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Newspaper War, Waged a Character at a Time

November 10, 2003. New York Times

During the blackout in August, reporters for the city's four Chinese dailies did not have electric generators to see them through the night. But that did not stop one of them, Ming Pao Daily News, from trying to best its rivals.

The half-dozen reporters in the Chinatown bureau of Ming Pao wrote their stories in longhand on a large table inside a generator-powered Holiday Inn.

One reporter then walked with the stories uptown and across the Queensboro Bridge to the newspaper's main office, in Long Island City, where five editors who had camped out overnight typed them into the computers as soon as the electricity came back on at 5:15 a.m. By 10 a.m., the papers were in readers' hands.

"I can proudly tell you that Ming Pao was the first to get the paper out on the street and free to everyone," said Xiaohui Hu, the newspaper's deputy editor in chief.

The World Journal, another Chinese daily in New York, has its own story of newspaper-war resourcefulness. For weeks after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Chinatown was blocked to traffic, so The World Journal carted newspapers to its readers there by hand truck.

And three of the Chinese dailies crow over how they tore apart their front pages when Madame Chiang Kai-shek died late on Oct. 23; they informed their readers of the death by morning, a day before most other newspapers reported it.

Although some of the city's 300 ethnic newspapers may have a languid, less-than-fresh feel, the Chinese press is aggressive. And the competition is about to get more cutthroat. The Oriental Daily News, among Hong Kong's biggest newspapers, is considering coming to New York City to become the fifth Chinese daily.

So zealous is the rivalry among the dailies for news (and so tight their budgets) that each reporter has a quota of 2,000 words, or, more precisely, 2,000 characters, to write each day, often in two or three stories. The China Press also requires its reporters to shoot three usable photos a day.

"The quality is not so good, but it cuts down the cost," explained I-Der Jeng, its editor.

For the city's 360,000 Chinese and Chinese-American residents, the Chinese-language dailies (and the dozen weeklies) provide generous helpings of news about compatriots in China, Taiwan and Chinese communities elsewhere.

The newspapers regularly parse politicians' moves to measure the impact on the half-century battle over the identity of Taiwan. But they also teach immigrants about American peculiarities like potluck dinners and sleepovers. They explore options for bringing relatives to the United States under opaque immigration laws.

"Our headline today is that the Homeland Security Department requires that, starting next spring, all foreign students have to pay $100 to get into this country," said Joe Wei, the national desk editor of The World Journal. "In other newspapers this is going to be on Page 43."

The Chinese newspapers tell new arrivals about jobs and apartments in Chinese neighborhoods. They specify which schools are high-performing and where to find SAT cram schools.

"You want to buy a Cadillac, instead of going to Potamkin you look through the ads for someplace in Queens run by a Chinese person," said Peter Kwong, professor of Asian-American studies at Hunter College. "They can explain the deal better."

Of course, the dailies chronicle the same news as English-language newspapers: the rape charges against Kobe Bryant (since the arrival of the Houston Rockets' Yao Ming, basketball has become a big sport among Chinese-Americans), a new drug to combat breast cancer, or an announcement by City Hall.

The newspapers also run a lot of articles on crimes against Asians. Wendy Cheung of The World Journal is proud of the scoops she gets from detectives she has cultivated in the Fifth Precinct in Chinatown.

Just as in any good newspaper war, each of the Chinese newspapers is dismissed by the others. The World Journal is called an apologist for Taiwan, The China Press a mouthpiece for mainland China, Sing Tao Daily a tabloid-like scandal sheet, and Ming Pao a small nonthreat.

In each case, the truth is more complicated.

The World Journal, a division of the 50-year-old United Daily News Group of Taiwan, set foot in the United States in 1976 and now has papers in New York, San Francisco and nine other cities. With 25 reporters and 12 translators in the New York area, it is the reigning powerhouse in North America.

"We positioned ourselves as The New York Times for overseas Chinese people," said Tina Lee, the paper's assistant president.

Ms. Lee, 31, a graduate of Stanford University Law School, is the granddaughter of T. W. Wang, the founder of the United Daily News Group (and a friend of the Chiang family). She estimates that her paper has 90,000 readers in New York and 360,000 nationally.

Many readers, she says, are highly educated and high earning, and, despite the paper's origins in Taiwan, a majority are from the mainland. Like circulation claims made by the other newspapers, hers are hard to verify, since the newspapers do not submit their circulation to audits.

Sing Tao Daily, an offshoot of its Hong Kong namesake, is more open to a dash of sensation. It runs a daily page with pictures of revealingly dressed women and is more likely to run a photograph of the shark-mangled body of a man who tried to sneak into the United States. But it follows the news from Iraq as diligently as its competitors and has started a page with news from Wenzhou, a boomtown south of Shanghai that is the latest source of immigrants.

Rick Ho, the deputy general manager of Sing Tao, claims a circulation of 50,000 in New York and says the paper outsells The World Journal in Chinatown and Brooklyn. Still, as a thriving Hong Kong-based paper, Sing Tao would seem to have the most to fear from the arrival of The Oriental Daily News.

Ming Pao, which has been here six years and claims a circulation of 20,000, is also an offshoot of a Hong Kong newspaper, but it regards itself as more of an intellectual's broadsheet. Mr. Hu, the deputy editor in chief, says he is not worried about the more middlebrow Oriental Daily.

The China Press, which claims 45,000 readers in New York, denies the accusations of its competitors that its editorial policy and finances are controlled by Beijing.

"We are not the spokesman for the Chinese government," said Mr. Jeng, the editor, adding that his roots were in Taiwan. "We have a lot of mainland China news because we think it serves the interest of overseas Chinese in the U.S."

The day that other Chinese front pages in New York were full of accounts of a wake for Madame Chiang, Mr. Jeng's paper placed the story on Page 16.

The competition is fevered possibly because each newspaper is aware of its precarious existence, given the passions of China-Taiwan politics.

There were 10 Chinese daily newspapers in the New York area in the mid-1980's, but some made gaffes and folded. For instance, the Taiwan-linked China Times showcased the Chinese team in the 1984 Olympics, angering its Taiwanese backers. The Centre Daily News, also Taiwanese, supported the Chinese government's crackdown in Tiananmen Square in 1989 and lost not just its readers but its staff.

With more readers comfortable in English, the newspapers have revised their format, printing Chinese text horizontally, from left to right, rather than vertically, from top to bottom. That allows them to insert English phrases like "early decision" or "the official preppy handbook" into articles. (Reporters use English keyboards, writing Chinese characters by typing in a phonetic version of a Chinese word; this brings up a menu of possible Chinese characters.)

The newspapers are also aware that even successful immigrant papers can have a paradoxically perilous existence.

In the 1920's, The Forward, in Yiddish, had a daily circulation of 250,000. It helped acclimate its readers and their descendants so well to a new land that its Yiddish edition is now a weekly with about 5,000 readers.

"It's something that we think about," Ms. Lee of The World Journal said. "But Chinese is the second-most-spoken foreign language behind Spanish, and the rate of immigration in this country is tremendous. So at this point we still see it as a growth market."


Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company

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