As the country continues its development at breakneck speed, it would be hard for the media to simply retain its old image of being a "propagandist and collective agitator" for the government.

Moreover, with China becoming increasingly sophisticated and open to foreign ideas, the media has had to reflect this if it wants to maintain its voice and influence within society.

“The media has had no choice but to reform itself,” explained leading journalism professor, Li Xiguang. “It is too costly to maintain in its present form and it will lose all relevance to people’s lives, and then how will the government exercise control?”

Competition

Private investment, industry consolidation and product development have been central to the reforms carried out over the past decade as the government tried to do something manageable with the thousands of individual media houses.

Introducing market-based competition has been the lynchpin to this process.

As a result, the days of scanning the newsstand or TV channels and seeing similar banner headlines appear to be the exception rather than the rule. One example of the changes being brought to the industry is the NewsCorp backed Hunan TV, a subscription channel that already boasts 300 million viewers.

Skipping the normal roundup of party dignitary photo-ops, the primetime news instead focuses on human-interest stories and occasional exposes of local government mismanagement.

"China needs new fighters for a new journalism”

Li Xiguang,
leading journalism professor

“The reality is that you now have different channels, different papers, both private and state run, all competing with one another,” said Lisa Wei, managing director of media specialist, Mindshare.

“This puts the focus on attracting advertisers by creating a product that people can relate to.”

Marketing advantages

The result has been quite phenomenal for some companies. At the government run Beijing Youth Daily, deputy chief editor Sun Wei reported an increase in advertising revenues from $700,000 in 1995 to $94 million in 2002.

Expanding through the launch of more catchy subsidiary products, the newspaper group is now eyeing a stock market listing.

Such success has been achieved simply by riding the advertising whirlwind that has taken hold of China. It does not signify radical content change. One of the biggest gripes among Chinese is banal TV and print media.

“Looking at the groups formed through consolidation, there are no examples of this in itself improving quality. If they are good, it is simply because they are good, not because they are big,” said Lisa Wei.

Mixed bag

For the government, a balancing act needs to be maintained between keeping some degree of censorship control and not alienating the general public by stifling output.

According to Professor Li, the state media is failing. “They refuse to reform themselves… the press system is just a big bureaucracy full of people who don’t know how to work properly, there are no real journalists and this is creating a news void.”

Many Chinese complain that their
media are dull

In the absence of relevant state media, the players stepping in to fill this void are from the private sector. Caijing magazine, often labelled The Economist of China, focuses on economic and political issues, bringing it both acclaim and rebuke.

Speaking to Aljazeera.net on the sidelines of the recently held World Economic Forum, chief editor Hu Shuli explained their formula.

“Caijing pays attention to what people need. We insist that all our journalists go out and collect first hand information. We also insist on complete editorial independence from the advertising staff,” said Shuli.

In February they ran a cover story on SARS, an issue that did not receive full prominence in the state press until after the government gave media the green light in April.

“The problem these days is often not one of censorship but whether we can get the relevant information, said Shuli, adding freedom of information was still an issue.

Challenges

Even so, there are limits to how far Caijing will go. In June, the government pulled an entire issue on Shanghai government corruption in the face of a perceived crackdown on media reporting.

Taking a similar editorial line, entertainment magazine Le has carved out its own niche market. Recently raising their monthly print run to 52,000 copies, editor Hong Huang plans to have a circulation of 200,000 by the end of 2004.

“Many magazines act as a media platform for advertisers, not for readers. In most entertainment publications you will see for example that restaurants have paid for their reviews,” he said.

China's Le magazine advises
readers on hottest hangouts

A shift away from this line helped them secure an affiliation with Time Out, a global travel and listings magazine that reviews restaurants, hotels and clubs. Its input has helped shape design and content.

“When we started writing reviews based on our real opinions we had a lot of unhappy advertisers threatening never to work with us again. However, readers love it and now new advertisers are coming to us because of this,” said Huang.

In challenging conventional practices, these privately run operations are at the vanguard of media reform. Their fringe status, however, gives them only limited exposure to the public and it is the big government-run institutions that the majority of the population looks to for news and entertainment.

Pushing for quality

In a further sign of change, officials earlier this month were sent out to townships to make a sure a new directive reneging the need for government offices to subscribe to government papers was being understood.

By saving money at a local level it also cuts the revenue going to the papers concerned reinforcing the message that editors need to focus on building a marketable product.

“China needs new fighters for a new journalism,” said Professor Li.

With an expanding private sector and a government apparently keen to promote market competition, Professor Li’s dream now seems to be only a matter of time.