they’re thrown into an open and competitive market, they really have no influence at all. It’s a strange situation, actually, and probably a reflection of how the power of the media is declining in the public opinion market of our time. 

We used to think that being a reporter on a TV station was such a great opportunity to be seen. There are a lot of people who are on TV, but what they can rely on in the end is only their seniority in the professional community. You might have been doing something somewhere for years and years, but you put your face and your name out in the marketplace and you have no real influence. That’s how 99.99 percent of these people are.

Fang Kecheng: It’s true a lot of senior people in the industry aren’t known to the public. But I think there were still some influential media people on Weibo who were later blocked. Like Wang Zhi’an (王志安), who was at CCTV, for example.

Chen Di: I think there’s definitely several reasons for this phenomenon. It’s true a lot of the people who might contribute the most meaningful voices online have probably been “lost” (消失). On the other hand, if their professional positions actually encouraged people to vote with their feet, if their power in the marketplace was proportional to their professional visibility, then things wouldn’t be how they are now [with relative lack of influence of such media professionals]. So there’s at least one other layer to it, which is that the overall power of institutional media has declined substantially.

As for me, I think when I left Shenzhen TV, a big proportion of my popularity, or influence or whatever, had nothing to do with the television audience. Which is to say most of it came directly from social media, because the conversion rate of influence (影响力转化率) from TV to online is really low. It’s really two fragmented parts now – online users and users of traditional channels.

When we look at those media organizations that have managed to survive, or that have been relatively successful in making the transition to new media, like The Beijing News, they’ve all chosen to choose the way to align themselves with social media. There is no other way. The power is now in the hands of these platforms. It’s not true, though, that any journalist who registers a social media account will be noticed and stand out, that they’ll rise above the others. They have to be able to meet the criteria of social media.

Fang Kecheng: That’s true. When you were in Shenzhen, you didn’t just post to Weibo whatever was broadcast on Shenzhen TV. It was really a completely different type of discourse and way of interacting with people, right?

Chen Di: Sure. By the second half of my time there, I began to realize that actually, when I was working on a script, I was thinking almost entirely about the internet.

With television, basically, because the audience is really unclear, you have to assume your audience doesn’t know anything about an event. Every time, you have to go to considerable length just to walk back through the event. It might be a bit much to call the language used for television “conservative,” but it definitely plays it safe and is more secure.

When you’re facing an internet audience, you won’t know as clearly who these ordinary users are compared to, say, the Big Vs, and you just have to estimate. But you’ll probably have a sense on any particular story of where the general atmosphere is – and your argument strategy is really different [i.e., framing your arguments for the audience through an understanding of the audience.]

The advantages of institutional media identity

Chen Di: The institutional media (机构媒体) are definitely significant and have a real role in China’s content industry and public opinion market, and there are certain ways in which they are irreplaceable. To be perfectly frank, we all know one of the biggest advantages institutional media have, and that is the advantage in terms of qualifications – their licensing advantage.

Strictly speaking, public speech in China still requires a license. Although we now have social media platforms, and it seems that any user has a loud speaker they can use, the truth is that if you don’t have an institutional license any person can take you out at any time at very minimal cost. Let’s say, for example, that you’re a user and post a video that relates to an unfolding situation. Actually, there’s no need even for someone in a [government] agency to set their sights on you. It just takes an ordinary user to issue a complaint using the complaints channel provided by the platform, saying you don’t have the credentials, that you don’t have a license, and that you’re not permitted to post this type of content, and they have the power to remove the content you posted. But if you are licensed, this is another matter entirely. There is still a bureaucratic process involved, and if they want to deal with you the institutional cost is much higher.

Another level, for example, I give an example, Bai Yansong every time he speaks of those things, in fact, from the content of most of the time do not see any breakthrough, bold, innovative, constructive or not. The fact is that his performance itself, this also has its own comment, but why his words will still have weight? Every time even if Bai Yansong sometimes only gives a three-point expression, but his three-point expression still carries a lot of weight. Nowadays, some people like official [media] institutions and others don’t. But official institutions still have a special position in China’s social system, so whether or not your content has that station logo or brand logo in the upper left-hand corner can make a huge difference.

For those who work in China’s institutional media, this can be an insurance policy and a plus – but it can also be a curse, a burden, because no one really thinks you represent only yourself.

An episode of “Chen Di Says” in April 2019 addresses the issue of sexual harassment and consent.

Fang Kecheng: Since you joined The Beijing News, you have been entirely oriented toward the internet and toward social media. Is that fair to say?

Chen Di: The vast majority of viewers are now internet users. You can definitely come closer in accommodating users’ tastes. But as for being completely user-oriented, of course you still have to abide by censorship requirements, and the requirements of your employer, so you can’t say this is being completely user-oriented, because those aspects are persistently opposed to the demands of the users. 

