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Wei Xing doesn’t seem to fear change.
In almost two decades in the Chinese media industry, he has moved from working at newspapers in Shanghai to setting up some of the most innovative digital media outlets in China: The Paper, which is overseen by Shanghai United Media Group, a conglomerate owned by the Chinese Communist Party, but doesn’t shy away from controversial topics. He also set up its English-language sibling Sixth Tone.
Not content with text-focused ventures, Wei Xing took the next step into video in 2016, creating Pear Video, which produces short, viral news clips. With a cash injection of more than $15 million from China Media Capital and reportedly nearly $100 million in a Series A funding round, Pear now claims it is China’s leading short news video platform with around 500 million daily views.
Distributed through Weibo, Tencent, and Baidu (the latter two are also investors), the company’s 1,500 daily videos attract not only young urbanites in the world’s second largest economy, but also older users as well as people living in rural areas. Wei Xing explains to Splice how he has adjusted to the technological revolution — and how his news ventures survive in a tightly state-controlled media industry.
(Edit: Story updated to clarify the pitch process from the provinces.)
What was the trigger that made you leave traditional media? When did it happen?
After 2011-2012 we felt that the traditional media had declined; the circulation was declining [and] depended mainly on advertisements. People didn’t like to read newspapers anymore.
In 2014 we launched The Paper, a model that worked quite well. It gained a lot of influence at that time, when Xi Jinping was launching his anti-corruption campaign. We gave quite a lot of coverage to corruption cases, like the Ling Jihua one.
The foreign media was interested in some of The Paper’s reports. We thought, why can’t we establish an English media [outlet] ourselves? That’s how we first had the original thoughts about Sixth Tone. But the English media is very strong, so we were thinking, how can we be different?
We decided to focus on the forgotten topics that happen in China. For us it is easier to travel around China, and we didn’t want to be another China Daily, another NYT. We wanted to report about common people involved in uncommon stories.
"That’s why we speak of decentralization. We could liberate the journalist’s work – they could focus on other things." Read @palomaalmoguera's interview with Pear Video co-founder Wei Xing.
Sixth Tone was — and still is — a pretty successful title inside China among certain circles. What made you leave an incipient project like Sixth Tone to embrace a new experience?
I think Sixth Tone is very good, but its audience is very narrow. Why? Because for foreigners the first choice is their native country’s media and the second tier is the international media. I don’t think an ordinary foreigner would choose Sixth Tone as his first or second choice, so the audience is very limited. I wanted to reach a bigger audience, and the Chinese audience is quite big.
Another reason is that before I was always doing text mostly; I had never tried TV or video. I wanted to try something different. And the background was that China’s audience is changing. Young people are using their smartphones more and more, so in 2016 I left Sixth Tone and built Pear Video from scratch during six months with some colleagues from The Paper.
Pear Video doesn’t have full-time journalists. You have defined the model as being based on the “decentralization” of news gathering and an exhaustive fact-checking system. Where do the videos come from?
We have 500 staff, including tech, marketing, and some administration people. We have built and operate a huge network of videographers; in Chinese we call them paike (拍客). We have around 30,000 [in the network] — mainly in China — in every province, small city, and in the countryside, and we are still growing that number.
How do you find them? Or do they they find you?
In every province we have two full-time employees who act like our local representatives. Their main job is to build and maintain a local videographer network.
Every day these videographers pitch videos to their local representatives in the province. They make the first judgement. Out of 200 videos, they may choose 30 of them. The representatives then send these videos to the editing team.
But we also find videos online. We monitor videos that are uploaded on social media. We have some people who check the content uploaded by citizens, and if we think it is interesting we will contact that person. In China, if you upload a video, according to the regulations, you have to put your ID, so we can trace that person back. But the offline channel is the main source of content.
Our videographers are not full-time journalists. Every day we are recruiting new videographers, but they are not [just anybody]. We don’t think that would be reliable.
How do you make sure the videos that these non-professionals send in are accurate?
Our local staff take the first step in verifying, because they are based in that province, and they know much better than us in Shanghai what is going on. They will do phone calls and they have many local contacts to verify the content, so they will do some basic verifying process.
The second step is taken by our verifying team [made up of 20 people, each of whom must verify at least 25 videos a day in order to meet their production schedule]. They do cross-checking with social media. They do interviews, call local governments, local witnesses. They monitor Weibo, WeChat. And we also use some AI basic tools to verify the news through an existing database.
But not all the videos need the same process. For example, if it is breaking news, we will, of course, give it priority and deal with this breaking news first.
Have you ever had problems with the government because of a video’s content? In December 2016, Chinese authorities announced regulations concerning the sharing of “unofficial” online videos. We have also recently seen the clampdown by the Chinese authorities on Toutiao and WeChat.
We need to be much more cautious now on the content. We have to abide by the regulations.
Our focus is not much on politics or macroeconomic topics, in the line of Sixth Tone, for two reasons: most of these topics are not suitable to be covered by short-form news videos because they are relatively boring. Not so many people want to watch them. And the second reason is that we are focused on the forgotten stories, the people stories, which are almost forgotten by the mainstream media.
In many cases we are quicker than the traditional media.
Half an hour after last year’s earthquake, which happened around 9.30pm, we had the first video about it because we had the videographer there. Three or four hours later, we had more than one hundred videos about the earthquake. I don’t think traditional media could do it.
It’s now the center of China’s social video boom. Read the story.
What is your target audience? Are short videos meant to be more popular among millennials, who would normally use their smartphones to watch them?
Of course the young people, the millennials, are born into the digital era. The video audience is much larger in their age range than in text.
But it’s not only young people who like to watch videos — older people like it too. And not only the people who are living in Shanghai or Beijing who like to watch videos, but also people who live in the countryside because it is difficult for them to read a very long article.
How do you monetize Pear Video? Is it profitable?
We are still not profitable, because we have only existed for 1.5 years. Our main focus now is to expand our audience, our brand and our content.
It is more difficult to charge the audience for a short video than for large videos.
Our main revenue comes from advertisements of two kinds: the first one is native ads, solutions for brands. We make the ads for them and also we distribute the content for them. Another kind is just some very short advertisement previews before the video.
At Pear you produce news without full-time journalists. What type of message does this send to the journalists out there? That new formats don’t need them anymore?
The product of traditional media is limited. With Pear Video’s network of videographers we have many more sources, many more news topics. So that’s why we speak of decentralization. We could liberate the journalist’s work – they could focus on other things.
But we try to combine both things, like in our fact-checking system. I don’t think technology itself could resolve this; we still need to apply the classic journalism concepts to verify the content.
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