August 8, 2011

USA Today, Meet China's Fake News Bureau (Guest Post)


Hiding in a nondescript commercial building in the go-go Chaoyang District of Beijing is a 5,000 square meter office that could make Western journalists queasy. The small brass plaque above the door reads simply “Popular News,” which does not prepare the casual visitor for the shocking tableau on the other side of the smoked glass entrance.

In the tradition of knock-off Apple Stores, Starbucks, Ikea furniture stores and other famous retailers, Popular News copies the look and feel of a smoke-filled Western newsroom, down to the cheap x86 PCs, broken office chairs, glaring fluorescent lighting, stained industrial carpeting and impersonal generic desks.

Sophisticated China pirates are no longer content with slapping together a burger joint with yellow signs and a large ‘M’ out front.

Fake Starbucks and KFCs are so old school,” said Myron Jablonski, analyst of popular trends at Booze, Inc. in Hong Kong. “It used to be all about faking successful retailers, but these days, PR is the main concern. Why piggyback a famous brand when you can get into the news-making business yourself? It makes perfect sense.”

China Hearsay received a tip about Popular News last month from an anonymous blogger in Kunming, who saw the fake news bureau on a recent trip to China’s capital city. We sent our intern Kiki for a firsthand look, and what she found was shocking:

None of the ‘journalists’ occupying the newsroom were actually doing anything productive, but were playing computer games, trolling social media, or smoking.

Most of them are actors,” admitted Xiao Li, a former employee of Popular News. “The company discovered years ago that 98% of all news could be produced by an off-the-shelf computer program, which analyzes trending stories and just cobbles together a generic news article. You can’t tell the difference.”

Reproducing the exact atmosphere of a successful Western newsroom is for the benefit of advertisers, who are encouraged to visit and walk through the bustling office. The presentation is impressive – profits ofPopular News have increased 65% in the past eleven months, since they switched over to the new “no journalists” business model.

“I made a huge ad buy after visiting their office,” said Michael Zhao, head of the Number Three Coat Hanger Factory in Tianjin. “The cheap office equipment, editors shouting at reporters and calling them illiterate, security escorting laid off staff out the building, all that clutter – the environment was perfect! I thought I was in Cleveland or Denver, not Beijing.”

For Popular News, it’s all about brand experience. Their advertisers are seeking the credibility that comes with a shabby newsroom and uninspired, derivative journalism, and nothing is left to chance. The sound of typewriters is filtered in through loudspeakers, and extra cigarette smoke is pumped in via dedicated air vents in the walls.

“The goal is the look and feel of the Washington Post newsroom in All the President’s Men but with the content of USA Today,” said Xiao Li. “They even found a foreign actor with a Thomas Friedman mustache.”

Duplicating a foreign newspaper may seem amusing, noted Salvatore Rabinowitz of the Foreign Correspondents Association, but the unmasking of Popular News is a worrying development for Western news outlets, many of which are teetering on bankruptcy. “If this exposé shines a light on puerile, clichéd news stories, we could all be in trouble.”

About The Author - Stan Abrams is a Beijing-based IP/IT lawyer and law professor. Stan has an M.A. from Johns Hopkins in International Relations, a J.D. from Boston College Law School, and a B.A. from Pomona College.  He blogs at China Hearsay.  (EconMatters author archive here)

The views and opinions expressed herein are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of EconMatters.

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