This is one among a litany of terms relating to ethical abuses in Chinese media. It has never been clearly defined, but can be generally understood as the practice of releasing information in the form of a news report in return for gains personally or for one’s media organization [definition at Modern Broadcasting website].
Some sources trace the phenomenon to an early column in Shanghai’s Wenhui Bao into which “news” was routinely sold. At that time reporters called such exchanges of news for cash “food coupon news” (饭票新闻).
An article on Sina.com identifies six forms of paid-for news, as follows:
1. Receiving money or other forms of benefit in exchange for news coverage;
2. Doing news coverage in exchange for advertising or circulation benefitss or sponsorship;
3. Forcing money or other forms of personal or institutional benefit by threatening negative news coverage (“news extortion”).
4. Media editors or bosses demanding their subordinates play a role in revenue creation, thus blurring the line between business and editorial;
5. Exchanging news with other media or journalists for payment or other benefit;
6. Public relations companies doing so-called “news reporting” on behalf of their clients and paying for space or airtime.
Forms of paid-for news, however, are constantly evolving. One article by People’s Daily described how some journalists work mention of so-called “clients” (those who have paid them for coverage) into stories in an indirect way, for example when addressing more general topics.