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The 7-year itch of Sixth Tone I: my own labor story 🥲 | Following the yuan
We are asked to hold businesses accountable, but at the end of the day, we are expected to remain numb to our own work situation. Wouldn't that make us bad reporters?
As an intrapreneurial project within the state media system, Sixth Tone is a prime example of how a Chinese media startup struggles in an increasingly challenging market environment after the change of central leadership in 2012.
Seven years after its inception in 2016, many people who had been involved in the business grew disillusioned and chose their own ways to share discontent or feelings: Many ex-staff members kept quiet, only sharing with people who are in the know, and as my ex-colleague @bibekbhandari spoke out after mistreatment last week, some are fast to point out that he may bring trouble to Sixth Tone.
From my perspective, it boils down to the clashes between Western and Chinese ideologies and two journalism systems. The Chinese system, aka the propaganda department, wants to see good, positive stories, while the staff, who are often educated in a Western journalism system, prefers to tell nuanced stories in their own right, presenting information and stories as they are.
The former factor made Sixth Tone operatable in China; the latter made Sixth Tone reputable with its intended audience. Sixth Tone cannot have achieved what it’s achieved today with neither, but the ideological difference will only mean that this kind of clash would happen more often.
My question is — why can’t we look at it objectively as a business? As someone who briefly worked there in 2021 as a business reporter, here’s why I want to share this info: We are asked to hold businesses accountable, but at the end of the day, we are expected to remain numb to our own work situation. Wouldn't that make us bad reporters?
While censorship is factored into consideration when reporters apply for the jobs, unjust actions by the management & HR are not expected, and the latter may wear out talents even more on a day-to-day basis.
In the summer of 2021, I signed a contract that only stated a fraction of my salary (the HR said everyone’s contract looks like this), not knowing what that entailed. I found out only after getting the first month of salary that the company only paid for the lowest level of social insurance per contract salary, which would disqualify me from getting a permanent residence/Hukou in Shanghai.
I was angry at the HR because I told her before joining that Hukou is important to me, and it shouldn’t be a problem if they acted within the rule, at the same time, I was angry because this is a major distraction at work in addition to censorship.
In the two succeeding weeks, instead of spending the energy I could on a business story, I took my time to recover emotionally, and looked into this problem: I called the district market regulator; I called an ex-lawyer from a top law firm.
The staff who manages the hotline said they have no business in what we agreed upon; the ex-lawyer said the company, which owns over a dozen of media publications including Shanghai Daily and The Paper, could be involved in tax evasion.
With that information, I went to the direct sources: the editor-in-chief and the HR personnel. I only wanted two things from the company: 1. Pay social insurance based on my actual salary; 2. The contract needs to reflect my real salary.
The EIC told me in a low voice, perhaps suspecting that I’d be recording, that they can’t do that. To me, that’s the most unforgiving part that left me disillusioned.
I’m only sharing from my perspective as a disgruntled employee, my views don’t represent others nor should they affect how you feel about what Sixth Tone is doing. Actually, I encourage you to support the site and their mission to tell human-centered stories, as I have been.
In August, 2021, I wrote an email to the EIC after the incident, showing concerns and advising on how the how state-owned organization could transform. Read the full letter in part II.
In it, I pointed out:
Judging from the company’s feedback on my basic demands, I don’t think the Group cares about the interests of us employees at the bottom… When wages are lower than the market level, the reward system is opaque, and at the same time, the publication is highly subjected to central censorship. The ideals bound by the management to employees is unsustainable.
Now, what I believe is conducive and productive is to deepen the conversation and provide alternative paths for Chinese journalists so that Sixth Tone is no longer one of the few options for them in a compromised market environment - What else can they do? How can you help?
It’s encouraging to see that the Oxford's Reuters Institute and Nieman Fellowship, two of the most prestigious journalism fellowships, evolved their criteria with time, now they include all stakeholders in the media landscape including newsletter writers, freelancers and platform builders, instead of only career journalists with 10-year plus experience.
Media brands are dispensable but people are not. Let’s not look away from the basic business problems and talk about solutions instead of wasting fume on each other. 🔚
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