Buying journalism

Note: This blog post also ran in the Society of Professional Journalism’s “Journalism and the World” blog. Click here to see the original post (and comments).

Tonight, at our weekly drinking session, a fellow journalist called me on the fact that I was planning to name names and point fingers at companies that gave money to journalists to cover their events. But still haven’t.

Did I chicken out? Almost. A person from company I was planning to name first (see below) called me up two days ago and asked for a favor for a friend. Then his wife called me up to arrange details. To make it worse, another friend of theirs was at our drinking gathering tonight.

A real journalist wouldn’t care, Fons told me. (He’s the founder of the Foreign Correspondents Club here.) Am I or am I not a real journalist — or have I become castrated by the daily grind of financial reporting?

Wel, when you put it like that…

It’s a fact of life here in China that journalists get “taxi money” for attending conferences, money which some are then supposed to share with their assignment editors. In return, they pick up a press release from the company and drop it into the paper.

Foreign journalists don’t usually get handed these envelopes of cash. We usually make a fuss.

A digression: this is not always the case, though. I, along with a dozen or so other Europeans and Americans, was recently given one such envelope at a conference in Singapore, and was surprised that I was the only one of the internationational journalists there who raised a stink. Everyone else managed to rationalize accepting the money — even the Americans. I demanded that the PR guy responsible be fired. I don’t know if he was or not, but he was very publicly embarrassed. Apparently, in Singapore, they actually were intending it as taxi money.

Anyway, in China, it happens all the time.

First, a little primer on Chinese money: a 100 RMB note is like a $10 bill (if you round off the exchange rate). So an envelope of 100 RMB notes — just three or four or five — may not look like such a big deal.

But in terms of spending power, 100 RMB is more like $100. A nice big bottle of beer is 3 RMB. So, say, if you’re a journalist who lives on beer, 100 RMB goes along way. A bus ride is 2 RMB. A Papa John’s pizza is 90 RMB, but a real Chinese journalist wouldn’t be ordering one. He’d be getting the 10 RMB Chinese takeout.

So you can see from this that an envelope of 100 RMB bills is good money.

So here’s what happens at a press conference: at the entrance, the foreign journalists are segregated from the locals.

The foreigners get a press packet devoid of money. The locals get the same packet but in Chinese, and with money inside.

That is what happened at a BearingPoint event not too long ago. The giant US-based outsourcing firm flew in senior executives from around the world to answer our questions.

I don’t know if they knew about the envelopes or not, but the New York PR guy did, and shrugged it off as a local cultural thing.

So we get a tour of their facility, and a question-and-answer session with the execs. We got a presentation that made BearingPoint look as if it was number one in China — but the detailed numbers they provided showed that IBM was ahead.

The foreigners present — an IDG guy, a Reuters guy, and myself — demanded an explanation. (Disclosure: I’ve worked for both IDG and Reuters in the past, and think that these are great organizations.) BearingPoint’s answer was that it’s true that IBM may have more people and more revenues in China, but when you slice the numbers just so, and don’t count hardware, and don’t count software… well, you know.

The local journalists stuck to questions like, “What makes you so wonderful?”

I may be wrong, I can’t help feeling that money was a factor.

It’s doesn’t always have to be this way.

When my ex-husband was working for the local office of Hill & Knowlton, he said that he ran into the same attitude when he was arranging events — the Chinese staff in the office assured him that the journalists would expect money.

Instead, when he invited journalist to come, he told them, “This is an actual news event, not a self-serving fluff thing, so there isn’t going to be any taxi money.”

He reports that this didn’t hurt attendance any.

Signing off in Shanghai,