Opinion & Analysis

Being a reporter in Shanghai

BusinessDesk reporter Sophie Boot reflects on a six-week stint at Shanghai Daily, an English language newspaper owned by Shanghai United Media Group. 

What surprised me most about the time I spent at Shanghai Daily was how much I genuinely loved it.

I had heard good things from those who had gone before me – and the prospect of an adventure in a massive foreign city is always exciting – but despite all the research I did before I went, nothing prepared me for how much I enjoyed the city and the people I met. Frankly, I was heartbroken to leave, even with my excitement to get back to fresh air and good coffee.

I knew it would be a very different environment from where I work in New Zealand, which is a small, busy office. Everyone was welcoming, and it was really enjoyable to work within a group of other young women, but I definitely missed the easy ability to dip in and out of conversations, which were largely held in Chinese.

Wang Yanlin and Sophie Boot 003

Sophie Boot with Shanghai Daily business editor Wang Yanlin.

The rhythm of Shanghai days took some getting used to. For the first week, I couldn’t shake my habit of getting in at 9am, despite the rest of the team not filtering in for another hour or even longer. When I get into the office in Wellington, I often know what I’m doing or have some company’s announcement or accounts on my desk already – in Shanghai, my mornings were more focused on catching up with news websites from home.

I also found the specialised nature of the roles at Shanghai Daily interesting. There was a reporter solely for the stockmarket – at home, I write our daily market reports, but I get to do many other things besides that – one for automotives, one for currencies ... the list goes on.

On my second day, I picked up a copy of Shanghai Daily and one of China Daily from the stacks by the newsroom doors. Reading them at my desk, I asked the chief reporter whether Shanghai Daily was a localised version of the national publication, but was quickly told they were (state-owned) competitors. China Daily seemed to have much more of a Beijing focus, but the main driver of competition was advertising dollars.

The biennial Auto Show was held at the end of my first month at the paper. It was a hot topic, held over three days in a massive exhibition area at the very end of one metro line, and the auto reporter was rushed off her feet. In New Zealand, the luxury market is smaller and companies don’t “roll out the red carpet” to get you to write about them. At this show, I attended a couple of group interviews, and was shown into special lounges, given goody bags, offered rides in cars, you name it. Casting back to advertising, which was obviously a big concern, one car company didn’t get a write-up in the paper because they had given a full page paid advertisement to the China Daily.

I spent the first few weeks at Shanghai Daily trying to figure out the chain of command – and honestly, I’m not sure I ever did, as the fantastic chief reporter handled my stories. I was curious to see if/how the Chinese government would interfere with the paper’s content, and it’s certainly a question I’ve been repeatedly asked since I returned.

I never saw it happen. On the one hand, I wasn’t pitching controversial stories, and I didn’t see the conversations that took place between reporters submitting their stories and those stories getting published.

On the other hand, what I can say is that the reporters I met were sharp, critical, intelligent, educated, and would be more than capable of thriving in a western newsroom. They weren’t afraid of challenging their interviewees; many weren’t members of the Party, and we spent many lunchtimes having surprisingly open discussions about their political system.

When I was there, the paper was really getting into an online/app-based, expat-targeted, Shanghai lifestyle offering. As one of the two Westerners there, I was pulled in to help make videos and write up captions. (Somewhere on the internet there’s a video close-up of me eating sushi.) I was surprised that the shift to digital was only just happening, given how massively advanced the city is compared to New Zealand.

I happily spent six weeks just in Shanghai – I never ran out of places to go, and was lucky to make friends within the Kiwi expat community quickly, so had some experts showing me around. However, I did get the opportunity at the end of the trip to travel into other parts of China (Yangshuo in the south, Xi’an up north and of course Beijing). While Shanghai remains my favourite, getting to see other parts of the country helped give me a much fuller understanding of the place.

I do wish I had learnt much more Mandarin. In Shanghai, it barely presented a problem other than in taxis, as the city is so internationalised, but outside there were a few challenges. Perhaps it was luck, but even in the places where little or no English was spoken, I found that people were only too happy to help the clueless lǎowài (in exchange for some photos – I’m in at least two family’s holiday scrapbooks).

Sophie Boot's internship was funded by the Asia New Zealand Foundation.

– Asia Media Centre


Stories published by Sophie Boot while in Shanghai: