17 Sep 2013

Reading the Tea Leaves: Sourcing News from Chinese Social Media

David Wertime is a founding editor of the online magazine Tea Leaf Nation. The site features English-language news stories about China, sourced entirely through Chinese social media. Last week Tea Leaf Nation was acquired by the Foreign Policy Group, a division of the Washington Post Company. We talked to David earlier this year about this new media model, and the challenge of starting out in a struggling industry in a country that restricts press freedom.

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Brian Kenny: "Our guest on today's program is David Wertime. David is the co-founder and co-editor of the online magazine, "Tea Leaf Nation." He's a Harvard Law School graduate based in Washington, D.C., who was indeed a practicing attorney before leaving his legal life to start this online publishing venture. David, welcome to The Business."

David Wertime: "Thanks so much for having me."

BK: "I'd like to hear a little bit about your journey. Can you tell us what Tea Leaf Nation is about, and who your audience is?"

DW: "So, Tea Leaf Nation, which is accessible at TeaLeafNation.com, is, as you say, an e-magazine. Its goal is to aggregate and synthesize the chatter on China's massive social media platforms into English language stores that are accessible to Western readers. Our audience currently tends to be journalists, academics, policymakers, China-watchers generally, and what we're hoping to do is draw in more and more people who might be curious about China and need a place to start."

BK: "So this is being seen primarily by people outside of China?"

DW: "It has a decent audience in China as well but obviously because it's primarily in English it's going be more Western facing the majority of our readers are in the United States and in the West."

BK: "So you left law to create a website about life in China through stories sourced in social media. What was the inspiration for that? Where that idea come from?"

DW: "It's sort of a bit of a career break, a non sequitur, at least on its face. I like to think that on its feeding into my broader interests, which are obviously China, Chinese policy, and policy generally. So when I left corporate law after about four years, I remember the managing partner telling me that I was crazy for jumping out of a plane without a parachute. I was optimistic that I could build a parachute before I hit the ground. We will, I guess, see if that's true. But, you know, essentially I felt that this was a chance for me to create something meaningful. I wanted to create something lasting. I knew broadly what my interests were but I didn't know precisely how I was going to translate that into practice, and it took a few months before this idea was born, so to speak."

BK: "I read in another interview that you gave that you were walking the streets of Hong Kong at three in the morning, sort of a equivocating over this big decision that you had to make, and ultimately you decided to take the leap. What did your friends and family and colleagues -- we got the one response about you're crazy -- but what did most people think?"

DW: "Well in fact most people, if they thought that, they were kind enough not to tell me, although of course people who say you're crazy are probably doing it with good motivations. Obviously they want the best for you, but in fact most people were very supportive, or at least that's what they said, and I was, and have been, and continue to be, heartened by the level of support I've gotten, both institutionally, from people that were strangers to me until a few months ago, and from my friends and family. So I have to say overall I've been pleasantly surprised, when you compare the picture that I had of going it alone, versus the reality, which is I feel that I'm very much not alone, even if I'm not ensconced in a larger institution."

BK: "Let's talk a little bit about the emergence of social media in China. The FT published an article entitled "The Weibo Generation Can Reboot China," and in that article the authors claim that the generation of micro-bloggers in China today can no longer be seduced by traditional propaganda. So it's been almost a dozen years since you were first living in China as part of the Peace Corps assignment that you had, and obviously there's been a lot of change there. What are your observations about how China has changed in this realm, and do you think that that claim is true, that these authors have made?"

