Big media goes micro

By Yan Shuang Source:Global Times Published: 2012-9-11 0:55:07

Chinese State-media outlets have been grappling with the challenges posed by social media and how they can use microblogs such as the Twitter-like Weibo to boost their reach, with the People's Daily and the Xinhua News Agency among the first to step into the chaotic online world, with mixed results.

The People's Daily's Sina Weibo account initially proved to be a lightning rod for controversy as carefully worded comments reassuring victims of the recent Beijing floods were pored over by Web users.

Meanwhile, Xinhua has taken a different approach, tackling controversy head-on with concise comments challenging government credibility during recent scandals.

As editors struggle to be responsive while meeting the editorial demands of a large, State-run organization, it is now the public's turn to watch and take notes.

Popularity contest

A popular actress who boasts 24 million followers on Weibo, a number eight times as large as the circulation of the People's Daily, has made the official Party newspaper feel "at risk" and reinforced the need to gain popularity through new media.

Yao Chen, the actress dubbed China's "Queen of Weibo," has a larger Weibo audience than the newspaper, Zhang Yannong, president of the People's Daily, said at Fudan University in April.

He said that young editors at the paper had brought to their attention many implications surrounding the rise of Weibo, also adding that there were risks, which were highlighted when People's Daily articles were posted online without the proper context, which misled readers.

He said that this was what led the People's Daily to establish their own Weibo account. But when the People's Daily launched the first comment, it was after a much more literal storm than some out-of-context quotes.

"The rainstorm in Beijing is keeping everyone sleepless tonight. The People's Daily prays for those who haven't come home safely, and our salutes go to those who are still rescuing rainstorm victims. We wish you all the strength to make it through, Beijing."

This was the first Weibo entry posted by the People's Daily on July 22, a day after a rainstorm of rare intensity hit Beijing and claimed 77 lives. The comment was reposted more than 5,600 times and received more than 2,600 comments.

Web users were divided, with some giving praise and encouragement while others said the newspaper should be ready for contempt and sarcastic comments.

However, the tide of opinion gradually turned in the People's Daily's favor, particularly after posts on August 5 which tackled controversial issues.

The National Development and Reform Commission released a report in early August, which said that by 2010 China had achieved 62 percent of its goal of a "national rejuvenation," in an official statement that generated a significant public backlash.

The People's Daily post said that this data seems meaningless when one considers the case of Tang Hui, referring to a mother who was sent to a labor re-education camp for protesting against a local government after her underage daughter was raped.

"The strength of a nation is not only reflected in GDP data or the number of Olympic Games gold medals. It's more about the rights and dignity of residents and social equality and justice," the comment added.

Small but tenacious

The People's Daily Weibo operations department, now comprised of six editors, is in charge of updating the Weibo account, and has remained mysterious to most readers since its low-key establishment.

"It takes a team effort and thorough consideration to write a single Weibo entry, and the bosses have very high standards and strict requirements for the wording to make sure our viewpoints resonate with readers," an anonymous source with the People's Daily told the Global Times.

The People's Daily Weibo has attracted more than 1.27 million followers.

Another Weibo account which has witnessed increasing popularity is the China Internet News, or Zhongguo Wangshi, a Weibo program run by Xinhua, which reported on a dispute between a Guangdong government official and a flight attendant that triggered public ire over the past weeks.

This was the case of Fang Daguo, a Guangdong official accused of beating a flight attendant, who was then suspended from his position.

Xinhua was the first official media agency to report on the case, and while a previous governmental investigation result said Fang was innocent, the agency's Guangdong bureau published harsh questions casting doubt on the credibility of the results.

"Have you really conducted a comprehensive and objective investigation? Is what you found really what you published in the report?" asked the bureau on its Sina Weibo, which was hailed as a bold move made by official media to challenge the authorities.

But these two groups aren't the only ones getting in on the action.

The news agency, together with several publications it manages, is trying to win support on Weibo by reporting in a reader-friendly way and interacting with audience, an employee with the agency, who requested anonymity, told the Global Times.

"It's the era of Weibo and traditional media should get used to engaging with new media," he added.

From old media to new

State media have been seeking to change their image via social media and become more responsive to public demand, according to experts.

"The fact that official newspapers and government institutions have opened Weibo accounts is very interesting, exciting and reveals a lot about what is happening in Chinese attitudes toward the information space," Gary D. Rawnsley, a professor of International Communications with the UK's University of Leeds, who has been studying Asian media, told the Global Times.

"Governments all over the world are quickly learning that it's preferable to engage with the information space rather than remain outside or try to control it. They're also learning that today politics is about the competition of narratives, and so by launching Weibo accounts the Chinese government understands that it must try to spin the narrative," he told the Global Times.

He also added that it will be interesting to see how Weibo's role in Chinese civil society evolves.

Yu Guoming, director of the Institute of Public Opinion under the Renmin University of China, said that "the public need for State media to be more responsive and relate to audiences has forced them to adapt, and official media is also feeling the need to seek common ground at the grass-roots level in China, given the deteriorating level of government credibility."

He added that Weibo has become China's most popular avenue for self-expression, and the moves made by the People's Daily and Xinhua are a litmus test for public reactions.

He also said that recent moves to provide more analysis of social problems as opposed to bureaucratic reports have allowed Chinese media to improve their credibility.


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