Shenzhen TV is still an official institution tied very closely to local propaganda. The Beijing News gives people the impression of a very market-oriented media. But in fact, when I arrived here it perhaps wasn’t the best time [for the publication], having already been a long time since its launch in 2003, and I could sense that if the newspaper came across something [in the way of resistance], it would immediately back off [of sensitive issues.]

Fang Kecheng: Did you invent the title of “Internet video commentator” (互联网视频评论员) for yourself?

Chen Di: Looking back to when I started in 2015, I couldn’t find anyone doing the same thing as me. But in fact it wasn’t some huge innovation. It was just putting a person in front of the camera for a few minutes to offer a commentary. This kind of thing had been done already in the 2000s at Phoenix TV, and at CCTV. But to do this sort of thing separately, out on the internet, I don’t know who before me did that sort of thing. At the time, anyway, I didn’t see anyone doing it and having an obvious impact on the market. Later, [Global Times editor-in-chief] Hu Xijin also started doing it, but he was definitely later than me.

Fang Kecheng: Compared to traditional commentators in newspapers and TV, what do you think is the main point of advancement in your work?

Chen Di: I never went through the process of inculcation within China’s domestic journalism profession. When I started writing, in fact, I was totally ignorant about the patterns and protocols of the industry. I just wrote according to my understanding of things, and once I had the “OK” from my superior and people appeared to like it, I just kept things going that way.

So now if you throw me into a college journalism classroom and ask me to teach a lesson, talking to students about how I go about writing, I really don’t know what to say to them. I know they’re studying the usual stuff, stuff about which I have zero knowledge. I know what it is I’m not doing, and then I wonder if this isn’t a reason why what I do is different.

Why do I say that? Why does it seem that the vast majority of things written in the commentary pages of traditional media outfits are all the same? The formula is so obvious. Maybe it’s because everyone went through the same formal study.

Fang Kecheng: It might be a matter of mutual imitation, not necessarily something learned in the classroom. Mutual influence at work.

Chen Di: No one is really going to like that stuff at all. I find it really strange. And I’ve wondered whether it might just be stuff they create in the daily grind of work, using a kind of mechanical method to reproduce things. When I read a piece, I can tell really quickly whether it has an original point of view, whether they’ve really gone through a process of chemical reaction to get somewhere. Of course it’s pretty hard for a very long time of continuous production. But of course this is something that is hard to sustain over the long term.

Fang Kecheng: Your overseas background must also be an important factor. On Weibo, of course, there are others like you with a background overseas. But they don’t like you have an institutional media microphone. So I think you might be at a kind of crossroads, having a rather unique position.

Chen Di: I think the fact that I’m still managing to survive on social media is definitely related to the fact that I’m situated at an institutional media outlet.

What level does an internet celebrity need to reach before they become part of the mainstream social order? This is actually a really interesting question. Although the internet landscape has developed for at least 20 years already, and the social media landscape for 15 years, and although internet celebrities command really strong traffic, and that traffic translates into real money and capital, to what extent can they really become part of the mainstream social order offline?

This is a really subtle matter. [The “Lipstick King”] Li Jiaqi (李佳琪) and [shopping host] Wei Ya (薇娅) are definitely able to do this, but move down this list from these places at the top and you find few personalities that are recognized by the state and the public. There are lots of people on the internet who have huge followings but who will never gain status in a system dominated by politics or the market.

But if you have a formal institutional identity, you can quite easily gain social recognition. Status as a “Big V” [celebrity or public figure with a verified account] is more than enough to take part in events on Weibo, because the vast majority of people there are freelancers. But if you want to take part in an event that is more public [outside of social media circles], then being just a “Big V” isn’t enough.

Fang Kecheng: I’m curious what attitude of the leaders of the newspaper organization at The Beijing News is towards you. Do they hope that you gain more and more followers on Weibo, or do they feel this has little to do with the newspaper?

Chen Di: The professional community and the market are still two separate lines. If you are successful in the open market of the internet users, this is still a very scarce thing for a professional community that boasts about being market-oriented. This can become a crossover advantage for you. If you are part of such a professional community circle, your market-oriented success will give you a clear comparative advantage, and then they will “take you seriously.”

In market-oriented circles, under a market-oriented evaluation system, your identity within a professional community might be something that distinguishes you and offers some benefit. But as a matter of personal choice, I was never prepared to climb the ladder in a professional community. For example, the organizations I’ve worked for have suggested that I should also take on other responsibilities, like reviewing films, that might lend themselves to middle management positions. But I’ve rejected these suggestions outright. This could be more about personal choice, but I think my current situation is better. I think the freest state is not to rely on institutions, because if you rely on institutions there is always someone else squeezing your lifeline. If I rely on my own market success, I’m not afraid of them doing anything to me. If something they do upsets me, then if I want to leave this is something I’m also freer to do. So I think this is still quite good.

