Keep it simple, keep it short, and keep the useless jargon out of the news reports.
The ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has repeatedly issued these edicts to media outlets – especially those under the state and party’s control – since a new leadership helmed by general secretary Xi Jinping emerged in November.
One clear goal is to endear the new leaders to the people by showing how they do not seek excessive newsprint or airtime. The new rules also stem from Mr Xi’s preference for practicality and disdain of empty words and pompous ceremony.
Unsurprisingly, state media have been toeing the line.
The New Beijing daily in December compiled over 20 reports by the official Xinhua news agency on the leaders’ speeches or activities to show how the articles were shorter than previously.
A Xinhua report on a top-level economic work conference held on December 17 had 4,300 words – fewer than the 5,800-word report on the same event in 2011.
State broadcaster China Central Television (CCTV) also complied with a 10-minute news clip – instead of 15 minutes previously – on the conference this year.
To keep their reports short, state media are adopting a new practice: naming fewer officials accompanying top leaders at events or provincial visits, as their job titles can be quite a mouthful.
Take outgoing supremo Hu Jintao as an example.
First mentions of him in media reports would usually list his three titles: zhong gong zhong yang zhong shu ji (Communist Party general secretary), guo jia zhu xi (State President), and zhong yang jun wei zhu xi (Central Military Commission chairman).
Other officials would be named too – like “zhong gong zhong yang zheng zhi ju wei yuan (Politburo member), zhong yang shu ji chu shu ji (CCP secretariat’s secretary), and zhong yang ban gong ting zhu ren (CCP General Office director) Li Zhanshu was also present”.
Now, the media at times use generic phrases such as “Politburo members” or “Standing Committee leaders” to describe them.
Also, as instructed, the state newspapers and broadcasters are cutting usage of officious stock phrases – tao hua in Mandarin. These are usually jargons or adjectives and idioms strung together to make the same point.
A classic example: “xiang min zhi suo xiang (people’s thoughts are our thoughts), ji min zhi suo ji (people’s worries are our worries), quan wei min suo yong (power is to be used for the people), and li wei min suo mou (benefit should go to the people).”
For many, the same meaning can be conveyed with mere four words: wei min gong zuo (working for the people).
More stories now also try to kick off with what we journalists call the news angle.
The common practice erstwhile has been to lead with a paragraph like this: “State President Hu Jintao attended an event yesterday where he gave an important speech...”
As a journalist and also a news junkie, I find the proposed changes a good move for the media and readers – regardless of the political motivation behind them.
First, cutting back on lengthy reports will free up more space for the media to focus on topics and issues that would interest people.
Also, more readable stories by the state media, which have to be carried by the profit-driven newspapers, will help the latter attract more readers.
These could in turn improve business for the commercial media outlets, which are fighting a tough battle against the Internet.
It is even more imperative for state media like the People’s Daily and the Economic Daily, whose circulations have already been dipping over the years as people shun them for being CCP mouthpieces.
Unconvoluted, straightforward stories will also help foreigners keen to understand China better.
One of my key challenges since I started reporting here last April is making sense of jargon-filled Chinese media reports, particularly those on the political leaders or sensitive issues.
But now, to quote a former colleague, more of such stories are “short short, cute cute” and definitely more palatable.
Of course, more time is needed to see if the new practices will last. Also, recent reports show that the media still have some way to achieving real credibility.
A Xinhua report on December 27 about Mr Xi’s meeting with various political parties carried at least five quotes from the participants in praise of him.
One even exclaimed: “Such a cold winter day, and yet the general secretary (Xi) has come here!”
While some of these praises may be justified, a media report that appears to fawn over the political masters will impress few.
Style aside, substantial changes are needed too in the content.
State media tend to project a surreal perfect world in China with stories usually devoid of negative news lest they hurt the CCP.
For instance, media expert Zhan Jiang of the Beijing Foreign Studies University sums up why CCTV’s primetime 30-minute news bulletin often fails to excite.
“The first 10 minutes tells us how busy the top leaders are; the second 10 minutes tries to show how blessed and happy the Chinese people are; and the last 10 minutes portray other countries as messy and unstable, unlike China,” he told The Straits Times.
Such content may explain Mr Xi’s remarks during a visit last week to a poverty-level village in northern Hebei province.
“If I could see the real poor, the 3 1/2-hour journey from Beijing would be worthwhile,” he was quoted as saying.
It was widely deemed a veiled criticism of the state media for its skewered reportage.
True to form, some have promised to “tell the truth”.
The People’s Daily on January 3 announced a new section this year that would write about the reality and make its articles “more personable and readable for our readers”.
Keep it simple, keep it short have been good moves, but keeping it real would be the real change needed for Chinese media.