Running dog eat dog
Nationalists, united against Western media bias, are divided over money
Oct 19th 2013 | BEIJING |From the print edition
NATIONALIST displays attacking Western media bias have generated plenty of attention and fame on the Chinese internet for “patriotic youths” and made a media darling of one website in particular: Anti-CNN.com. But turning online patriotism into a business has proved trickier and, for some of the young idealists involved, rather disillusioning.
In recent weeks a bitter row at Anti-CNN.com (now known formally as April Media) has exposed a rift between the site’s founder, Rao Jin, and others who joined his cause. Former staff describe a business in trouble, with disappointing web traffic and little revenue. They claim that a big investor has pulled his support and that the site has run out of cash (though it remains online). Ten employees settled pay disputes in September. A company that once boasted more than two dozen workers and thousands of square feet of office space in Beijing is, they say, down to one office worker: the accountant. Mr Rao disputes this.
It is quite a comedown. Mr Rao’s first prominent scalp was CNN, an American news network, in March 2008 after ethnic riots erupted in Tibet. His website seized on what he considered bias in the coverage by CNN and other outlets. In February 2011 April Media posted footage of Jon Huntsman, then the American ambassador to China, at the site of a planned anti-government protest. The demonstration did not materialise, but Mr Huntsman was attacked online for appearing to support it. He said he was there by coincidence.
The popularity of such videos has not translated into profits. Former staff say the most advertising revenue that April Media collected in one month was 17,000 yuan ($2,800) in August. Mr Rao declined to discuss April Media’s finances in any detail but says the business is operating normally and is financially sound. He says the former employees are just disgruntled, adding: “As any start-up company, we have our share of challenges.”
Indeed, April Media sounds like any start-up with money to burn (reportedly an initial investment of $1.6m) and a doubtful business model. But some of the company’s early zealots question the direction their experience has taken them. Tang Jie, who posted the Huntsman video, left to start his own site. Some say he regarded Mr Rao, who had accepted invitations to events at the American embassy in Beijing, as having gone too soft on Mr Huntsman. Mr Tang did not respond to an e-mail seeking comment.
Hu Yinan, a former editor-in-chief of April Media, says he now questions both “patriotic” and “liberal” voices on the Chinese web. “Genuine beliefs and cries for attention are radically different,” he says. In any case, he adds, there is no proven business model for ideologically guided websites, and he doubts there ever will be. “Most, if not all, traditional media outlets will at some point rely on donors.”