May 19, 2016 Last Updated 1:27 pm

Chinese newspaper surprises with story on government online comment practices

Morning Brief: Tribune Publishing’s second largest shareholder expresses doubt that the company would be in better hands with its current management team than with that of prospective buyer Gannett

“It’s an open secret that China employs a veritable army of internet commentators to sing the government’s praises and attack its critics, but researchers at Harvard University in the United States say they not only have evidence this is the case, but also what Beijing’s motive is.”

That is how a story on the state sponsored spamming of world Internet sites begins, openly discussing the “fifty-cent gang” or wumao dang, as the group of online commenters are known (’50 cent’ because it has been rumored that the commenters get paid for each online comment made, though there is no proof of that).

SCMP-article-400The story is nothing new for editors who have to clear their discussion threads of the spam comments submitted from Chinese IP addresses. But what is a major surprise is that the quote above is from a story from the South China Morning Post, the English language newspaper owned by Jack Ma, founder of Alibaba, and someone with deep connections within the Chinese government.

The article discusses the findings of a paper, How the Chinese Government Fabricates Social Media Posts for Strategic Distraction, not Engaged Argument, written by Gary King, Jennifer Pan and Margaret E. Roberts, and makes for interesting reading itself. It concludes that while the Chinese government does, indeed, have a team of online commenters, posting some 488 million social media comments a year, its real goal is less to shout down dissenters than it is to distract the public.

“(T)he Chinese regime’s strategy is to avoid arguing with skeptics of the party and the government, and to not even discuss controversial issues. We infer that the goal of this massive secretive operation is instead to regularly distract the public and change the subject, as most of the these posts involve cheerleading for China, the revolutionary history of the Communist Party, or other symbols of the regime,” the paper claims.

Likely US officials will be wondering what it says that such an influential newspaper as the South China Morning Post would be reporting on the paper.

One commenter on the South China Morning Post story was confused, too, asking “are the editors on holiday today?” Another said the article only confirmed what online readers in China already know, writing “we don’t need this article to know about wumao dang. We experience them directly via SCMP’s comment sections everyday.”

Tribune Publishing’s second largest shareholder, Los Angeles-based Oaktree Capital Management, which owns just under 15 percent of the publisher’s shares, will apparently continue to push for a sale to Gannett.

flags-TPThe company said in a new letter to Tribune Publishing’s board, filed with the US Securities and Exchange Commission, that it has met with both the management team of Tribune and the management team from Gannett and found that they believe the best chances for the company lay with the prospective buyer.

“We have met with Michael Ferro and spoken with him on the phone, and we have listened to his ideas about building value as a standalone company through a digital transformation of Tribune. The ideas we have heard appear to be preliminary and involve great execution risk. Companies with much greater resources than Tribune and with a substantial head start are struggling in a rapidly changing environment to effect digital change that is profound enough and quick enough to overcome the outgoing tide of print revenues,” the letter states.

“In summary, we have not seen anything to give us any confidence that Tribune on its own, with the resources and competitive position it has today, can achieve over any reasonable period of time the value for shareholders that we believe can likely be achieved through a transaction with Gannett. And we see very substantial risk that through pursuing an independent course, Tribune will destroy enormous shareholder value.”

The letter doesn’t change much, however. Tribune’s largest shareholder, Michael Ferro, has continued to say that the publisher of the Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune would pursue an ‘independent course’ – though its actions so far appear likely to suppress revenue growth rather than encourage it.

Recently Australian newspapers united to create a promotion to try and encourage newspaper advertising, a tactic tried many times in other countries. The four companies, News Corp Australia, Fairfax Media, West Australian News­papers and APN News & Media, introduced the rebranded trade group that represents them, The Newspaper Works is now rebranded as NewsMediaWorks.

“As revenues have diversified we have needed a better way to report that to ensure people have confidence in the industry based on all the information that is available,” said Michael Miller, chairman of the industry trade group and News Corp Australia’s executive chairman.

But ABC business reporter Andrew Robertson sees the newspaper industry in Australia as being in a “death spiral”:

Australian newspapers cannot escape the trend to online, and the plethora of challengers that are arriving as part of it.

“The trends are not just local, they’re global. I suppose every publisher takes different approaches to how they address those trends through their own structures, their own go to market plans,” said Michael Miller, the executive chairman of NewsCorp Australasia.

Like newspapers in other countries, Australian papers are hoping paywalls will prove to be the answer. But while some newspapers, such as The New York Times, have been able to slow or stop revenue declines overall, few are reporting any revenue growth, so staff cutbacks and real estate sell-offs remain standard practices in the industry in the US and in Europe

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