Shanghai Blog Shuttered in US Union-Busting Row

Shanghai Blog Shuttered in US Union-Busting Row
Credit: Depositphotos

What you need to know

The abrupt closure of the Shanghaiist last week was a sad loss for China's increasingly uniform media ecosystem.

China's English-language media landscape just became that bit less vivid.

The Shanghaiist, a Shanghai-based media outlet in operation since 2005, was shuttered by its American CEO on Nov. 2, leaving its staff and writers jobless.

The decision to shut down Shanghaiist was made after staff at the New York office of its sister publication Gothamist voted to unionize with the Writer’s Guild of America East. The decision triggered Joe Ricketts, who owns both sites as well as another local news site, DNAinfo, to close the entire stable of publications. The guild expressed dismay at the closures and the loss of 115 jobs across the companies' network of offices.

CEO Joe Ricketts did not mention the decision to unionize in his statement accompanying the publications’ closure, but he had fought against the unionization campaign, signaling his desire to retain complete control as long as he remained the primary financier. Ricketts cited business reasons for his decision, despite having only bought the titles earlier this year.

“The recent union drive in digital media has been a massively positive development in a field where too many people are vulnerable to exploitation by their employers and the vagaries of an increasingly tight market,” says a former Shanghaiist editor, who wished to remain nameless due to media policy at his current employer. “The decision by Joe Ricketts not to negotiate with the handful of employees in NYC who unionized but instead close the entire DNA Info/Gothamist network is obviously a huge overreach and emblematic of the very types of owners unions are intended to protect workers from.”

Staff at Shanghaiist, which always operated independently from the main Gothamist network, aside from being hosted on its servers, were not covered by the union drive, along with all other Gothamist employees outside NYC. But they were nevertheless collectively punished by the ownership, according to the former editor.

The blog had been a popular source of information on China for social media users, and featured humorous pieces geared towards foreign audiences in lieu of more hard-hitting news. Before its takedown, the site had garnered more than 5 million followers on social media, and had become one of the most widely-read online platforms focusing exclusively on China coverage. “It seemed like the only news source my friends here had on China,” says Alex Joske, a student at Australian National University in Canberra.

“Maintaining the archives of all Gothamist sites is important for the public record,” adds the former editor. “Shanghaiist covered many stories larger English-language publications did not, and was a valuable source for foreign media and academics.”

What now then for the Shanghaiist team? The former editor suggests one possible course of action: “There's no reason the team could not apply their talents to a new website, but the loss of the domain and brand will obviously be a big one.”

Shanghaiist also had its detractors. Some social media users suggested that it promoted content that made Chinese citizens appear backwards and uneducated, or featured stories that played into Western stereotypes. One user claimed that the site was a platform “used by expats to run down China at any chance”, while another commented that while they had found an article generally interesting, the site had recently devolved into posting fluff stories. Several users also remarked that the commentary on its social media page skewed towards users mocking what they deemed the ill-behavior of ordinary Chinese.

But then criticism, mocking or otherwise, is something China's Communist Party (CCP) government and those who subscribe to its doctrine find hard to take. Freedoms afforded to the press overseas remain heavily curtailed, and the Party censors information it finds disagreeable in addition to maintaining control through state ownership of media outlets. According to the media watchdog agency Reporters Without Borders, China ranks 176 out of 180 countries in the World Press Freedom Index. There are presently more than 100 journalists in prison in China — more than any other nation. At the 19th Communist Party National Congress last month, Chinese president Xi Jinping made overtures to foreign media, stating his desire for an increase in “objective reporting”. In spite of these statements, several foreign news agencies were barred from attending the event, with the press kept at arm’s length throughout the assembly.

Many news organizations face impediments when reporting on China, in part due to heavy censorship as well as the interference of governmental officials in the work of foreign correspondents stationed in the country. Journalists and researchers in China find themselves subjected to detainment and harassment by government officials and local communities, in addition to having their work digitally redacted to remove unpalatable information. In some cases, foreign researchers report detainments that last several days, the regularity of which has increased under the Xi administration.

While those who view Shanghaiist as little more than an outlet for regular China-bashing will applaud its shuttering, the growing scarcity of independent news sources reporting from within China is worrisome. Those who found the website a lighter way into learning more about the country will mourn its loss.