Greetings from Shanghai, China

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).

Dan Kubiske, chair of the SPJ’s International Journalism Committee, suggested that I blog about my experiences running a bureau out here in Shanghai, so this is it.

Some background — I came to China three years ago, to run the China bureau for Securities Industry News (a weekly New York City financial newspaper). The work has since expanded to include several other SourceMedia publications, including CardLine Asia-Pacific, where my staff and I cover payments throughout the entire Asian region.

It started out as a one-man bureau run out of my apartment in downtown Shanghai. Last year, we rented an office not too far away (okay, two blocks — I’ve got a great commute), and we moved over. I was running out of space to put desks, and it very uncomfortable to get up in the middle of the day (after being up all night dealing with US-based editors and sources) in your pajamas to find your staff looking at you in all your bed-head glory — bad enough — but then if they’ve got investment bankers in for interviews — oh, very embarrassing.

Not to mention the kids running in from school at 4:30 every day screaming like crazy people.
In the new office, we’ve got the seven of us, plus another guy, Stephan, a European business reporter who’s renting space from us.

The rest of my employees are scattered around the world — India, France, Malaysia, the US. I’m trying to do more and more with India. I just came back from a 10-day reporting trip where I visited a few outsourcing companies in the south of India, plus the big NASSCOM conference in Mumbai last month. I read the local papers and met with local journalists everywhere I went. The language skills are excellent, the reporting standards are high, and the writing is very much American-style. Or British style, more like.

And the wage rates are the same as in China — in other words, about a tenth of what the equivalent position would pay in the United States.

Now, I love my Chinese writers — Alex Dai, who started working for me a few months back, is now probably one of the top payments reporters in Asia, writing four or more stories a day about credit cards and e-payments and ATMs and ebanking and remittances. Wang Fangqing (Frances) just got her first byline in Securities Industry News this week, after several months of having just a “contributed to” credit.

Neither she nor Alex had any prior business journalism experience. In general, I’m leery of hiring experienced Chinese reporters from the local papers — I’ve heard too many stories about ethics problems — and seen too many journalists get “red envelopes” of cash from sources. Including Western companies. And I do plan to name names in this blog.

I’ve interviewed a few Chinese newspaper journalists for jobs. Here’s a typical example:

A young man comes in, says he’s been doing rewrites of business stories for a local Chinese paper, wants to move over to the reporting side. Good so far, I ask him about his English skills. He says that they’re great — he spends all his time translating articles from US papers. That was his job. Taking stories from US papers, translating them, and running them in his. The fact that he bragged about the copyright infringement in the job interview was what came as a shock to me.

Another job applicant told me that the reason he wanted to work for me was because this would give him the inside scoop on what was going on in the business world, and help his investments.

A couple of years ago, a freelancer turned in an article that was the usual barely-comprehensible disorganized rough draft that you normally get from non-native, non-journalist writers. Well, the first half was — the second half was smooth and polished, and had the ring of familiarity about it. I Googled it — it was lifted directly from a Wall Street Journal article.

She was surprised that I was upset. “They wrote it much better than I could have.”

That is true. (The WSJ rocks.)

As a result, for a couple of years now, I’ve been requiring writers to submit full contact information for each source, full interview transcripts (with English translations) and full research notes, including press releases and links to online sources. A year ago, we codified the entire process into an online database (we use Dabble DB). Now, all writers get a login and password and can go online to check what articles they have due and when, search our source database for contacts, and add transcripts, research notes, and so on.

We make all the information available to editors back in the US. Some magazines do full fact-checking of every story, and it’s nice to have all the info immediately available.

But anyway, back to my original point — once we had the online editorial workflow system set up, it became easy to plug people into it anywhere in the world. So there’s a copy editor in Paris, for example, who uses the database to fact-check our payments stories and to answer questions from editors in Chicago while we’re all asleep.

And a reporter in India, Jojo Puthuparampil, uses the database to to file information on payments and securities stories. Jojo is great — he’s the most experienced of my writers, with several years covering business and stock markets for Indian papers. And he writes in fluent English, with only the occasional British “colour” or “centre” thrown in.

So far, he’s only worked on India-related stories for me, but there is no reason that he can’t report on other countries. For example, from Shanghai, we regularly cover stories in Australia, Japan, Korea, Russia — even Dubai and Brazil. And that’s in addition to all the US securities infrastructure coverage we do.

Over the course of this year, I plan to significantly expand my use of Indian copy editors and researchers and reporters. I’ll keep you guys posted on how it works out — I’m sure I’m not the only one interested in this area.

If I was a US-based reporter who did all her work on the telephone, I’d be very very worried right now.

The problem is temporary, of course. Soon, salaries will equalize. Today, nobody thinks of Japan as a low-cost provider of anything, but a generation ago “Japanese” was synonymous for “cheap.” (I remember that one of my dad’s favorite country-western songs was “I’ll never buy another little Japanese car.”)

I’m sure India will be there soon enough. But, meanwhile, the transition is likely to cause problems for some working journalists.

Reuters is already moving quite a bit of work to India.

I picked up some gossip about their operations while I was there. Keep in mind that this is completely unsubstantiated industry rumor, but I hear that that the Reuters reporting jobs are major grinds — you crank out a million (well, a very large number) of little corporate financial pieces based on company announcements, unbylined, and, as a reward, you occasionally get to do a longer reported story. I’m told that the reporters are pretty unhappy (again, total rumor). And, as a disclosure, I regularly report about what Reuters is doing in the securities space, and I used to work for Reuters ten years ago when I was in Russia, and I loved it.

The thing about those overworked Indian Reuters guys though — right now, they’re churching out low-level earnings reports. Tomorrow, they’re doing longer pieces. And, then, news and analysis. And Reuters will be creating a population of financial reporters who are used to working for a Western media outlet.

In fact, I’m expecting calls from some of these folks any day now, looking for an op
portunity to write longer pieces and get bylines in US pubs.

It gives the term “foreign correspondent” a whole new meaning, doesn’t it?

If you want to talk to me about anything, feel free to email me at or you can post a comment on this blog.

In the future, I plan to blog about how to get started as a foreign correspondent (I get asked this a lot), about the time that Michael Jordan saved my life, and how to get instantly fluent in Chinese (using Google Translate).

Meanwhile, gotta run. It’s Saturday, and I have to catch up on my sleep from last week.

Signing off in Shanghai,

– Maria