Journalist for hire

By Wen Ya Source:Global Times Published: 2013-9-17 20:28:01

"I'm a senior reporter with extensive experience and I'm not frightened by powerful people or violence …I will be an independent investigative reporter, not attached to any media agency. I will be together with Net users when I'm online and when I'm reporting at the scene. I want to report the news that Net users want to know," read a Weibo post from investigative journalist Yin Yusheng on Thursday. "If you are tired of listening to some media praising achievements or fed up with some Web media flattering the world, it's time for us to change this situation!"

By Friday, Yin had collected 5,000 yuan ($833) from Net users, which was enough for him to begin his freelance story, and potentially pioneer a new form of reporting in China.

Funded by and designed for Net users, Yin aims to bypass traditional media models and deliver news directly. But he faces a rocky road ahead.

Reporter's story

On Thursday, Yin posted two story ideas on his Sina Weibo account as well as on Taobao, a popular online marketplace in China.

One proposal was about Chen Baocheng, a journalist who was arrested for allegedly imprisoning people inside an excavator due to demolition disputes in his hometown in Pingdu city, Shandong Province. The other story was about dozens of police in Luoyang, Henan Province, who have been making corruption accusations against a local justice department official for years.

By Sunday, the two story ideas had received about 8,000 yuan in donations through Taobao and the first had already reached the threshold of 5,000 yuan.

Yin arrived in Pingdu on Friday. Since Saturday, he has been posting details about his investigation into the excavator case on his Sina Weibo.

Yin, 43, has been employed by several newspapers in China and has been a reporter for 10 years. His most famous story became known as the "Li Gang" incident, when he reported that the son of a local police official had run over two female students leaving one dead and the other injured at Hebei University in Baoding in 2010.

The young man infamously shouted "My father is Li Gang" in an effort to shield himself using his father's authority. The story gained attention nationwide but cost Yin his job.

After Yin ended his most recent job with a Hong Kong-based newspaper in July, he had the idea of using microblogs as both a platform and for crowd-source funding for freelance stories.

"In recent years, paper media have been in decline and some experienced reporters have found it difficult to adapt to Web media," Yin said. "Meanwhile, instant media tools like Weibo have a lot of promise, and make it possible for me to report news by myself."

One-man newsroom

Yin said he chooses story ideas based on his own news sense, which he says saves time. If he thinks the idea is feasible, he pastes it on Taobao calling for donations between a minimum of 10 yuan to maximum of 1,000 yuan.

"The upper limit is to prevent donations from influencing my report," Yin said. "When the donations reach 5,000 yuan, I stop calling for donations. According to my experience, 5,000 yuan is enough for an investigative report."

Yin plans to take 10 days for each project. The money also covers his salary, he said.

"Because I have just started experimenting with independent reporting, I can't expect to earn money from it. I will save money where I can. When the investigation is finished, I'll publish my story on Weibo along with all the costs to provide transparency for Net users," said Yin.

When asked how he ensures the veracity and objectivity of his reports, Yin said he conducts interviews as impartially as he can and that he is willing to take responsibility for his reporting.

Some Net users point out that as a high-profile reporter, albeit without the protection of a large media outlet, Yin may face risks. Some pointed to the current situation faced by another investigative reporter Liu Hu, who was detained in August as part of the ongoing crackdown on online rumors.

"I'm worried about the safety issue, too. However, new things are worth trying. I'll try and see how far I can go," Yin said.

Pu Baoyi, manager of a public relations company in Shanghai and a former senior reporter for a newspaper, donated 500 yuan to Yin's projects. Pu said that he once had a similar idea, but couldn't make it financially feasible.

"In terms of ideals, the plan is a good idea," Pu said. "But there's little room to support one's life and make money," Pu said. "If you make money that way, you'll be criticized by Net users. If you don't, how can you survive and continue reporting?"

Pu said an investigative report requires 5,000 to 10,000 yuan. He also pointed out that investigative reports are confidential in the early phases, because if the reporter publishes the plan on the Internet, those involved will cover up evidence or take measures in advance, "leaving little possibility for an investigation."

Feasible plan?

Investigative reports are more common in the UK and the US, where they are carried out by non-profit organizations or individuals paid by organizations or media outlets, said Zhang Zhi'an, an associate professor with the School of Communication and Design at Sun Yat-sen University.

But in China, media outlets must apply for licenses for journalists, while those without licenses cannot be protected by the law.

Although investigative journalism faces challenges in China, the independent nature of the plan gives it a lot of potential, Wang, a famous investigative reporter in China, told the Global Times.

"To avoid hidden risks while reporting, one must ensure that the interviews are solid, reporting is sharp, the political stance is mild and there is no economic relationship with the parties involved," Wang said.

Yin's plan does not violate any laws in China, where no law limits citizens' rights to conduct investigations, Wang Sixin, a law professor with the Communication University of China, told the Global Times.

However, Yin would not be the first to take on the label of independent reporter in China. Self-proclaimed independent reporter Zhu Ruifeng has been involved in high profile cases such as the sex video scandal involving Chongqing official Lei Zhengfu earlier this year. However, Zhu has more often been compared to online whistle-blowers.

Zhu told the Global Times he registered a company in Hong Kong and was registered as a Hong Kong journalist. However, he has a team supporting him, including editors and researchers.

At the very beginning he supported himself by providing information to media outlets. Later, he collected donations online, which he used to formulate reports on officials.

"I usually only accept small donations of 50-100 yuan from the public to ensure the neutrality of my investigation," Zhu said.

"And we have our own news website where news can't be deleted by others," he said, adding that their Weibo posts are sometimes deleted or accounts are frozen.


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