MEDIA

How The New York Times Gets Around Censors In China

11/19/2013 02:59 pm ET
cn.tmagazine.com

NEW YORK -- On Tuesday morning, readers in mainland China could click on New York Times stories about basketball player Jeremy Lin and rapper Eminem, or an obituary for the novelist Doris Lessing -- all of which recently appeared in the U.S. print edition and online. Readers could also peruse a selection of Times pieces on New York real estate, dining, health and design.

While China's government blocked access to the newspaper's main site last year, in both English and Chinese, the Times found another route into its lucrative market through the October launch of a Chinese-language T Magazine site. Taking its name from the Times’ style magazine, the Chinese-staffed publication offers cultural reporting that appeals to luxury advertisers and is less likely to agitate China’s authoritarian government, which censors its domestic media and has increasingly turned down visa requests from foreign news outlets.

At a conference last month in China, Times Co. chairman Arthur Sulzberger Jr. said the Chinese T site would not focus on politics, foreign policy or business -- all potential minefields in the country -- but instead would be geared toward lifestyle coverage. Upon launching, The Wall Street Journal reported that “The Times is hoping the website could pave the way for the unblocking of the publication's English and Chinese news websites.”

How U.S.-based news organizations do business in China, navigating the bureaucracy of a country lacking press freedom, has drawn renewed attention following a front-page New York Times story and the fallout it generated within a competitor, Bloomberg News.

Times China correspondent Edward Wong reported on Nov. 8 that Bloomberg News held a story about financial ties between wealthy political families and the political elite so as not to get kicked out of the country. If angered by critical coverage, Chinese authorities could pressure companies not to acquire Bloomberg Terminals, thereby cutting the news organization out of a major market.

Wong reported days later how Bloomberg News uses a code to keep certain stories out of China, and he wrote on the suspension of Michael Forsythe, a highly regarded reporter who was working on the story that editors held. (The Times' coverage of Bloomberg's travails noted that China blocks its site, but did not mention last month's launch of Chinese T).

On Tuesday morning, Forsythe tweeted that he had left Bloomberg News, a departure which comes on the heels of Amanda Bennett, an editor on the critical China coverage, abruptly leaving the company.

Bloomberg News, which was blocked in China in 2012, has denied that Forsythe's story was spiked and suggested it could still be published. Nevertheless, the two Bloomberg News departures and allegations of self-censorship have raised questions about the compromises news organizations might make in dealing with China's government.

Journalist Evan Osnos, who covered the country for The New Yorker, asked Tuesday: "What will it cost to cover China?”

“Taken together, this is the Chinese government’s broadest effort in decades to roll back unwelcome foreign coverage -- and that raises the stakes for news organizations that are struggling to figure out how to handle China,” Osnos wrote. “Make no mistake, this is not a simple choice. At a time when news organizations find their business models under assault, the prospect of taking an expensive stand against a foreign state is unappealing, especially when it might mean giving up their dreams for future growth in China.”

Unlike Bloomberg News, the Times hasn't held back of late from reporting on wealth and power in China.

On Nov. 13, the Times reported how those seeking to gain influence in China have “put the relatives of the nation’s ruling elite on the payroll.” The Times’ story followed up on reporting a year earlier on the family of former Prime Minister Wen Jiabao -- coverage that led to the newspaper being targeted by hackers in China.

Still, the Times' decision to launch a lifestyle site, while its main news site is censored, shows a willingness to compromise with China's authoritarian government in order to operate in the country.

For now, the Times' aggressive reporting on China's upper class, appearing on the English and Chinese-language news sites, remains blocked by the government. However, Times' lifestyle coverage that's likely to appeal to a wealthier Chinese readership will be accessible through Chinese T.

Last week, the Chinese T site was briefly down in mainland China, prompting speculation that authorities had pulled the plug yet again on a Times site. But the Times’ general manger in China, in an email provided by a Times spokeswoman, said the site was "down for about 48 hours but that after alerting the government, the issue was corrected.”

Although a site tracking Internet censorship in China -- greatfirewallofchina.org -– indicated Tuesday morning that Chinese T was not currently accessible in mainland China, the Times' general manager said it's operating normally.

During the October conference in China, Sulzberger described the launch of Chinese T as “part of our effort to build bridges between cultures and across borders.” Whether such bridge-building will unblock the Times' main site in China remains to the seen.

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