x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

The net loosens on Mao's media

Building Brics: China's major state media companies are rushing to list on the Shanghai exchange.

News portals run by Sina and Sohu typically attract more than 10 times as many unique visitors per page than the People's Daily website. Above, a websurfer watches Wen Jiabao, the Chinese premier, during an online chat with Internet users. AFP
News portals run by Sina and Sohu typically attract more than 10 times as many unique visitors per page than the People's Daily website. Above, a websurfer watches Wen Jiabao, the Chinese premier, during an online chat with Internet users. AFP

Mao Zedong must be spinning in his mausoleum, just what would the first leader of communist China, have made of this?

In a sign of the times, the venerable People's Daily newspaper raised 1.38 billion yuan (Dh808.4 million) this month through an initial public offering of its website in Shanghai.

Under Mao, whose body has lain in state in a vast mausoleum in Tiananmen Square since 1976, the communists shut down the Shanghai Stock Exchange after taking power in 1949 from the national government a year after the People's Daily was launched.

But in one of many about-turns during the past three decades, the party is now pressing state-run media outlets to list themselves or at least their websites.

Hot on the heels of the People's Daily, which raised nearly three times the initial target, the official Xinhua news agency is also expected to float shares of its website, as is China Central Television with its own internet service. A slew of regional state media companies are likely to follow.

It comes as national state media groups push aggressively into overseas territories, buying or opening radio stations and television channels as Beijing develops its "soft power" policy.

As their main role is public relations, these foreign ventures are often not huge revenue generators, continuing the decades-long tradition in which party mouthpieces consume government funds in return for projecting a positive image of China and its rulers.

Yet while the authorities are willing to spend greater amounts on state-owned media overseas, their desire for some domestic media to compete in the commercial cut and thrust is clear. Indeed the first IPO of shares in state media took place more than a decade ago.

What makes this month's listing in Shanghai exceptional is that editorial functions were included.

In the past, the authorities let only state media list their commercial arms dealing with advertising, distribution and circulation. Editorial had been considered too politically sensitive to hand over to the marketplace.

"The government, at least right now, is being much more liberal with new media," says Doug Young, a journalism professor at Fudan University in Shanghai who later this year is due to release his book The Party Line: How the Media Dictates Public Opinion in Modern China.

For all the millions it generated on the Shanghai Stock Exchange, the People's Daily website heavily trails some privately run rivals.

News portals run by Sina and Sohu typically attract more than 10 times as many unique visitors per page - 200,000 each versus less than 20,000 - and dwarf the earnings posted by the People's Daily website.

Yet, while it may lack the appeal of privately run online media, the People's Daily website is the place to turn for the official party line. It is seen as offering insights into what the Communist Party thinks.

And despite being an also-ran compared with Sina, it is still among the top 50 websites in China, which has 500 million internet users.

The website is also on an upward trajectory, with revenue jumping from 190m yuan in 2009 to 497m yuan last year, while profits, 139m yuan last year, have grown even faster.

Its tight links with the state offer myriad advantages aside from the editorial benefits of being part of the Communist Party apparatus. Among these are tax breaks and revenues from providing information services and websites to the government. The proceeds from the People's Daily's online IPO will partly be used to invest in editorial content, potentially helping the company close the gap on its more consumer-friendly rivals.

But can a government news website in a one-party state match the popularity of privately run counterparts focused on entertainment rather than state news?

Mr Young is not optimistic. He sees the recent website flotation by the People's Daily and the future Xinhua online listing as a case of the companies "going through the motions" in response to government edicts instructing them to "be more commercial".

"If it's based on past experience, they're all miserable failures when it comes to running a viable commercial business," he says.

"I don't think the People's Daily or Xinhua will ever be serious competitors to these more commercial websites that really try to make news that people want to read."

Beyond those reading the People's Daily to get the official line on events, he points out that few are really interested in what the website, or the newspaper, have to say.

"All these state-owned enterprises order several thousand copies [of the newspaper] each day that probably go straight into the garbage. They probably sit in the mailroom but never get read," he says.

But others believe the prospects for the state-run websites are much brighter.

According to Jeremy Goldkorn, who runs the Beijing media website and research company Danwei, the People's Daily newspaper is never going to "appeal to the masses". But it has developed products, in particular the Global Times newspaper, that are appealing, "so it's not impossible they can do the same with the website".

The Global Times, available in Chinese and English, has struck a chord with its highly nationalistic agenda. The Chinese-language online version is especially successful.

"It's not inconceivable they could have another commercial success, but [with the People's Daily website] it's a different audience," says Mr Goldkorn, adding that the Global Times would be a good candidate for a future listing on the stock exchange.

The government's Xinhua news agency also has vast resources to channel into its website, and that could ensure it proves successful after a stock market flotation, even in a crowded online market place.

The People's Daily newspaper, CCTV's broadcasting arms and the main Xinhua agency are unlikely to be involved in IPOs, apart from their websites. They are seen, in the words of Mr Young, as "sacred cows".

"[The government] doesn't want them to be subject to commercial pressures," he says.

"It's OK for the website, because that's a channel for the official party line, but the newspaper, the TV stations themselves are the real voice of the party. The actual voice."

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