Successful monopolies not only dominate an industry sector, but also provide enough diversity within their fiefdom to create the illusion of choice and competing views. Take, for example, the Shenzhen News Publishing Group, Ltd. (深圳报业集团发行有限公司), which was formed in 2002 through the merger of Shenzhen Special Zone News Group and the Shenzhen Commercial News Society. Today, the Group publishes ten newspapers and five journals, owns a book publishing house, and operates the city’s largest news website (深圳新闻网).
The Group has identified four primary news audiences. Shenzhen Daily (深圳日报) offers a Party-centric take on news of the city, country, and world and its audience is self-identified through their (actual or aspired) level of integration into the Municipal apparatus. Shenzhen Commercial News (深圳商报) provides daily reportage on the economy and investors, businessmen, and white collar workers constitute its intended audience. Shenzhen Nightly News (深圳晚报) is a comprehensive newspaper aimed at blue collar workers and ordinary people, who are interested in gossip, local happenings, and a concise reiteration of who’s in charge. Jing Bao (晶报) seems aimed at Generation 80, who are interested in hip takes on the news, more arts reportage, and have slightly “new social movement” impulses, including interests in environmentalism, social justice, and healthy yoga lifestyles.
What happens when new social media challenge that monopoly? Insight comes from how the Shenzhen News Publishing Group has targeted morning commuters on the Shenzhen subway.
During the Shenzhen morning commute, subway riders read Subway 8 a.m., read weibo, or space out; few actually talk to each other or watch the incessant advertising broadcasts on the LED screens (four to a car so that everyone can watch). Shenzhen News Publishing prints Subway 8 a.m. (地铁早8点) under its Shenzhen Metropolitan (深圳都市报) brand and distributes it to commuters on their way to work. The free newspaper unabashedly rehashes news in the most provocative ways, foregoing either analysis or background, reproducing in paper form the weibo experience. In yesterday’s edition, for example, the drought in Lijiang is covered in 91 characters, with a picture three times the size of the text area. Likewise, a 131 character report on Shenzhen’s heatwave was sensationalized with an over-saturated image of a human silhouette against an azure sky and white cloud. In a more explicit weibo reference, a story about a drunken subway rider who used a fire extinguisher to smash a window and then attacked the subway worker who tried to stop him included four surveillance coverage photos, a brief description of what had happened, and a report of weibo cries for human flesh. What’s more, Subway 8 a.m. does not include political news; this isn’t a newspaper, but a collection of sensationalist stories, sports coverage, and gossip.
The differences between Subway 8 a.m. and weibo are also instructive because they remind us that although the weibo and Subway 8 a.m. provide the same content, nevertheless the form of reporting is critical both to a reader’s experience and (as yet) to capitalist experience, indicating why the Shenzhen Publishing Group has decided to publish a free gossip rag. On the one hand, from a reader’s perspective, Subway 8 a.m. comes in paper form with all the advantages thereof: bigger characters for easy reading, space for somewhat longer stories so that readers can choose between weibo-shorts and more detailed reports on why your child is always coughing or services for wishing neidi mothers, “Happy Mother’s Day!” Consequently, Subway 8 a.m. appeals to those of us who are tired of backlit spaces or enjoy the feel of newsprint or may even want to read an article that will occupy our imaginations for longer than it takes to ride from the Window of the World to the OCT station. On the other hand, from a business perspective, Subway 8 a.m. includes space for advertising. The early edition’s front page includes the masthead, one headline, and two half-page advertisements. Consequently, in between the front-page and the back-page gossip (“We no longer believe in love” was the title of the article on Zhang Yimou’s decision to sign with CCA and split with Zhang Weiping’s Beijing New Pictures (北京新画面影业公司) and yes it was a report on a weibo report!) are 22 pages filled with advertisements that look suspiciously like weibo stories — compelling pictures and seductive blurbs, such as: luxurious homes on the subway line.
Point du jour: the Shenzhen News Publishing Group has met the weibo challenge to its monopoly over local news (and sports and entertainment and society) coverage by becoming a print edition of weibo plus. Like weibo, Subway 8 a.m. is free-of-charge and content-lite, plus easy to read characters, plus slightly longer stories, and plus plus: advertising and info-stories.