So I’m more inclined to view my relationship with the institution as one more of cooperation, as a partnership.

An Era Lacking Imagination

Fang Kecheng: What is the production process of your show like? If you have team members, how do you work together?

Chen Di: Ours is a pretty simple case. My team is actually just three people, and actually it could even  be more simplified. I think a lot of things can be done by one person, but of course it takes more time that way.

My own process, first of all, is to choose a topic. My content assistant and I will decide on a topic, write it down, discuss our ideas, and then do background reading. Then I will have some ideas myself about the visuals, such as what images to use for a certain paragraph, a certain sentence. Should we use full-screen materials, half-screen materials, or interactive materials? How should we do the storyboarding? I will draw it out first, and the content assistant may also help, and then the assistant will look for supporting materials. Or there might be times I don’t draw, and the assistant will do the storyboarding work. After the video is editing, we review it. I look at it. My boss looks at it. If things are a bit strict [in terms of content controls], the boss’s boss might review it again and give the go-ahead to send it out.

Fang Kecheng: Do you have a very clear overall direction in terms of content positioning?

Chen Di: I think it’s still important to say what you mean. First of all, the content must be within the bounds of censorship. And then . . . . Actually, I think in recent years there is a lot more resonance between domestic social mood we’re seeing in China and the mood we see overseas. 2020 was another election year in the US, and the things we’ve seen in the US [in terms of identity politics] are things we’ve from Chinese internet users for a longer period of time. In other words, we’ve actually seen for much longer in China’s public opinion landscape the things that have reared their heads in the US since 2016. The US hid these things better before 2016, under the façade of the Obama years. But now that they are exposed, with those on the right and progressives staunchly opposed, we can see that this identity politics is actually something that has existed all along in Chinese society. It’s the same thing. The Trump fans in China [who support social Darwinism, racism and misogyny] are showing these trends that overlap with the values of Trump supporters in the United States, which is a direct backlash against all progressive values. Nowadays, in China’s media or when speaking publicly, there is no room at all for even very restrained complaints against the establishment. What you can oppose and advise against is only directed at this anti-progressive popular sentiment. So a lot of my content later headed in this direction.

Chen Di often talks about progressive ideas such as gender equality.

Fang Kecheng: What is your relationship with the Weibo platform like? Of course they like the traffic you bring, but to a certain extent they must have some concerns in terms of risk, right?

Chen Di: I’ve performed really well on the platform, actually. This might also be because I’m not the sort generally to invite trouble. First off, I have a [media] unit. And I don’t really have the desire to invite trouble. If I can remain within the propaganda lines of the institutional media, operating within their discipline lines, I should be outside the concerns of microblogging platforms.

Fang Kecheng: Is Weibo still the main source of traffic for your videos? Or are you present on other platforms as well?

Chen Di: No, [the short video apps] Douyin and Kuaishou are really not suited to us. There’s too much limitation in what you can do in just one minute. I’m not sure if Bilibili is somewhere we’ll be able to go, owing to our corporate relationship. Because the videos are all from The Beijing News, and they’re produced with money from Tencent, it’s not possible to go to Bilibili [which directly competes with some Tencent products].

Fang Kecheng: What do you think of Weibo as an opinion platform?

Chen Di: I think there has been a visible drop in the amount of content on Weibo recently. It used to be that if I swiped once at noon and then again at 6PM, it would take me a long time to scroll through everything. But now it’s very quick. I can’t even tell you how many people that I follow have stopped updating. It’s really like people are giving up, and those who are even remotely interested in public affairs are no longer vocal. And I’m sure it’s not just the case with Weibo either. Honestly, what’s the point of having more content on Douyin and Kuaishou? This is the shrinking of China’s public sphere and marketplace for ideas. These new short video platforms aren’t really platforms that serve that role.

Fang Kecheng: Do you think it is possible to achieve a happy medium between traffic and quality?

Chen Di: In fact, now I feel like I can say whether or not a video or a piece of writing has the potential to be a hit or not. It’s a basic understanding. Of course, there is still a margin of error. No one can guarantee that every piece of writing will be a hit.

I’m not the kind of person who chases after traffic, like those over at [the post-90s public account] Youth Courtyard (青年大院). Very often the things I write are things I want to say even if the traffic doesn’t come. In my position, I don’t feel the need to chase after traffic.

Fang Kecheng: It’s just like a person who already has the traffic to say the traffic doesn’t matter.

