Chese Newspaper Wars in New York City

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Mon Nov 10 16:42:33 UTC 2003

New York Times, November 10, 2003

Newspaper War, Waged a Character at a Time


    During the blackout in August, reporters for the city's four Chinese
dailies did not have electric generators to see them through the night.
But that did not stop one of them, Ming Pao Daily News, from trying to
best its rivals. The half-dozen reporters in the Chinatown bureau of Ming
Pao wrote their stories in longhand on a large table inside a
generator-powered Holiday Inn.

One reporter then walked with the stories uptown and across the Queensboro
Bridge to the newspaper's main office, in Long Island City, where five
editors who had camped out overnight typed them into the computers as soon
as the electricity came back on at 5:15 a.m. By 10 a.m., the papers were
in readers' hands. "I can proudly tell you that Ming Pao was the first to
get the paper out on the street and free to everyone," said Xiaohui Hu,
the newspaper's deputy editor in chief.

The World Journal, another Chinese daily in New York, has its own story of
newspaper-war resourcefulness. For weeks after the Sept. 11 terrorist
attacks, Chinatown was blocked to traffic, so The World Journal carted
newspapers to its readers there by hand truck. And three of the Chinese
dailies crow over how they tore apart their front pages when Madame Chiang
Kai-shek died late on Oct. 23; they informed their readers of the death by
morning, a day before most other newspapers reported it.

Although some of the city's 300 ethnic newspapers may have a languid,
less-than-fresh feel, the Chinese press is aggressive. And the competition
is about to get more cutthroat.  The Oriental Daily News, among Hong
Kong's biggest newspapers, is considering coming to New York City to
become the fifth Chinese daily. So zealous is the rivalry among the
dailies for news (and so tight their budgets) that each reporter has a
quota of 2,000 words, or, more precisely, 2,000 characters, to write each
day, often in two or three stories. The China Press also requires its
reporters to shoot three usable photos a day.

"The quality is not so good, but it cuts down the cost," explained I-Der
Jeng, its editor. For the city's 360,000 Chinese and Chinese-American
residents, the Chinese-language dailies (and the dozen weeklies) provide
generous helpings of news about compatriots in China, Taiwan and Chinese
communities elsewhere. The newspapers regularly parse politicians' moves
to measure the impact on the half-century battle over the identity of
Taiwan. But they also teach immigrants about American peculiarities like
potluck dinners and sleepovers. They explore options for bringing
relatives to the United States under opaque immigration laws.

"Our headline today is that the Homeland Security Department requires
that, starting next spring, all foreign students have to pay $100 to get
into this country," said Joe Wei, the national desk editor of The World
Journal. "In other newspapers this is going to be on Page 43." The Chinese
newspapers tell new arrivals about jobs and apartments in Chinese
neighborhoods. They specify which schools are high-performing and where to
find SAT cram schools.

"You want to buy a Cadillac, instead of going to Potamkin you look through
the ads for someplace in Queens run by a Chinese person," said Peter
Kwong, professor of Asian-American studies at Hunter College. "They can
explain the deal better." Of course, the dailies chronicle the same news
as English-language newspapers: the rape charges against Kobe Bryant
(since the arrival of the Houston Rockets' Yao Ming, basketball has become
a big sport among Chinese-Americans), a new drug to combat breast cancer,
or an announcement by City Hall.

The newspapers also run a lot of articles on crimes against Asians. Wendy
Cheung of The World Journal is proud of the scoops she gets from
detectives she has cultivated in the Fifth Precinct in Chinatown. Just as
in any good newspaper war, each of the Chinese newspapers is dismissed by
the others. The World Journal is called an apologist for Taiwan, The China
Press a mouthpiece for mainland China, Sing Tao Daily a tabloid-like
scandal sheet, and Ming Pao a small nonthreat.

In each case, the truth is more complicated. The World Journal, a division
of the 50-year-old United Daily News Group of Taiwan, set foot in the
United States in 1976 and now has papers in New York, San Francisco and
nine other cities. With 25 reporters and 12 translators in the New York
area, it is the reigning powerhouse in North America.

"We positioned ourselves as The New York Times for overseas Chinese
people," said Tina Lee, the paper's assistant president. Ms. Lee, 31, a
graduate of Stanford University Law School, is the granddaughter of T. W.
Wang, the founder of the United Daily News Group (and a friend of the
Chiang family). She estimates that her paper has 90,000 readers in New
York and 360,000 nationally. Many readers, she says, are highly educated
and high earning, and, despite the paper's origins in Taiwan, a majority
are from the mainland. Like circulation claims made by the other
newspapers, hers are hard to verify, since the newspapers do not submit
their circulation to audits.

Sing Tao Daily, an offshoot of its Hong Kong namesake, is more open to a
dash of sensation. It runs a daily page with pictures of revealingly
dressed women and is more likely to run a photograph of the shark-mangled
body of a man who tried to sneak into the United States. But it follows
the news from Iraq as diligently as its competitors and has started a page
with news from Wenzhou, a boomtown south of Shanghai that is the latest
source of immigrants. Rick Ho, the deputy general manager of Sing Tao,
claims a circulation of 50,000 in New York and says the paper outsells The
World Journal in Chinatown and Brooklyn. Still, as a thriving Hong
Kong-based paper, Sing Tao would seem to have the most to fear from the
arrival of The Oriental Daily News.

Ming Pao, which has been here six years and claims a circulation of
20,000, is also an offshoot of a Hong Kong newspaper, but it regards
itself as more of an intellectual's broadsheet. Mr. Hu, the deputy editor
in chief, says he is not worried about the more middlebrow Oriental Daily.
The China Press, which claims 45,000 readers in New York, denies the
accusations of its competitors that its editorial policy and finances are
controlled by Beijing.

"We are not the spokesman for the Chinese government," said Mr. Jeng, the
editor, adding that his roots were in Taiwan. "We have a lot of mainland
China news because we think it serves the interest of overseas Chinese in
the U.S." The day that other Chinese front pages in New York were full of
accounts of a wake for Madame Chiang, Mr. Jeng's paper placed the story on
Page 16.

The competition is fevered possibly because each newspaper is aware of its
precarious existence, given the passions of China-Taiwan politics. There
were 10 Chinese daily newspapers in the New York area in the mid-1980's,
but some made gaffes and folded. For instance, the Taiwan-linked China
Times showcased the Chinese team in the 1984 Olympics, angering its
Taiwanese backers. The Centre Daily News, also Taiwanese, supported the
Chinese government's crackdown in Tiananmen Square in 1989 and lost not
just its readers but its staff.

With more readers comfortable in English, the newspapers have revised
their format, printing Chinese text horizontally, from left to right,
rather than vertically, from top to bottom. That allows them to insert
English phrases like "early decision" or "the official preppy handbook"
into articles. (Reporters use English keyboards, writing Chinese
characters by typing in a phonetic version of a Chinese word; this brings
up a menu of possible Chinese characters.) The newspapers are also aware
that even successful immigrant papers can have a paradoxically perilous

In the 1920's, The Forward, in Yiddish, had a daily circulation of
250,000. It helped acclimate its readers and their descendants so well to
a new land that its Yiddish edition is now a weekly with about 5,000
readers. "It's something that we think about," Ms. Lee of The World
Journal said.  "But Chinese is the second-most-spoken foreign language
behind Spanish, and the rate of immigration in this country is tremendous.
So at this point we still see it as a growth market."

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