How (not) to write a China article

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).

Sinocidal (a.k.a. “Five guys hanging around in China”) has a great post today by blogger ChouChou about how to write a China article.

Quick summary:

* Title: China/The Dragon/The East/1.3 Billion People/Red Star + Rises/Century/Awakes/Stirs/Does Dallas
* Interview a taxi driver
* Add in a contrast — such as a statue of Mao with an ad for Coca-Cola in the background.
* End with a vague conclution about things looking bright — or remaining unclear — for either the country or for specific individuals in it. Or combine all of the above like this: “It seems that the future is looking bright for the 1.3 billion people who make up the world’s most populous nation. But for Li *** – who is still working at the condom factory for just two grains of rice a year – that future is still unclear.”

Fellow blogger Mike J. compared it to this McSweeney classic: Create Your Own Thomas Friedman Op-Ed Column.

I agree that there’s a lot of formulaic writing out there.

In effect, what I think is happening is that writers are rewriting articles that have already been done, adding in their own color and quotes but without doing the hard work of actually discovering the trends on their own.

Back when newspapers were closed little universes — their subsribers and only their subscribers saw their articles, and their subscribers didn’t see articles from anywhere else — it made sense for every newspaper to have its own “big picture” story about major news events.

Now, with everything available online all the time, there’s no reason for anybody to be writing the same story that, say, the New York Times has already done. Unless they think they can do it better, or take a different angle, or otherwise add value to the discussion.

I believe that more and more news outlets are realizing this and cutting back on their “me, too” coverage — which reduces the numbers of stories such as those that ChouChou was making fun of.

There are two possible consequences of this: an outlet can cut back on its foreign coverage, or, an outlet can redirect that coverage in a more useful direction.

Too often the former happens.

I personally feel that foreign news is becoming steadily more important to people with globalization, so newspapers should be looking for ways to make foreign coverage more specific, unique, and relevant for their readers.

Say, for example, you’re the Springfield Times. You want to do a China story, and have a budget to send a correspondent there. You’re afraid that he’ll come back with the Sinocidal-style formula piece.

There are lots of ways to localize the China story, and make it useful and relevant for readers. Some examples (these are off the top of my head — I’m sure there are many others):

* Springfielders adopt babies from China. How does this process work? Where do the babies come from? What are the conflicts and/or trends involved? (Requires visits to the orphanages involved, possibly home villages of the babies, home visits to the new parents, interviews with grown-up adoptees.)
* Springfielders get stuff from China. Poisoned petfood is just one example. Look at an industry important to Springfield and find out how China is changing that industry. If a plant moved to China, visit the new plant. What is it like? How does it compare to the Springfield plant? Are there any problems? Any surprises?
* Springfielders sell stuff to China. Maybe it’s their time and expertise (English teachers or lawyers or architects abroad). Or intellectual property like music or books. Or actual physical stuff — luxury goods, electronic components, medical supplies. Follow them to China and find out how they’re used and who buys them.
* Springfielders lose money in China. For example, a company might see its product copied at a lower price. This can even extend to out-right theft, as in the case of software and movies. Springfield companies may even have problems with China-made counterfeit goods. So visit the factories of the counterfeiters — the victims are usually more than happy to give you directions.

Signing off in Shanghai,