Chen Di: Maybe I seem too Buddha-like about it [i.e., casual and carefree]. And why not? This is just how it is. I see a lot of people with consciences today already becoming very Buddha-like about things, just hoping to continue supporting their own existence. Either they’ve been snuffed out, or they choose to just stop speaking in order not to be snuffed out. Or in some cases they’re just disheartened by the current “base” of internet users, finding it totally meaningless.

Fang Kecheng: You once said in an interview that you were bewildered by the lack of truly competitive products in the market. Is this still the case?

Chen Di: Not really. Now we have Shanghai Observer (观察者网) out there with Observer Video (观视频) trying to do some things.

Fang Kecheng: That’s an entirely different value orientation from you. [Note: Shanghai Observer is generally recognized to be a highly nationalistic media outlet.]

Chen Di: Yes, that’s true. But in terms of form, they are doing what I said back then no-one was doing competitively. Judging from their traffic or heir market response, they are still doing quite well. Of course, I’ll never earn the level of traffic they do.

Fang Kecheng: Do you personally feel disappointed with the Simplified Chinese internet (简体中文互联网)?

Chen Di: I’m really disappointed with the whole world now. It’s probably not just the world of Simplified Chinese that’s really the problem right now.  I think it’s probably a problem shared by the people of these first three decades of the 21st  century. Not just in China, but in many places in the world where we see huge conflicts behind which there is no fresh imagination, or any source to be drawn from in terms of older imaginations that can give direction to their struggle.

What are some of the expectations and aspirations we’ve had for significant social change over the past 10 or 20 years? Actually there are none. This is an era totally lacking in imagination. Even among those who have driven relatively powerful social movements, like Black Lives Matters or MeToo, there is no blueprint for how to achieve the kind of society they want. There are no available sources of ideas they can draw from.

When it comes to that other mass of people who seem so much more powerful in terms of volume and emotion, such as the far-right, and those who oppose identity politics, there is even more [a lack of real ideas]. They have nothing at beyond a return to the so-called “good old days,” to their barbaric old days. There is nothing underneath, and no program for how to get there. Compare the situation to the 20th century and things are so bad. 100 years ago, the period between the two world wars was similar in many respects to the present, at least in terms of the state of the world. Those were very ambitious times, and programs for social change and global change were unfolding in the background. Even taking fascist agendas into account, the times were extremely ambitious, looking forward at least to change, with programs to be realized.

But today it really doesn’t seem there are such programs at all. By that I mean that people today, even if they “struggle” more and more powerfully, or grow more and more reactionary, they really have no idea what the next step is, what direction to go, what [kind of society] to become. There seems to be no bottom. And it’s all very tiring.

I feel quite hollow now. Especially these past few years, when there’s nothing to strive for, which is different from how it was in the past. We used to sincerely believe that we would be the chosen generation, that we would be able to pursue personal experiences, and even participate, becoming an important force for historical change, a generation to be remembered by future generations.

The Power of Empathy

From Hobby to Team Effort

Fang Kecheng: Hello, Aizhe. Actually, I was a very early listener to this podcast of yours. In the beginning it was actually called “Aizhe Radio,” isn’t that right?

Kou Aizhe: That’s right. That was in 2016. You might say that the earliest podcasters were narcissists who liked attaching their own names to their shows.

Fang Kecheng: You were still an assistant for the foreign media at the time?

Kou Aizhe: I was an assistant in the Beijing Bureau of Swedish National Radio, working there for four years. In 2014, I job-hopped to CTV, Canada’s largest private television network, where I was again in the Beijing bureau. There was a period of time when their correspondent in China had resigned and nothing was happening in the office. So it was boredom that really started me doing this podcast.

I’ve always been a fan of podcasts, and I mostly listened to storytelling podcasts from North American or the UK. I kept expecting Chinese to do similar types of storytelling, but no one was doing it, so I decided to try it for myself during this gap period. I made seven episodes.

Fang Kecheng: So after seven episodes Elephant Magazine picked you up?

Ko Aizhe: Yeah. There was this one time I went to their office at Elephant Magazine and introduced my podcast to Huang Zhangjin. He got really excited. He knew a real mix of people, all sorts of people with different stories. He realized that a program like this was probably the best way to get these individual stories out. At the time he was incubating all kinds of programs. So he invited me, saying right out: “Come over to Elephant.”

Praise on social media for Gushi FM: “I came to the courtyard of my apartment compound one night, and as I was searching for my keys I suddenly saw someone from the compound sitting quietly and listening to something. I opened up Gushi FM and listened to one episode, standing there in the courtyard, and I felt the sorrows and joys of people out there in the vast wilderness . . .