DW: "Well first of all thank you for reminding me that it's been almost a dozen years, I can't believe that. I do believe that China has changed tremendously. You know, in China development years, a decade is almost like thirty years anywhere else just because of the breakneck pace of growth and social change. I think when we're talking about the micro-blogging or the Weibo generation, and Michael Anti is an expert on this. I think, first of all, it's worth pointing out that social media didn't even exist as a concept when I was in China, and I remember that one of the things I most wanted to do when I was there was get a sense of what people really thought. Learning Chinese was the first step for me. I showed up there not knowing really anything about China. And I think to myself now, if only that tool had been available to me then. I mean, you literally have hundreds of millions of people, tens of millions of them on a daily basis in China, saying what they think online, to really anyone who will listen, has the capacity to read, and comprehend what they're writing. So this is a tremendously powerful tool. And I think it opens a window into the country that is really quite privileged. And we get to be a fly on the wall, and our hope is that we can capture some of the spontaneous chatter, and bring it over. We see examples very often of social media hitting the real world, and having a transformative effect."

BK: "It might be helpful for people listening to this, who aren't familiar with social media landscape in China, if you could describe a little bit, because it closely parallels with what we're familiar with here in the West, but it's got its own sort of Chinese version of it, yes?"

DW: "That's right. Its own ecosystem certainly. The easiest way to describe Chinese social media is, what I focus on, what many people focus on, is the so-called Weibo, which literally means micro-blog, and basically refers to a series of Twitter-like platforms. The problem with that comparison is that Weibo's scale, first of all, is massive within China. You have four hundred million registered users on the most popular Weibo platform alone, and that's a big chunk of China right there. And its social role is so important because it's the closest thing that China has to a free platform for speech and debate. It sort of a public square where people can gather, break news, discuss the issues of the day. Maybe one last thing help give people a picture is that it's not quite like Twitter, it has sort of a richer set of sharing and comment features, and it tends to be both playing a Facebook-like role and a Twitter-like role. It's a way for people to share photos of themselves and their trips and their stories, but it's also a way for people to talk about the political stuff. So you really see those two functions being combined in a single platform."

BK: "And the 140 character limitation is not the same there as it is here, because here you really do have to parse your thoughts very carefully, whereas there the characters carry more of a message."

DW: "Absolutely. I mean the Chinese language is simply denser, so when you apply the same character limit, it doesn't pinch as much. It allows for a more complete thought. I did a test: I was able to fit three Tang dynasty poems into one 140 character Tweet. Actually I didn't Tweet it, but I did the word count test. I figured I would be violating some ancient Chinese poet's intellectual copyright otherwise. But it certainly is true. And another thing that often happens you'll see is that Weibo users will append a .jpeg or a .gif, a photo file, in which they have a long-form essay which they then just pass around. And so really, the 140 character limit just does not have the same effect as with Twitter. I mean all these tools are a double edged sword, both from the perspective of the grass-roots users, and from the perspective of the government. If you're a user, you know that the government, to some extent, can watch you. They may not be interested in watching you, but they may. It's capturing what you write. And it's also a place, obviously, where the government can go and manipulate the dialogue, and affect the dialogue to some extent, and you accept that bargain as a user. And as a government, China's government has decided to live with this platform, with all of its attendant ambiguities and dangers, in part because the community so stridently protects what they built, and I think a blowback for shutting down the platforms wholesale would actually be quite intense. And also as you say, because it provides a sort of temperature gauge, in a system that doesn't have the same built-in democratic feedback mechanisms that some of our officials have. They have to go to platforms like Weibo, and of course then they accept that a lot of what's going to be said may not be what they want to read."

BK: "Can you talk a little bit about your challenges day to day, having entered into a very competitive sector? This digital content space is really densely packed, and challenging I would think. So what's your business model, what's your business plan, what are the kinds of challenges you're facing?"

