Drinking the night away in Tsinghua beer ville

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.

Tomorrow night, Shanghai journalists will be continuing a long-standing tradition of foreign correspondents everywhere: they will go out to a bar and drink. It’s a regular Thursday night event for us here, or we hope it will be.

Last Thursday, we started drinking at 8 p.m. I had to go back to work at 2 a.m., but the party continued after I left.

But to be honest, foreign correspondents don’t really drink very much anymore. We’re scared of losing our jobs, for one thing. But also, the world has changed. We can’t get away with it now.

In times past, you could safely rewrite the Pravda or Izvestiya report, or have an assistant translate an article from Beijing, and happily pass it off as your own product. You could go to a party or two, pick up some gossip, and file it as information from “knowledgeable inside sources.” You could tell editors that this was China, or Russia, or wherever, and people just did not speak on the record. And they, being in awe of you and a bit scared of your ability to report overseas, would buy it.

Now, any editor can simply Google your story subject and the original People’s Daily article would pop right up. Ouch! Major buzzkill.

But it gets worse. The editor would Google your competition. Ten years ago, it would have been too hard to find the China stories written on the same subject by diferent reporters, unless it was the one big story that everyone was writing that week.

Now, editors can Google anything, and ask you, “Why couldn’t you get any sources when Plkj Zslkjp over at Bloomberg got six people to talk on the record?”

I do that routinely to my writers. If anybody else has more sources than us .. well, we’ve got some explaining to do.

I expect my editors to do it to me. After all, it takes just a couple of seconds, and it’s great for quality control.

For State-side stories, reporters have always had to keep an eye on the competition, and would get chewed out when they didn’t.

Now, we have to do the same overseas, as well. And for every one of us hanging out at the bar last Thursday night, there were ten slaving over their computers.

So the days of wine and baijou are over and done with. It’s a good thing, of course, but it does take quite a bit of the romance out of the profession.

Signing off in Shanghai,