Praise on social media for Gushi FM: “I came to the courtyard of my apartment compound one night, and as I was searching for my keys I suddenly saw someone from the compound sitting quietly and listening to something. I opened up Gushi FM and listened to one episode, standing there in the courtyard, and I felt the sorrows and joys of people out there in the vast wilderness . . . “

Because I had done seven shows already, and the podcast was pretty well developed, the format was kept once I went over to Elephant Magazine. After that I started to recruit people – producers, post-production, operations. With eight people including myself we refined our work process little by little.

In foreign countries podcasts like ours are generally released weekly, so at the beginning I also was weekly releases. But Huang Zhangjin at Elephant suggested we increase the frequency, because China didn’t have programs like ours, and people weren’t that familiar with it. So we went to three episodes a week. In the podcasting world you could definitely consider us model workers.

Approaches to Storytelling

Fang Kecheng: Since you mentioned the show’s format, I seem to remember that Aizhe Radio was a bit different from Gushi FM. Perhaps it was because the longer production cycle of Aizhe Radio allowed for more delicacy in the treatment, and the sound elements that could be used for storytelling were richer.

Kou Aizhe: Actually, there are so many different ways of storytelling. It’s just that when I was Aizhe Radio, my thinking was to do more audio documentary, and to sounds of ongoing stories on-the-scene, for example. Definitely the production cycle was longer. And in fact during the early days of Gushi FM this was true too, because we were weekly, and each episode took a long time to polish. So things were a bit more refined. When I started Gushi FM, the slogan I wrote was: “Gushi FM is a podcast that tells real stories. I’m Aizhe, a collector of stories. Here I will use the audio documentary form to take you across the paddy fields and through the hutongs to gather these touchingly true stories.”

These days the program is roughly divided into two types of shows. One is the personal storytelling type (个人口述类), which is the majority of our program format. The other is the audio documentary (声音纪录片). In fact, we are doing both. But the production costs of audio documentary are really high, and it usually takes anywhere from three weeks to a month to produce a single episode. If we want to do three episodes a week, we can’t possibly produce an audio documentary every day. We can only intersperse them.

Our next step is to quickly expand our team. We can definitely do a lot more with the proper team. Aside from audio documentary, we’ve experimented with a lot of different formats. For example, we’ve also done “interviews with regular people” (素人采访), in which we direct some of our listeners in interviewing their own parents or grandparents.

Fang Kecheng: You mentioned that you enjoy listening to storytelling podcasts from North America and the UK. What have you taken away from these shows in the production of Gushi FM?

Kou Aizhe: Yeah, we’ve learned a lot, especially from programs like This American Life and Snap Judgement. We’ve taken a lot of cues from them. Then we placed an emphasis on personal storytelling, which perhaps more references China’s own conditions in terms of consumer habits and market development. This definitely brings the cost down, and gives maximum results.

Actually, from market angle, some of our more intently produced audio documentaries have drawn less interest perhaps than our personal storytelling episodes. I think what our audience values most is that the details of personal expression are particularly rich and moving. Beyond that, they actually don’t care a great deal about production value.

Fang Kecheng: How do you make sure the expression of someone you interview is rich and full of detail? Is that just a matter of their natural gifts?

Kou Aizhe: It definitely can’t  rely on natural gifts, otherwise there would be no way to standardize it. A lot of audience members also ask us how we manage to find so many people who have this amazing way of expressing themselves. It’s actually a big misunderstanding. The impact of their voices depends on our team, how topics are chosen, how we select interviewees, how we conduct the interviews . . . . These things are most critical.

For example, my personal preference is not to rely too much on pre-interviews. I just need to have a rough idea of what the story is about. When the person comes in, I get them into conversation mode as I might with a friend. I don’t use the word “interview.” I’ll say, you’re in a conversation with a friend, and you can speak freely and know we’ll do our utmost to keep you safe. We can make conversations anonymous too, allowing them to be spontaneous.

The most difficult interviews have been with people who were slightly older, or slightly less educated. You need to ask them about all sorts of details, digging out the nuances of the story little by little.

Fang Kecheng: I suppose a lot of these interviewing skills come from your previous media experience.

Kou Aizhe: Yes. In fact, I think it’s quite a coincidence. Whether it’s my previous work experience or my personal hobby of watching movies, it all comes into this work, naturally and logically.

Fang Kecheng: You just said something about when people come in. Does this mean that all of your interviews are done in the recording room?

Kou Aizhe: In the past that happened most of the time, because face-to-face conversations really work best. Since the epidemic, a lot of interviews have moved online, but that means more uncontrollable factors, like poor recording quality, or interviewees that don’t feel relaxed.

Fang Kecheng: You just talked about product standardization. Internally, do you guys have a manual or something like that? Or is this all just in every staff member’s head?

