Tencent restructures its news team as online censorship and competition with short video outfits such as Douyin grows in China

·5 min read

Tencent Holdings, China's most valuable tech company, reshuffled its news service operation this week, changing the unit's head and removing a handful of veteran editorial staff from their roles amid a tougher regulatory environment and increased competition.

In an internal notice issued on Monday, Tencent announced it had appointed He Yijin, a video product expert, as the new head of Tencent News and editor-in-chief of the company's news portal, according to people briefed on the restructuring, who declined to be identified as they are not authorised to talk with media.

He replaced Wanngg Shimu, a music product manager who took over Tencent News last Auguist from Chen Juhong, a renowned Chinese journalist and a 2003 Nieman Fellow at Harvard University.

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At least four senior members of the editorial team, including Wang, have been removed from their roles, according to one of the people familiar with the situation.

Wang will transfer to Tencent's platform and content group to lead Huanhe, a non-fungible token (NFT) trading app that was launched last August, the internal notice said.

The news site QQ.com was established as part of Tencent News in 2003. Photo: Screenshot alt=The news site QQ.com was established as part of Tencent News in 2003. Photo: Screenshot>

The recent reshuffle is aimed at "promoting business development in a better way", and the news department remains in normal operation, Tencent News said in a statement on Thursday.

The move follows a disappointing earnings report from the company last week.

The Shenzhen-based internet and gaming giant posted a 30 per cent plunge in advertising revenue from its media operations year-on-year to 2.3 billion yuan (US$341 million) in the first quarter. Ad revenue from social media, including the ubiquitous super app WeChat, fell 15 per cent to 15.7 billion yuan.

The sharp drop comes amid deep changes in how people on the mainland consume news and obtain information.

The rise of Jinri Toutiao, the algorithm-based news aggregator launched by TikTok owner ByteDance, has reduced the demand for editorial staff who are traditionally tasked with determining what content suits readers.

Meanwhile the emergence of short-video apps such as Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, as well as content services from players such as microblogging site Weibo and social media platform Xiaohongshu, has drawn attention away from news websites.

Tencent's media advertising revenue has been declining since 2019. alt=Tencent's media advertising revenue has been declining since 2019.>

Within the Tencent universe, many of WeChat's 1.28 billion users choose to share news articles through the app, rather than read them through the company's news services.

While Tencent has applied algorithm recommendations to its news app, which the company said contributed to a 23 per cent surge in its media ad revenue in 2018, the boost turned out to be short-lived as short-video apps pulled traffic away.

The internal pressure to produce profitable content has increased, according to one Tencent News employee, who requested anonymity. "Previously, it was acceptable to aim for influence rather than money," the person said. "But since the second half of last year, whatever shows that we are producing require sponsors, and the profit goals are high."

Tencent, like the early internet portals of Sina.com and Sohu.com, launched its news web page, QQ.com, in 2003. A news app was added in 2010 amid a wider shift towards the mobile internet. Tencent, which is not licensed as a news organisation, has for years run a vibrant newsroom producing its own editorial content. But the operation has come under increasing pressure as online censorship intensifies.

Da Jia, an online opinion piece platform run by Tencent that hosted a long list of liberal Chinese intellectuals as writers, ceased publication in 2020 and deleted all its content accumulated over eight years. One of the last published articles was an essay about the disappearance of independent journalism in China and the Covid-19 outbreak in the city of Wuhan.

In 2017, the Cyberspace Administration of China issued tightened media regulations, which require online news producers to acquire a government licence.

Tencent News is the producer of Thirteen Invitations, a popular talk show featuring author and journalist Xu Zhiyuan as host. Photo: Screenshot alt=Tencent News is the producer of Thirteen Invitations, a popular talk show featuring author and journalist Xu Zhiyuan as host. Photo: Screenshot>

Last year, Chinese authorities reiterated the government's policy that "non-public capital" - a term encompassing private businesses - is banned from operating original news reporting, making it clear that the country's Big Tech companies are not welcome to produce news stories or shape public opinion.

Alibaba Group Holding, owner of the Post, said last year it would divest its stake in video streaming operator Mango Excellent Media Co. Ant Group, Alibaba's fintech affiliate, disclosed in March it had sold its stakes in Chinese tech news portal 36Kr.

NetEase founder and chief executive William Ding Lei, one of the pioneers of China's internet industry, relinquished his roles at the company's media subsidiary in April.

China's internet firms have been repeatedly urged by government censors to toe the party line strictly and only republish news information from a state-approved whitelist. The increasing lack of original news content to differentiate between outlets is one reason why brand loyalty is ebbing.

"Given [China's] stringent information control ... most Chinese people do not have a strong identification with specific media for news consumption," said Wendy Zhou, a PhD candidate in communication at Georgia State University.

This article originally appeared in the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the most authoritative voice reporting on China and Asia for more than a century. For more SCMP stories, please explore the SCMP app or visit the SCMP's Facebook and Twitter pages. Copyright © 2022 South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

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