Guancha.cn is one of the most popular and influential news websites in China nowadays. Judging by its size and unusual growth trajectory, Guancha.cn seems rather “amateur” in comparison to other news agencies—be it new media tycoons like Caixin.com and thepaper.cn, or established traditional media barons such as the Global Times and the Jiefang Daily. However, Guancha.cn ranks very high on the media billboard (provincial level) issued by the Cyberspace Administration of China, surpassing even thepaper.cn and Caixin.com in terms of media influence and popularity, let alone other traditional old-guards of the media.
Given this, one may wonder how Guancha.cn made inroads into China’s competitive media arena from scratch—and with few endorsements from the government. On November 6th, Jin Zhongwei, the co-founder and CEO of Guancha.cn held a talk with students from the Tsinghua-SAIS dual degree program, revealing the secrets of the new media dark horse.
According to Mr. Jin, Guancha.cn with an undermanned staff of 60 people now generates more media impacts than its full-fledged competitors like thepaper.cn and Caixin.com; each hires more than 10 times of employees than Guancha.cn does, especially in areas like Wechat and Weibo. Given this outstanding productivity and efficacy, Mr. Jin even intimates Guancha.cn is the Tesla in the field of news media. After all, Tesla reportedly generates an output of $11 by $1 input, while a similar input carmaker giant like GM only produces a $1.8 output.
Mr. Jin believes what differentiates Guancha.cn from others is not competence of the staff (since most of them are newly graduated students with little work experience), not corporation governance (as many institutes streamline their internal organization with assistance from consulting companies like McKinsey or BCG), not technological advance (as the more established news agencies tend to invest in capital intensive gadgets and then enjoy a good head start in the technology arena), but the guiding concept that oriented the company, what Mr. Jin termed, “the 21st century concept.”
Mr. Jin is a veteran in the industry. He used to be the deputy editor-in-chief of Dongfang Daily, a traditional newspaper based in Shanghai. In Dongfang Daily, he found that although the demand for news was growing rather rapidly, fewer and fewer people bought newspaper and the advertisement revenue plummeted to new depths. And, with hundreds of employees and an established norm, it was very hard for Dongfang Daily to brave the uncharted waters of new media. Transplanting newspaper content onto its website simply turned out unappealing to picky online readers.
This experience drove him to the conclusion that traditional newspaper and media must catch up with the latest trends; otherwise they may well face a debacle sooner or later. Moreover, instead of following the trends, a successful news agency must create and lead the trend. Bearing this belief in mind, Mr. Jin decided to found Guancha.cn with Eric X. Li, an insightful venture capitalist, to implement his designs and concepts.
Mr. Jin proudly said that “treating every assistant editor like an editor-in-chief” is the motto behind the “people first” principle. Normally, assistant editors have little experience and only perform simple assignments given by their supervisors. However, in Guancha.cn, assistant editors are recruited into different training tutorials and seminars, taught either by the senior executives like Mr. Jin himself or visiting scholars like Francis Fukuyama. These training tutorials and seminars are held on a weekly basis in different places across China, ensuring every trainee has plenty of time and opportunities to interact with practitioners and scholars.
Mr. Jin even boasted that after intensive training, “assistant editors can do what is usually done by the editor-in-chief”. For example, every piece of news used to be “checked and approved” at least three times by editors of different levels for quality control; now, a trained assistant editor can perform the same, thanks to his or her deep understanding and refined sensitivity to the internet news regulations .
Another feature of Guancha.cn is its decentralized structure. Unlike traditional newspaper and news agencies, Guancha.cn has no reporter station and technical team spread over different places. Instead, it outsources the technical tasks to the professional contractors and some reporting tasks to a network of “local freelancers and aficionados.” The network consists of students, private sector employees, scholars and businessmen from all over the world. They are not professional journalists, but have deep insights into local realities. More importantly, they develop a sense of sympathy for Guancha.cn, identifying with its values and outlooks. Thanks to this “shadow network of reports”, Guancha.cn is able to react quickly and gather first-hand information in a very cost-effective fashion. For instance, when a massive protest was staged in Egypt in 2012, a Chinese student in Cairo wrote the on-site report for Guancha.cn, making the website a rare and unique news source.
The internal structure of Guancha.cn also demonstrates its decentralized structure. There are many small working groups that are responsible for different content on the website. Led by “genius and zealot”, these groups have outstanding specialty into their focused areas, including military affairs, economics, international relations, finance, culture and various regional studies. This division of labor makes Guancha.cn very professional in certain areas and allows them to dig deeper into the news. For example, Guancha.cn recruited a couple who mastered Russian and are big fans of Guancha. Thanks to their prominent language skills and the team built around them, Guancha.cn was able to translate Russian President Putin’s speech script promptly and then became the news source even for Xinhua News Agency, one of the major propaganda organs of the Party.
“Why” is always more important than the other “what, where, when”. Mr. Jin acknowledged that Guancha.cn may not be as quick as other established new agencies who own widespread reporter network and professional communication facilities, but this seems irrelevant. Because most people now passively receive news feeds pushed out by media and are exposed to the latest news immediately, quickness makes little difference. So, instead of speed, Mr. Jin stresses the depth of news reporting. Thanks to the “shadow network” from outside and specialist groups from inside, Guancha.cn is able to carry out pinpointed investigations and in-depth analysis about breaking news. In comparison to descriptive news reports which appear dry in general, Guancha.cn offers substantive stories and penetrating op-ed comments. Undoubtedly, this feature accounts for at least part of Guancha.cn’s extraordinary popularity.
Last but not least is the values and philosophy behind Guancha.cn’s news reporting. Mr. Jin maintains that new media is drastically different from traditional media. In traditional newspaper, every piece of news is supposed to be accurate and seek “truth”. For new media, however, this doctrine is almost impossible to implement. Many breaking news stories are reported by individuals who happen to be on the site, therefore they accidently become news sources. If new media goes through the entire process of “check and approval”, then the time value of news will just evaporate. Considering this, Guancha.cn adopts its own philosophy. Instead of seeking the ultimate monolith of “truth” for readers, Guancha.cn presents readers with a dynamic motion picture of multifaceted truth, that is, to approach truth with the best possible approximations over time. The world of news is subject to drastic turns. Guancha.cn closely follows up and gives its own investigations later. Many times, Guancha.cn has revealed that a piece of astonishing “news” turned out merely to be a prank or a “smart commercial”. This process of presenting, revealing, and debunking can be very educational, fostering a sense of critical thinking among average online readers.