Kou Aizhe: Normally, I will do a simple training for people who are just starting out. Once the training is done, it’s really about trial and error, because we’ll have an audition for each program, and then everyone sits together making suggestions and airing criticisms. Over time you get a clearer idea of what works, what doesn’t, and what you’re missing. These are all pitfalls you have to deal with as they come.

Since the epidemic, a lot of interviews have moved online, but that means more uncontrollable factors, like poor recording quality, or interviewees that don’t feel relaxed.

Fang Kecheng: Could you walk through the specific production process for each episode?

Kou Aizhe: We still work like a traditional media newsroom. Every Monday we have a pitch session. People will make their pitches to me, and then I’ll make approximate judgements about what will work and what won’t. If an idea gets the green light, we start looking for interviewees. I may have more resources on my side, so if people can’t locate the right source I’ll help put them in contact and we’ll arrange interviews. Then the producer steps in.

In fact, the producer is the core of the program. They conduct the interview, make a rough cut, and the team will listen to it together, and everyone will grade it and make comments. In the end, it has to be my decision whether to release it or not, in the interest of ensuring the quality of the program is consistent. If it makes the grade, it’s then handed on to the post-production team to do the fine editing, adding the soundtrack. After that it’s released. That’s roughly the process.

Fang Kecheng: What percentage of the programs are rejected after the team session?

Kou Aifang: It’s not a very consistent thing. Sometimes it can be very high, and sometimes very low. In deciding on topics, actually, I’m pretty loose. I still hope everyone can explore programs and topics we haven’t done before. But if everyone on the team feels after the final production that a program just isn’t working, I definitely won’t release it online.

Fang Kecheng: So I guess there is bound to be a certain level of scrap. 

Kou Aizhe: Yeah, for sure there’s going to be scrap. But I think the process is totally worth it. It’s definitely worth exploring more ways to tell stories.

Fang Kecheng: When you make initial judgements about programs, do you think it’s more a matter of your professional judgment, or are you thinking more about the preferences of the audience? Based on the data you’ve collected over the hundreds of episodes you’ve done, I suppose you can pretty much tell what kind of stories your audience likes.

Kou Aizhe: It’s definitely a balance. Now that I’m more mature in my expectations of the audience, I don’t really think about the audience that much. I always say to the team, you don’t have to anticipate the audience, because we’re all going to sit together and listen, and it’s enough if you can please the whole team. If the team accepts it, it’s a good episode. If our team isn’t pleased with it, it won’t be released.

In fact, in its current format Gushi FM doesn’t have a particular threshold. What I mean is, audiences can listen to it no matter what their level of education is, and regardless of whether they come from a first-tier city, or from small-town and rural markets. But everyone’s going to be different in terms of how they understand a program. So you can’t please everyone. Rather than analyze the market, we just need to look at the opinions within our team.

Fang Kecheng: Based on the data you’ve seen behind your programming, what sort of shows do people prefer?

Kou Aizhe: There are two main directions. The first is the bizarre experience program. The other is the program with strong resonance for people (强共鸣类). In the bizarre experience category, you have stories like someone going to jail in Syria, or someone going to Pakistan to get a wife, or someone serving on a jury in the United States. These are things you don’t ordinarily experience in your life.

As for strong resonance stories, a while back we ran a program in which the mother of a baby complained about the hardships of raising children. Or a program about having a girlfriend who suffers from depression. They can be very common stories that all of us, or those close to us, have experienced. They’re not strange at all, but as you listen to it you feel that it resonates with you.

Fang Kecheng: Do you have your own favorite episode or episodes of the show?

Kou Aizhe: That’s a really hard choice to make. I like most of the shows – otherwise, I wouldn’t have put them on. But in terms of topic selection and interview approaches, I can offer one example. In 2007, there were these two brothers who were buried in a collapse at a small coal mine in Fangshan District outside Beijing. The rescue team came and tried to rescue them for a while. But then the team decided it was pointless, because they must have died. So they left. About a week later, the brothers managed to dig a hole by themselves and crawl out. Again, this was a story from 2007. I’d been thinking about it for a long time, feeling it was perfect for a film.

In 2017, after a bit of research, I tracked down one of the parties involved. So [that year], ten years after the incident, I went to a construction site in Changchun and found him. He was working as a construction worker. So I went back over the whole story again. But you know migrant workers aren’t so well educated, so it was really difficult interview. I had to squeeze out one sentence after another, but the end result was really good.

In fact, I think the golden age of journalism in China was full of really great stories. They may be too old now for journalism, but as stories they are really great, and they’re worth revisiting all these years later.

First the Story, Then the Opinions

Fang Kecheng: What do you think Gushi FM ultimately points to? Or, what is the concern behind it? What do you hope to accomplish by telling these stories?

