China: For one newspaper, straight from press to recycling bin

Sorting papers at a post office in central China.

A local, slice-of-life story from a Monitor correspondent.

BEIJING – Falling ad revenues, sagging circulation, fewer signs of reader interest; these are all common enough problems for US newspapers. But at the Life Morning News, a provincial Chinese daily, the staff had the impression that nobody at all was reading their paper.

They were right.

For the past couple of years, editors at the daily serving Taiyuan, capital of Shanxi Province, had been puzzled by the paper’s woes, recalls Chi Guowei, the publisher’s assistant. “Perhaps our news wasn’t interesting enough, or we weren’t doing enough promotion.”

But the paper had won awards for excellence. So in March its own reporters launched an undercover investigation to see what happened to their paper when it arrived from the printers at China Post, the state mail service responsible for distribution.

They all found the same thing. Each day the papers arrived in large bundles and were loaded onto China Post trucks. But instead of being distributed to readers, the papers were driven straight to recycling center collection points. No one ever laid eyes on any of their contents.

In 2007, the paper had signed a deal with China Post to deliver its daily edition. Life Morning News had wanted to raise its circulation, and China Post promised to boost subscriptions threefold, according to Mr. Chi. In return, the paper took only 20 percent of the annual subscription money that China Post collected.

That worked out to China Post passing on to the paper 31 RMB ($4.55) for 312 editions per year. With wastepaper selling at more than that, China Post could make a profit without selling a single subscription. So they did.

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