This month two different ex-pat media outlets have had business difficulties. The Nanfang, an online “news, translations, original writing and commentary” covering the Pearl River Delta, threw in the towel just before its seventh anniversary and ceased publication Similarly, publisher Ringier washed its hands of City Weekend Beijing and Parents and Kids Beijing, declaring in a rather odd turn of phrase that “[I]t is with great optimism that Ringier China announces that the November issue of City Weekend Beijing and Parents & Kids Beijing will be Ringier’s last”, though it then suggested the magazines may continue under a new local partner. Nonetheless, the two announcements together suggest a trend in ex-pat media in China. So what’s happening?
While it’s of course a truism that print everywhere is struggling thanks to the internet, Chinese media for the most part seems to be doing just fine, thanks to continued economic growth and a rapidly increasing middle class which advertisers are willing to spend to reach. Ex-pat media is however more tenuous. China’s 2010 census recorded a foreign-born population of just 593,832, or just 0.043% of the total. Beijing has been named the most international city in mainland China, yet has only around 110,000 foreign residents staying over six months, out of a population of 22 million. That’s just 0.5% of Beijingers. Nonetheless, ex-pat media in Beijing had to some extent been flourishing, with Beijing home to a remarkable seven magazines around 2012 – the Beiijinger, Time Out, City Weekend, That’s Beijing, Agenda, beijingkids, and Parents & Kids Beijing.
But this abundance led to a pruning. Truerun Media’s Agenda shuttered in 2013, while their the Beijinger magazine went bi-monthly this year. After striving to cut losses by going monthly instead of fortnightly, Ringier passed on its two magazines City Weekend and Parents & Kids Beijing to a new owner Liwayway China, the local division of a company based in Manila, in their first foray into publishing. The Nanfang meanwhile simply gave it up, partly for personal, partly for business reasons. The two co-founders, Cam McMurchy and Ewan Christie, said, “Like many online publications, we haven’t exactly hit our revenue targets for a variety of reasons.” McMurchy told me:
We were not very proactive in seeking advertisers, and those that worked with us had good results. But Google and Facebook now dominate online ads, so it doesn’t make much sense for a business to seek out a single website and form a relationship.
If you want to do business in China, you really want to target the Chinese consumers and advertise on websites popular with them. The expat market is minuscule in comparison.
We did seek other forms of ownership, and we considered increasing our investment, but ultimately we felt the model was broken.
Despite the economic output and influence of the Pearl River Delta area, culturally it still trails far behind Beijing or Shanghai, and The Nanfang was a major part of the ex-pat voice there. But now it too has gone. A shame.
From a personal perspective I know that it hurts to close a publication. I edited Agenda Beijing from 2012 to 2013, and was the last to do so. The magazine just didn’t generate the advertising revenue to support even its bare minimum staff of myself, an assistant editor and whatever interns we could corral. For months I had been working 70-hour weeks, in a frenzy of networking, events, writing, interviewing, cajoling, meetings, pleading, training, editing, and proofreading… and then it was over. The magazine just wasn’t making any money and the owners wanted to pull the plug.
But publishing is always difficult. Around 90% of magazines do not make it to their first year. Most magazines and newspapers do not make a profit and thus need a benefactor to sustain them. Ex-pat magazines, by their very nature, are ephemeral, catering to an audience which lacks roots in the area and which will likely not settle there. Yet they have a vital role, introducing the city to newcomers and giving a feel for its culture. Here’s an example. My wife and I married in Tianjin in 2009. Armed with a copy of Tianjin Plus, we visited literally every single four and five star hotel in the city, seeking somewhere that could cater to our Scottish-Chinese wedding and host the fifteen members of my family who came for it. (For the record, it was the Tianyu Hotel on Diantai Lu). And how else could I have known about Baiyi Teppanyaki, or Trueman’s, or Bawarchi, for example? Every issue I scanned the listings looking for somewhere new and interesting to try.
Ex-pat magazines and websites will of course soldier on. Their voices are invaluable, the function they serve essential to a large city. Done right, they can flourish, bringing together readers, city culture and commerce in a mutually beneficial community. Here, then, is a toast to ex-pat magazines, their exploration, their relish, their desire to share information. Every single issue is a labor of love, for you, the reader. Thank you for reading, as always.
Published in Business Tianjin