Kou Aizhe: The result I hoped it could achieve I think it’s achieved already. If you look at the comments from our audience, you see that everyone is pretty unanimous [on the show’s success]. They often say that after listening to our program, they feel they’ve experienced many different paths in life. And that a lot of things they might have thought before were just curiosities are actually ordinary choices people make.

In fact, I think the golden age of journalism in China was full of really great stories. They may be too old now for journalism, but as stories they are really great, and they’re worth revisiting all these years later.

I often say Gushi FM is a podcast about understanding. Because one of the best things storytelling – and especially audio storytelling – is really great at doing is to get people to relate. When you put yourself in another person’s shoes, when you view things from another person’s point of view, and when you think about their situation and their choices, it’s much easier to understand and relate to them. So I think it would be really helpful for people from different camps to have a chance to sit down and listen to one another’s experiences, to understand things from their perspective. Not just from a political point of view, but from the point of view of a really good story. So I think that’s the most meaningful thing.

Fang Kecheng: To reach a point of empathy.

Kou Aizhe: Yeah, you could put it that way.

Fang Kecheng: Over the years, it seems we’ve increasingly seen the disappearance of empathy on social media. People not understanding one another, but rather attacking one another. Do you feel that way?

Kou Aizhe: Of course. I think the reason things are like this in our time is because people are so used to opinions first. If you can first make shows that appeal to people, that don’t dwell on opinions but lead with the facts and focus on the details, the experience, the story – all that before coming to a judgement or a conclusion. I think if you can do that it helps to mend the tear.

Fang Kecheng: Yes, and I think the great thing about you is that you’re not talking about dry facts. You’re talking about things that are “saturated” (湿), things that are warm.

Kou Aizhe: Right. And in that sense I think it’s also in line with the rules of communication on social media.

I think stories are as essential to human beings as air and water. If you work to get people to accept your story as much as possible, then they can come to understand your views and see the reason behind them. I think that’s a bit more valuable.

A Personal Perspective on Public Issues

Fang Kecheng: You mentioned earlier that the more bizarre the story, the more people enjoy hearing it. How do you ensure that a story is true?

Kou Aizhe: This is where you have to get really meticulous. The topics were are selecting right now run in two basic directions. One focusses on public issues. For such programs, you have to confirm all the facts and detail, which means doing research. The other focusses more on personal experiences – for example, stories about their family. You can judge whether they are being truthful by asking follow-up questions, and on the basis of our own experience. Their experiences are very personal, and there may not be other witnesses that make verification by a third party possible. So our own experience is really important.

For example, I went to Weinan, in Shaanxi Province, to interview someone who had worked as a mercenary, and that was a riveting story. In fact, I could confirm that he worked as a mercenary and bodyguard in Africa, that his experiences were authentic, because he had the pictures to prove it. There were videos too, and the details he provided were logically consistent. His subsequent experience, as a drill master in Kokang [in Myanmar, on the border of Yunnan province], I could also confirm because he had posted videos to his WeChat Moments every day, and I could see them too.

But his claim that he had been stationed in the Middle East, and how many people his team had killed and so on, none of that was reliable. Because there are a lot of military enthusiasts who read Elephant Magazine, and I consulted a lot of people to verify that part of his story. The story was wonderful, but in the end I chose not to broadcast it.

Fang Kecheng: So you cut out the part about the Middle East?

Kou Aizhe: The whole episode was never released, because without that part the whole story was not cohesive. We will definitely in the future be doing even more public issue topics, and fact-checking will become even more important.

Fang Kecheng: I saw you recently released an episode on Phoenix Tree Holdings, [the failing real estate company]. What made you decide to do more on public issues?

Kou Aizhe: Actually, there were gaps in the Phoenix Tree episode, for which we didn’t interview the company. Since the episode aired, however, we were contacted by a former Phoenix Tree employee who was willing to speak. Actually, we’re really well positioned to offer personal perspectives on public issues, because we have a lot of resources here, and because our audience enjoys hearing personal perspectives on public issues.

Fang Kecheng: Does your interest in doing public issues have anything to do your original wish to work in journalism?

Kou Aizhe: It certainly had an influence. I’m sure this [intention] influenced everyone who at that time wanted to enter the media profession.

Fang Kecheng: What’s your assessment of the risk involved in what you do?

Kou Aizhe: So far, I think, we are the greatest common denominator, and the personal perspective is relatively safe. In fact, quite a few official government agencies have even reached out to us, hoping to cooperate.

Closing the Professional Gap

Fang Kecheng: You were influenced at Gushi FM by American podcasts and the desire to see similar programs in Chinese. Up to now, though, Chinese podcasts have lagged far behind the US in terms of professionalism. What do you think is the reason for this? Is it because in the United States podcasts are often backed by professional radio stations?

