Q&A: China's newspaper industry

Newstand Beijing

A protest by a newspaper may go unnoticed in some countries, but one in China over censorship captured headlines around the world.

Employees of Southern Weekly, a Guangdong based newspaper also known as Southern Weekend, staged a protest and asked for the top propaganda official to step down.

The dispute was later resolved but the tussle over press freedom has shone a spotlight on the industry as a whole.

What is the size of the industry?

China has one of the biggest newspaper industries in the world and circulation is actually growing, unlike in many developed countries.

At the end of 2011 China had 1,928 newspapers. Reference News or Cankao Xiaoxi, a daily newspaper, had the largest circulation in China with about three million.

It is published by Xinhua News Agency which is the Chinese government's official news agency. It selects articles from the world's major news agencies and translates them into Chinese.

In comparison, the most widely read US paper, The Wall Street Journal had a circulation of just over two million.

However, most newspapers in China have circulation numbering only in the hundreds of thousands as they are city-based or province-based.

Image caption The China Daily is the biggest English language newspaper

Who are the big players ?

In terms of influence domestically the People's Daily, owned by the People's Daily Group, is the biggest broadsheet in the country with a circulation of nearly 2.5 million according to the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (WAN-IFRA).

The China Daily, owned by the China Daily Group, is an English language newspaper. Some characterise is it as China's window to the world - it is the government mouthpiece to the rest of the world.

Many newspapers used to rely on support from the government but increasingly are now being asked to support themselves financially.

This has increased competition and a trend towards more lifestyle and entertainment content as they seek to attract readers. There has been a consolidation in the industry with the formation of press groups which are run like private companies.

What are the journalistic standards like?

It is a pretty vibrant and diverse media landscape, from investigative journalism to lifestyle and news-you-can-use style stories, much like in other countries.

Journalists do not make a lot of money and there have been reports of some questionable practices.

Some newspapers have been accused of taking money to print negative articles on a competitor, or sometimes advertorials are not marked as such and presented as editorial material.

"In some ways it's a 'yellow press'," says Jeremy Goldkorn, founder of Danwei, a firm that researches Chinese media.

What are the rules around censorship?

Content of newspaper is tightly controlled by the government through provincial propaganda offices.

Newspapers stay within the lines of what is allowed through a combination of government directives and self-censorship.

However, last year China moved to tighten the restrictions and directly censor content prior to publication.

This is what sparked the protest at Southern Weekly. Journalists at the newspaper say an editorial piece was changed without their knowledge.

"No newspaper can run without the approval of government. It's the editors job to figure out where the lines are," says Mr Goldkorn. "Media-wise China remains conservative. If you step out of line, and the government is very vigilant, you'll get a rap on the knuckles."