DW: "Yeah, and I can say quite frankly that we backed into a lot of the questions that we're now facing. When I was looking at what I was going to start when I left my law-firm job, some very well-meaning and very knowledgeable people said things like, 'You need to have a business plan. You need to have some idea of what you're doing.' Frankly, though, I didn't, and I guess I went with what you'd call the lean start-up model, which is keep costs down to zero, find a way to build a minimum viable product, get your idea out there and see how people respond. And luckily I guess people have responded positively to what we've been able to do. So now we're facing all these questions that are becoming quite acute as we go out and search for funding, revenue of any kind. What do we do, and how do we articulate the long-term vision for ourselves as an organization? It's fascinating and I wish I had good answers but I can say that as a new media organization, we are, as you say, in a very competitive environment, in particular because at the end of the day, readers have become accustomed to demanding quality content but not paying for it. I don't except myself from that group. I read all sorts of excellent articles every day and a dime doesn't leave my pocket in most cases. But that has a sort of trickle-up effect. If we're going to syndicate content out, we have to face those same pressures. Writers aren't being paid, whether it's by us or by other for-profit media outlets that are turning profit. I hope to create an organization that serves our writers just as well as it does our readers. And so the question is, of course, for example, do we seek to monetize the content that we have? And if we do, how readily can it be monetized? Or, do we seek to create a package of services that surround what our core function is, that we can in turn monetize? For example, providing paid researchers to private clients, whoever those clients may be. That's a question that we haven't begun to answer. And what you really quickly realize, or what I'm certainly realizing anyway, is that a lot of it just comes down to capacity. So there are a lot of great ideas that friends and well-wishers have shared with me, where I nod my head and say, 'That's an excellent idea, but I can't act on it because it requires too much time.' And in particular, as an upstart media company that tries its best to appear as big and robust as it can be, and to create timely daily content, we're always going back to that well, where we always have to serve our readers first by creating content. And with that constant drumbeat, it's very hard to move beyond those issues, to look at the forest and forget about the trees, to go out and try to create these new revenue streams."

BK: "And you're not alone in that. I think many entrepreneurs would say that's the very same issue that they face. Who is your competition? You've certainly got a niche market to some extent here. Are there others that are trying to do the same thing you're doing?"

DW: "There are websites that do some of the same things that we do, and we weren't necessarily even aware of them when we started our project. But I think the difference is that we're trying to bring a brand of serious journalism, writing that could belong anywhere, in any of the best media outlets, and not seem out of place, to a subject that can often be hilarious, profane, filled with rumors, and to be able to take those memes, or those viral videos, and put them in an intelligent context, that explains what larger question is being engaged, is, I think, our innovation. And in that respect, I think a model perhaps, (I think competitor is definitely putting it too strongly) is Global Voices Online, which is a wonderful non-profit, which was started with a goal of bringing voices from the blogosphere throughout the world, and translating into other languages and turning them into stories, curated stories. The difference though is that they're much broader than we are. What we're going to try to do I think is be more narrow, but maybe go a little bit deeper."

BK: "Is there a bigger sort of purpose or vision, an aspiration, that you have in mind for Tea Leaf Nation?"

DW: "There absolutely is, I mean first of all in the long term we really are trying to become a long-lasting respected media organization. And I think what larger purpose we're trying to serve really is to build this bridge between China and the West. And in particular, to create something that allows Westerners, allows Americans for example, to understand China better. And I think, taking off my business hat and putting on my policy hat for a second, I think the bilateral relationship between the US and China is simply too important for us not to get it right. So I think that's one of the ways that we envision ourselves serving organizationally: helping to bring new voices to this arena. And I think this kind of cross-cultural work does require newcomers who are not bounded by some of the traditional thinking. But you're absolutely right: we do have the capacity, I think, to change the world in some very small way, and it's very fortunate for me to be standing at what is this sort of serendipitous intersection of business, policy, law, international relations, the internet, all interests of mine but which I never would have been able to conceive coming together so seamlessly in a single job. If I hadn't in some ways come across it by accident."

BK: "So it sounds like you're enjoying this."

DW: "I am enjoying it, I am enjoying it."

BK: "David Wertime is cofounder and coeditor of Tea Life Nation, which can be found online at TeaLifeNation.com. David, thank you for joining us on The Business."

DW: "Thank you, my pleasure."

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