Nearly 25 years ago, it was a charmed time for news reporters and consumers in China.

"A prime example of that golden age was the Southern Media Group," according to Maria Repnikova, assistant professor at Georgia State University.

"This particular media group has done really well in attracting wide readership, attracting advertising revenues, and becoming one of the prime examples of high-quality reporting that is also capable of making money in China."

But China's golden age of journalism was not to last. As the country approached a political milestone, the 2012 transition from President Hu Jintao to Xi Jinping, the censors aggressively swung back into action.

For the Southern Weekly, New Year's Day 2013 marked an unprecedented moment in China's media history. That year, in its New Year's editorial, the paper called on the country's leaders to adhere to the principles in China's constitution.

As it went to print, however, the editorial was pulled by state censors and replaced with a version that praised the Communist Party and its newly anointed leader.

Pressure is not necessarily always placed on individuals but on the industry as a whole ... it's a systematic process to control the media.

Chang Ping, former news director, Southern Weekly

Journalists at the Weekly staged a walkout, the first of its kind in Communist China. Hundreds of ordinary citizens would later join the protests in solidarity against the censors.

Fang Kecheng, a former political reporter with Southern Weekly, was in the newsroom that day.

"The censors really stepped over the line ... Foreign media covered this incident and it really showed that this newspaper, because of its reputation during last more than 20 years, it got a lot of supporters in the society - both on social media and offline," recalls Feng.

Through 2013 and after, the censorship of the Southern Media Group was taken to another level. Reporters were harassed, online content was ordered to be taken down, and publishing licences were revoked.

The end of 2015 marked a low point: senior editor and former chairman of multiple Southern Media Group publications, Shen Hao, was sentenced to four years in prison on what many observers said were trumped-up extortion charges.

Chang Ping, a deputy editor and news director at the Southern Media Group, was forced to leave China just before Xi's ascension to power. He has watched from the outside as the state's grip on media has tightened.

"Pressure is not necessarily always placed on individuals, but on the industry as a whole ... it's a systematic process to control the media," he says.

The Southern Media Group's case isn't an isolated one, it's just one of the most prominent.

Given the sheer number of voices in China's vast journalistic sphere, absolute government control has never been completely possible.

What is undeniable, however, is that under Xi Jinping, the Chinese state's command of the media space has been consolidated and reinforced, with dramatic repercussions for investigative work across the country.

Contributors

Maria Repnikova - Assistant professor, Georgia State University
Chang Ping - Former news director, Southern Weekly
Fang Kecheng - Former political reporter, Southern Weekly
Steve Tsang - Director, SOAS China Institute

Source: Al Jazeera