Getting On In Chinese Media
by Mike Cormack
I feel a bit foolish making myself out to be any kind of success in media. I am not a trained journalist, and there are many practitioners of that fine calling in Beijing, such as Tania Branigan, Christina Larson and Gady Epstein, who really show how it’s done. However, I have made my way up to managing editor of a Beijing magazine from having been a freelancer only three years previously, so my story might be useful to those looking to get on in the English-language media in China.
I know myself how baffling the media can seem when you’re just starting out. If you have a headful of ideas, a keen interest in the news, and good writing skills, media work can seem the ideal career. I felt this when freshly graduated in English and politics, with no real idea how to go about getting any kind of writing job. Getting an internship in London was an absurd impossibility, and there didn’t seem to be any other kind of entry-level posts: every advert I saw in the Guardian Media Jobs section required experience. I remember reading Private Eye’s “In The Back” section, as written by the campaigning journalist Paul Foot, seeing the phone number listed at the bottom, and wanting to call up to demand: “How did you get started? How do you get a foot in? Where can I begin?” There were practically no entry-level posts and no doubt the few that were advertised were responded to by avalanches of naive, fresh-faced, would-be writers.
Eventually I gave up even the idea of media work and settled for being an English teacher, the great fallback career. However, this wasn’t satisfying, and I moved to Huia’an, Jiangsu province, in 2007, ostensibly to finish the zombie novel I had been plodding on with for the past several years. Though I’d only intended to stay a year, China got its claws into me, and I decided to stay. Huai’an not having any particular charm, when I was offered a job with English First in Tianjin I made the move north.
Tianjin was far bigger than Huai’an, of course, large enough to host English-language media. A few weeks after arriving, so say about October 2008, I saw an ad in Jin, the expat magazine delivered to the teachers’ room, looking for freelance writers. Swiftly I wrote up a review of the local expat dive bar and emailed it in. The editor invited me in for a chat, and I began doing some occasional freelance work for them. The assistant editor would call me up and ask me to go to some shop or restaurant; I would meet them there then write-up a 100 word piece: about one or two per monthly issue. Then sometime in 2009, I saw an ad for the rival expat magazine, Tianjin Plus, and applied. They offered more articles per issue and more money per word, so I defected.
At Tianjin Plus, I got more to do: as well as bar, shop and restaurant reviews, I did opinion pieces, then interviews with expats of note (such as there are in Tianjin). Then I got invited to do the “Last Words” article in the sister magazine, Business Tianjin, like what Kaiser Kuo did in the Beijinger. Then, after I grumbled about the copy editing in one issue, I got invited to do that too, so once a month I would receive about eighteen articles to do over the weekend. Then, in about January 2010, the owner of the magazines asked if I’d be willing to come into the office during my weekend, which as an ESL teacher was Monday and Tuesday, for a consideration on top of the payment per word. I was willing, of course. So for the next four months I didn’t have a day off. The good thing was, though, that after a day in the office, I didn’t feel tired or drained, as I did when teaching: I felt energized. You always know when you’re doing the stuff you love.
As they seemed to like my work, I asked the editor if there was a possibility of going full-time, but we couldn’t agree on salary so I looked to Beijing. Come May 2010, I got a job with an editing house, and I’ve been here since. Fortunately, Tianjin Plus were also looking for someone to write about Beijing at that time, so I became their Beijing editor and kept on copyediting. As Beijing editor, I reviewed two shops, bars or restaurants, interviewed one expat of note (I think I was the first person to interview The Beijing Beatles, for example), and wrote a short general column on Beijing life.
In Beijing I continued to accumulate obligations: a monthly column for Pregnancy and Parenting magazine, the website director for Tianjin Plus. By this time my full-time post was senior copywriter for Dentsu, a big advertising agency, so to say I was busy is a comical understatement. I was looking for editorship of a magazine by this time, but such posts are few and become available only rarely. However, when the post of managing editor of Agenda came up I was straight in there, and took it up at the start of February 2012.
That is a bald summary of three and a half years. Obviously it’s mostly been a case of taking it step by step. Sometimes I’ve been lucky when opportunities have just fallen into my lap, but all the same you have to be there to take advantage. Looking back, then, perhaps I can draw various lessons.
- The first and most essential one is: if you have any kind of writing gig, deliver copy on time (preferably earlier), and make as good a go of it as you can. This is always the most important thing. There’s nothing worse than being let down when someone is promising you an article. Get it in!
- If you’re looking for outlets, in Beijing there are lots. There are Agenda, the Beijinger, beijingkids, City Weekend, City Weekend Parents & Kids, Time Out, That’s Beijing, Global Times, China Daily, eChinacities, the Beijing Review, and more. If you’ve got an idea for an article, most are very easily approachable. It would be a foolish editor who did not at least consider the idea, regardless of whether you’ve got experience writing or not – all that really matters is the quality of the piece.
- Having a good knowledge of a particular field is very helpful. For myself, I have been following the Beijing and China blogosphere/Twittersphere closely since about 2009: this has been a great help in writing for the expat media. If you’re into something niche like welly-throwing or cross-stitching, there are magazines and websites out there, but necessarily exposure in China will be limited. If you haven’t any particular interests, you won’t have anything to say.
- Similarly, lots of people think they can just “start writing”, as though it’s as natural as breathing, or that their undergraduate essay-writing skills will see them through. I disagree. Writing is a skill which can be practised and improved upon, but which nevertheless requires some degree of innate talent: just the same as with playing the guitar or assembling code in C++. Writing a snappy blogpost is far different to the 3000 word humanities essay, and both are especially remote from headline writing. If you haven’t been practising writing through having a blog, a journal, or whatever way of writing you choose, those skills and techniques have not been developing.
- Social media, then, is I think today utterly essential. You don’t have to be into Twitter or Instagram etc, but a blog of some kind is fantastically useful for the budding writer. You hone your ideas and opinions; you find what you can write about well; you get good at finding appropriate pictures and trying to write arresting headlines; you get into the habit of writing regularly and to order; you get used to fumbling around for ideas; you learn how to link with other bloggers and try to drive up traffic. Your ideas written down can look very different to how they feel in your head.
- For a writer, the ability to handle prose is not, I would suggest, the essential skill. The most important thing is insight. Are you observant – of people, of trends, of your field of interest? Can you draw parallels, see similarities, discover underlying patterns? If so, can you look back at stuff you’ve written and find the observations stay relevant? That’s the real stuff every editor is looking for.
- Every day, I read and write for fun, beyond work. Before I was writing professionally, I would read and write about 20-25 hours a week. If you don’t put in the time, you ain’t gonna get good. If you think about doing a job reading and writing for 20 hours for free and the idea fills you with horror – you’re in it to make money, you say – I suggest you find something better to do.
- If you’re an English teacher and working evenings and weekends, you’re in an ideal position to get an internship, if you’re seeking an entry-level post. Once you’ve got some credits to your name and some feedback from an editor, you can move onto doing freelance or part-time work, and so on. It’s just step-by-step.
- Ultimately it comes down to what energizes you. I did not find teaching energizing – I could do it professionally, but it was draining. Advertising writing at Dentsu was better, but still not quite there. But I knew from working in the Tianjin Plus office on my weekends that media work was satisfying, and exactly what I’m most suited to. If you’re writing about your time in China already, in a blog for example, that’s a good sign.
- Nonetheless, I’ve no doubt there will be lots of candidates for media work in China. Despite the restrictions, there’s a lot of great content out there. If you think you can do better, get writing.
The author is the managing editor of Agenda Magazine.