Plotting a future for the People’s Daily

Think media. Think innovation. Think content and presentation for the future. Then blurt out the first newspaper that pops into your head. . . OK, how many of you said the People’s Daily?

It’s no secret to the most cursory of media observers that the People’s Daily and other Party papers — we can call them “the dailies” as most all of them end in the characters ribao (日报), and most all are directly administered by Party committees at their respective administrative levels — more or less missed out on the commercial revolution that remapped China’s media landscape in the 1990s.

Yes, Party media have to varying degrees trailed along behind their commercial media peers, adding pages and selling some advertising. But they remain principally propaganda organs, charged with narrowly reflecting the actions and policy pronouncements of the Party leadership.

While commercial newspapers, which rely entirely on outside sources of revenue (circulation/advertising), have led the reorientation toward the reader since the 1990s, Party papers have had far less need or incentive to respond to the market. Generally, these “mother papers,” or mubao (母报), are supported either by government layouts, or by revenue passed up from their bulkier commercial “child papers,” or zibao (子报).

To understand how their differing orientations — though both of course are ultimately controlled under the mandate of “public opinion guidance” — translated into very divergent media “products,” we need only look at today’s front pages from the People’s Daily, controlled by the Central Committee of the CCP, and its commercial spin-off, the Beijing Times, controlled directly by the People’s Daily as a market-oriented publication.

pd and bj times
[ABOVE: On the left, the official People’s Daily: high-density text with few images, dry official news. On the right, the Beijing Times, more vivid layout and a freer hand with headlines.]

In light of the very restricted role and reality of Chinese media today, it is often fascinating to look at the official discourse inside China about communications design and strategy. Unable to speak freely about the political restrictions and demands placed on media, ostensible communications experts must nevertheless pontificate about the basic principles of media and communications.

No one can talk openly about the elephant in the room — namely, how the overarching business of media control rigs and subverts the game of media strategy.

In an article posted earlier this week to People’s Daily Online, communications scholar Wang Zhi (王志) offers a copious analysis of the People’s Daily, “the leading light of Party newspapers,” and asks how it can maintain its advantage as the “China’s most authoritative and most influential newspaper.”

“As the era of new media arrives, opportunities remain for print media, but the challenges predominate,” the article begins. “The People’s Daily is no exception.”

No exception?

But of course the People’s Daily is an exception. The paper is the chief propaganda organ of the Chinese Communist Party. It is supported by state outlays. It’s 24 daily pages generally carry only four full pages of advertising (which frankly the newspaper could take or leave). Its pages are filled day after day with tinder-dry reports of official goings-on, without any consideration whatsoever of graphic interest or how the paper’s front page might play at newsstands.

What makes the People’s Daily so important is precisely the fact that it is the exception.

Wang Zhi, however, must press ahead with his disingenuous analysis of “the style of the People’s Daily.” He apparently finds nothing ironic about the fact that he is writing about a future in which newspaper layouts matter, at a time when even the commercial newspapers of yesteryear are dying under the onslaught of new media.

Enjoy.

An Elementary Analysis of Page Layout in the People’s Daily (浅析《人民日报》的版面风格)
By Wang Zhi (王志)
October 21, 2014

SUMMARY: The People’s Daily is the leading light of Party newspapers (党报); it is the mouthpiece of the government and of the people. At the same time, as China’s premier newspaper, it is China’s most authoritative and most influential newspaper. Even in the age in which “content is king” (内容为王), it has not lost its shine. But in the age of “image-reading” (读图时代), with the era of information upon us, page layout becomes ever more significant. The excellence of a newspaper is determined by the unison of its content and its page layout, and neither of these two factors can be neglected. The quality of a newspaper’s content, and the richness and vitality of its page layouts affects that survival and development of that newspaper. This article analyzes the style of the People’s Daily in terms of its page layouts, seeking new horizons for future editorial work at the People’s Daily and for its survival and development.

As the era of new media arrives, opportunities remain for print media, but the challenges predominate. The People’s Daily is no exception. How can we allow print media to better face their challenges, so that they might step back from death’s door? This is an issue explored constantly be traditional media — how to break through the obstacles raised by new media, how to maintain advantage, how to find constant innovation in order to preserve their invincible positions.

Newspaper content and page layout are equally important. Content determines style, and style reacts to content. If it divorces itself from either, a newspaper has now long-term development prospects. There is no doubt that the content of the newspaper page remains important, but if the page layout is a mess, [the newspaper] will not be long for this world. By the same token, if a newspaper is eye-catching in terms of its layout . . . but the quality of its content is inferior, this over-reliance on attractive layouts will eventually be rejected in the test of time. And so, to run a good newspaper, you must maintain the quality of its content while at the same time giving care to the layout of its pages.

Doing in-depth reports and using opinion pieces to channel public opinion — this is beyond the reach of new media; if you have your own consistent style in terms of layout, but within that consistency have some measure of change, this gives the reader a sense of freshness. Only this kind of newspaper will have a strong vitality.

pd layout
[ABOVE: Page layouts for a People’s Daily supplement. Are you enthralled?]

The People’s Daily is the official organ newspaper (机关报) of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party, and in terms of both authority and influence it is number one in China. It bears a heavy responsibility to the Party, to the government, to the people and to history. It must speak as a representative of the Party and the government, earnestly doing propaganda work for the Party’s line, principles and policies; it must also speak in place of the masses, expressing the innermost voice of the people. It must uphold correct guidance of public opinion (正确的舆论引导人); it must also point out unhealthy tendencies, carrying forward the national spirit.

In the 1990s, media in our country began going the route of “state-sponsored institutions with enterprise-style management” (事业单位,企业化管理). The People’s Daily also took part in market competition. As the newspaper took responsibility for its own profit and loss, the market had a decisive impact on its survival and development — and its relatively strong market was determined by both its content and its page layout.

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