Kou Aizhe: This is actually a huge topic. From a professional point of view, it is true that the traditional radio stations in the American market are very mature, whether in terms of talent or in terms of the market. There is competition across the board.  

In China, you don’t find this level of competition, even in the talent pool. I used to wonder if there was talent in traditional radio in China. Then I discovered, no, there really is no one out there we can draw from. So now our team is really young – basically, all of them have just graduated. I recruited them to take them on myself, and as long as everyone has a sense of aesthetic judgement all around it’s fine.

Fang Kecheng: Why do you think things are this way [in China]?

Kou Aizhe: I once spoke to a radio station director who told me that there problem was that “eating well is cheap” (好吃不贵). In other words, radio frequencies are a monopoly, and there aren’t too many costs associated. Advertising revenue is pretty good. So all they need are a couple of anchors chatting, and there’s decent income at low production input. So they don’t bother to expend energy developing new types of programming.

Fang Kecheng: There’s a lack of market competition.

Kou Aizhe: That’s right. I’ve talked to a lot of established podcasts in the United States and they say, well, they had courses in “audio journalism” when they were in journalism school, and then they had all these years of experience working in radio, and then they’re out there in the market hoping their shows will be picked up by all the local radio stations.

But I believe that the future of podcasts in China is definitely going to get better and better, especially looking at the trends we saw in 2020. In the audio segment, the market for music is almost saturated. What else can you listen to? Are book reviews and crosstalk, [traditional Chinese comic dialogues], your only choices?

We’ve had more than one investor approach us this year, and everyone has said they want to invest in this business. Platforms are also planning to get into long-form audio (布局长音频), which is definitely a content area that’s missing. I think the bottleneck at the moment is that the format is too homogenous. If we hear better content on audio programs in the future, this will definitely attract larger audiences, and the market pick up.

I believe that the future of podcasts in China is definitely going to get better and better, especially looking at the trends we saw in 2020. 

Fang Kecheng: But will the entry of [larger] platforms also mean bringing in more stuff that is garbage? For example, there are decent things on Toutiao and Douyin, of course. But they are often overwhelmed by garbage content.

Kou Aizhe: I see it the other way around, that if things are too clean, this means there aren’t great prospects for the market. It all becomes homogenous.

My favorite model would definitely be to become something like National Public Radio (NPR), which is so cool. I think it would be best to be absolutely neutral and be able to do so much good content without interference. But in China, that’s just not realistic.

Seeking Commercial Success

Fang Kecheng: How does your audience data look right now?

Kou Aizhe: Right now have about one million subscribers across all platforms, and each episode draws about 800,000 listeners.

Fang Kecheng: That’s a pretty high rate of people who tune in.

Kou Aizhe: Yeah. The biggest advantage of podcasts is their stickiness. Most people who subscribe to podcasts tune in a lot. But of course the volume overall doesn’t compare to video right now.

Fang Kecheng: What is your main [business] model right now?

Kou Aizhe: What we do the most right now is customized advertising – a bit like the advertorials you find on WeChat public accounts, which are more about the brand image. For example, Xiaomi once approached us to offer sponsorship. It was their corporate social responsibility department. We produced a show about a Xiaomi office in Shanghai that hired a bunch of blind people to do data labeling for their AI, to help train the AI. As you know, blind people have limited employment opportunities in China, so it was a good story. Even if it’s for an advertisement, we also want to make sure that it’s a true story, and that it’s interesting. That way our listeners won’t have any objection to us accepting this kind of advertising.

Fang Kecheng: Have you tried paid membership?

Kou Aizhe: Our next direction may be down that road. But my hope is that we can do it later on, once we’ve increased our frequency. We release three episodes per week now, so if we all of a sudden started charging for our shows, our listeners would be pretty upset. But if I could release one additional episode each week, and that episode was paid, I think our audience could accept that.

Fang Kecheng: Has Elephant Magazine managed to profit from incubating your program?

Kou Aizhe: Earning money is still not in the picture, because in fact we’ve not really made an effort up to now to commercialize. We’ve focused on increasing the quantity [of programming], and then will come the commercial part. So it’s not been so urgent.

Fang Kecheng: Finally, I wanted to touch on the whole “We Media” industry. I’ve found that many people involved in “We Media,” including those operating WeChat public accounts, podcasts or video [channels], but especially those within the industry who take content seriously, are former journalists. Have you noticed this phenomenon?

Kou Aizhe: Right. And I think this makes sense, because media people have the resources and the experience to explore these new forms of content, and they’re the ones who find it most accessible. And besides, people who have a background in traditional media still generally maintain their bottom line [in terms of professionalism], and they know what sort of people they want to reach. They’re not just chasing after big numbers and accommodating the market.