The first priority in running a newspaper is to establish social credibility, said Cheng Yizhong, founder and former chief editor of Southern Metropolis Daily and The Beijing News.

Cheng Yizhong speaking at the JMSC

The mainland publisher shared his reflections on the newspaper industry in contemporary China to a packed audience of students from the JMSC and also other departments of The University of Hong Kong on January 20, 2011.

Cheng said media professionals in China, where freedom of speech hasn’t been fully realised, should make every effort to make the authorities expand freedom, rather than just waiting for the environment to change by itself.

“At least we can make full use of the limited freedom we have, which is not even usually the case,” he said. “What bothers a lot of us most is not censorship, but self-censorship — afraid to say anything.”

Speaking of the ultimate value of a newspaper, Cheng said that the most important things are to check and balance public power and to protect the public’s right to know.

“A newspaper can choose not to tell some truth, but can never tell lies,” he quoted some older journalists. “This is the bottom line, especially for a society in transition in which both legal and political systems need improvement.”

Cheng Yizhong lectures to a packed room at HKU

Cheng pointed out social credibility is precious in China today because the public refuse to believe what the government says. “As long as you [a newspaper] have social credibility, not only can you achieve fame and wealth, but you make a great contribution to the country’s development.”

Cheng also talked a lot about business management. Straying from the widely held view that a business should be first responsible for its customers or shareholders, he said primarily it should be first responsible for its employees and their families, and above and beyond than that, for employees of supporting businesses. That’s why he thought that Apple Inc. should be blamed for a spate of suicides by employees at Foxconn, one of Apple’s major contract manufacturers.

He also emphasised that a business, for a newspaper particularly, should promote regional prosperity and public well-being in its area. As a newspaper based in Guangzhou, the Southern Metropolis Daily did much negative reporting on the city. “But at last the citizens there were grateful to us,” Cheng said. “They said it is just because we constantly exposed its dark side that Guangzhou became more lovable.”

Cheng Yizhong is currently the vice-president of the Modern Media Group and executive publisher of Asian Business Leaders. While serving as the chief editor of Southern Metropolis Daily, he reported the spread of SARS in 2003, despite government restrictions. Cheng was punished after the newspaper broke the story of the death of Sun Zhigang, a young migrant worker, a story that resulted in the repeal of China’s law on detention and repatriation.

Because of his dedication to journalistic professionalism and the pursuit of press freedom, Cheng won the UNESCO World Press Freedom Prize in 2005.

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