Opinion & Analysis

Digital developments in Asian media

Colin Peacock (right) interviewing Yusuf Omar, co-founder of mobile storytelling platform Hashtag Our Stories, in Singapore. (Photo: Colin Peacock)

Colin Peacock, producer of Radio NZ's Mediawatch programme, comments on digital developments across the news media industry in Asia after attending the East West Center’s ‘What is News Now?’ journalism conference.

OPINION: In June 2018, I attended the East West Center’s international media conference “What is News Now?” held in Singapore with the assistance of a travel grant from the Asia New Zealand Foundation.

The conference was an exceptional opportunity to hear from and question journalists, editors, media executives, researchers and academics from all over the Asia-Pacific region and beyond.

It gave me fresh insights into many of the key issues facing the news media across our region – and plenty of material to air on RNZ National’s Mediawatch programme.

News media adaptation and digital transformation

I learned a lot about how Asian media outlets big and small are adapting to the new environment.

Under the leadership of New Zealand-educated former Google executive Gary Liu, Hong Kong’s main and long-established daily South China Morning Post has invested heavily in its digital transition.

It creates ambitious online visualisations and online communities and has partnered with digital-first news outlets such as Politico.

And it’s been done without – so far – ‘cannibalising’ the resources of the printed edition of the paper.

However, this has been bankrolled by new owners: Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba. That  prompted questions about the independence of editorial content concerning business and politics in the PRC.

On a smaller scale, Frontier Myanmar magazine has found a wider audience and supports for its in-depth journalism in Myanmar.

Likewise online news platform The Irrawaddy – founded in 1993 by a group of Burmese journalists living in exile in Thailand – is a thriving online platform dedicated to free and fair reporting.

Rise of Asian digital native outlets and startups

While costly investigative journalism is under pressure all over the world, some impressive initiatives were represented at the conference.

The non-profit Korea Center for Investigative Journalism (KCIJ) in Seoul – under the leadership of Yong Jin Kim – has become a well-known brand in South Korea. It contributes stories of considerable public interest to news partners in South Korea.

It is fully independent from the state, and also from corporate or philanthropic foundations. It has a budget of US$5 million (NZ$7.5 million) a year based on donations from more than 40,000 members paying on average US$15 each per month.

It also raises money publishing journalism books – and even made a fundraising movie.

In Malaysia, subscriber-funded and ad-supported Malaysiakini has become the country’s leading online-only news platform with a focus on hard-hitting political coverage.

Malaysiakini publishes in English, Malay, Chinese and Tamil, allowing editors and journalists the full freedom to practise professional and ethical journalism, without interference of the shareholders, advertisers or government.

Social media editor Norman Goh says most Malaysians have a Facebook account and are heavy users of Facebook and other online platforms. Malyasiakini has exploited this to acquire more than 4 million followers.

“By paying for content, news readers help maintain the focus on quality news and an informed society – as well as an accountable government,” says Malaysiakini.

Richard Hoechner, co-founder of crowd-funded Swiss magazine Republik said it has a staff of 26 and raised 3.5 million Swiss francs (NZ$5.3 million) to start up. Foundation donors are being re-paid.

He said many media are fighting to report the news and lots of jobs lost because Google and Facebook are soaking up the advertising revenue they depended upon in the past. “But there is a new economic logic that doesn’t follow the ad market,” he said.

Republik has a hard paywall – but stories can be shared by members. World news scoops are shared with local media – for instance, this story about timber industry corruption in Malaysia.

There is a lot here for New Zealand media to consider as more companies and start-ups ponder paywalls or online subscriber schemes.

Rise of China in media and AI tech

To date, US-based tech companies have dominated the disruption of the news media industry and provided the digital tools and innovations they use online.

The major innovations of the future – including AI-based technologies – are likely to come from China.

Tencent is the world’s fifth-largest internet company by revenue. It owns messaging app WeChat – which has 1 billion monthly active users and is a payment system as well as a social media platform. Tencent recently bought leading New Zealand digital games-maker Grinding Gear Games.

Tencent has developed the AI-based Dreamwriter system which Chinese media have used to write automated stories since 2015. In 2017, Tencent says Dreamwriter was used to publish more than two thousand articles per day.

Tencent Vice President Caitlyn Chen spoke in Chinese with an (often inaccurate) simultaneous AI-driven translation on screen.

She said Dreamwriter can write stories from data for publication in seconds adding charts and embedded video if required.

“If you are a sports journalist, you can work on higher-value reporting,” she said.

She said Tencent employs hundreds of fact-checkers and AI-assisted apps to reduce fake news on WeChat and online.

“We must comply with laws and do the best for our customers. We protect the users privacy and data we have a strict process to make sure they have a safe and reliable environment especially teenagers,” she said.

Official Chinese news agency Xinhua is now a huge global media business with more than 120 bureaus around the world. 18,000 journalists contribute to 2,500 news clients using Xinhua Cloud editing apps.

Chang Ailing, social media editor for the world service of Xinhua, said its Media Brain AI-assisted reporting system can capture videos and publish in 20 seconds.

She said Xinhua was reaching out to a global audiences of 112 million followers on open platforms like YouTube and Facebook.

But she was challenged by Tom Grundy of Hong Kong Free Press, which has reported Xinhua may have purchased followers on Twitter, according the co-founder of TwitterAudit, a tool designed to detect fake users on the popular social site.

HKFP reported that an audit conducted last May on the @XHNews English Twitter feed suggested that only 11 per cent of the news agency’s followers were real.

The AI-based online tools that Chinese media use to great effect were also discussed in a workshop called Journalism from the frontline of China’s surveillance state.

Jocelyn Ford, a Beijing-based correspondent and filmmaker and former chair of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China said China has moved from controlling access for international journalists to “exporting self-censorship and creating an increasingly restrictive reporting environment”.

State-owned mainstream media – like Xinhua, CCTV, People’s Daily – have been reminded they have an over-arching loyalty to the Communist Party of China.

“Chinese journalists have long existed in one of the world’s most restrictive systems,” she said, adding that they now suffer “the worst repression in years”.

Watchdog journalism which was typical in some news organisations 10 to 20 years ago has vanished, she said.

This was disputed by Minsu Wu, professor of journalism and communication at the Communication University of China in Beijing.

“There are problems in every country. Every country has censorship as well ... so we have editors before the news goes to air who are in control of this,” she said.

In mainland China with such a huge population ... if the news is like fake or not trustworthy chaos might happen ... so it should be sometimes censored.”

If you report for the international Chinese media services with that platform journalist have more access to tell a story in different ways, she said.

“I invite your listeners to listen to China Radio International, visit the website or apps, and watch CGTN English.”

Colin Peacock attended the East West Center’s international media conference “What is News Now?” held in Singapore with the assistance of a travel grant from the Asia New Zealand Foundation.

– Asia Media Centre

Read also:

Stories on Mediawatch

Other stories on the East West Center’s International Media Conference