A tribute to the shuttered McClatchy Beijing bureau — and the former Knight-Ridder international reportersPosted: January 1, 2016
When I started as the University of Pennsylvania stringer for the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1974, I was greatly impressed that the Inquirer not only was a fearless advocate for Philadelphians, but it provided us with special insight into the world through its foreign correspondents and other reporters on the payroll of Knight-Ridder Newspapers. The global network of correspondents survived the demise of Knight-Ridder under the McClatchy umbrella.
In my 2 1/2 years in Beijing, I’ve had the opportunity to see the amazing work of McClatchy’s final China bureau chief, Stuart Leavenworth. His stories — perceptive, interesting and unique — reminded me what international correspondents for hometown papers offer. It’s not the same breaking news you get from traditional wire services. It’s added value that comes from a combination of skilled journalists with expertise in the subject matter they are covering and experienced editors who understand their audience (and the world).
Sadly, McClatchy is shuttering its Beijing bureau — and all of its bureaus — this new year. Another casualty of declining newspaper audiences and diminishing news budgets. I will really miss the fine work of these intrepid journalists, as, I suspect, will thousands of loyal readers who now have yet another reason not to subscribe to their hometown paper.
Mark Seibel, a former Dallas Times Herald colleague of mine and a longtime editor for the Miami Herald and the McClatchy D.C. bureau, penned a Facebook tribute to his colleagues. With his permission, I’d like to share it with you:
By Mark Seibel
The other day, Stuart Leavenworth, until midnight McClatchy’s China bureau chief, posted a farewell photo that captured the door of the McClatchy office in Beijing. The plaque read “McClatchy/Miami Herald/Beijing Bureau.” It reminded me that the closing today of McClatchy’s last handful of foreign bureaus – Beijing, Irbil, Istanbul, Mexico City, though not yet Berlin, for reasons of logistics — ends an era when regional newspapers worked hard to make sure their readers were informed not just on local news but on world events. Because readers expected that of their papers.
I first began directing coverage of China in 1984, when I joined The Miami Herald as foreign editor. The correspondent in Beijing then was Michael Browning, perhaps the most talented writer and observer I‘ve ever been privileged to edit. Three decades and his untimely death haven’t dimmed my memory of the lyrical way he described the rippling of a pig’s flesh as it was carried to market at what was the beginning of China’s economic reformation. He once profiled a woman who smoked hundreds of cigarettes daily as a tester in a Chinese state factory.
At the time, Browning’s competitors included correspondents not just from AP and the usual suspects, but from the Baltimore Sun, the Chicago Tribune, and Newsday, among others. None of those papers has international bureaus today.
Browning’s time in China eventually ended, hastened by Chinese displeasure with his coverage of the Tiananmen Square massacre, and The Herald’s time as the keeper of the Beijing bureau also came to an end, when in the mid 90s, Knight-Ridder decided to centralize oversight of its eight corporate foreign bureaus in Washington. The wisdom of that move can still be debated; I’d argue it put another layer between local editors and international news coverage.
Many talented reporters have passed through the Knight Ridder/McClatchy foreign system. Marty Merzer, Juan O. Tamayo, Carol Rosenberg, Alfonso Chardy, John Donnelly, Soraya Nelson and Dion Nissenbaum all served in the Jerusalem bureau before it closed when Dion moved to Kabul. Hannah Allam, Nancy Youssef and Leila Fadel were Baghdad bureau chiefs, before Roy Gutman closed that bureau when he moved to Istanbul. Jack Changwas the last fulltime Rio de Janeiro correspondent, preceded by Kevin Halland Katherine Ellison. When Tom Lasseter left Moscow to cover China, the position was never filled; Brian Bonner occupied it for months, but never held the job permanently. Shashank Bengali’s departure from Nairobi ended McClatchy/Knight Ridder’s long run there. Nancy Youssef’s departure from Cairo ended our presence there.
Tim Johnson served in China before moving to the Mexico City bureau, which he’ll close in January. Matthew Schofield has been based in Berlin twice, and will eventually close it for a second time.
McClatchy kept the spark alive the last few years with a handful of staffers and an ample group of freelancers and contractors, all talented in their own right. David Enders covered Syria from the inside, being among the first to recognize that the jihadists were taking over the rebellion, and eventually winning a staff assignment (and a share of a Polk). Mitchell Prothero stepped in ably after David, and was willing to move to Irbil when the Islamic State captured Mosul. Others: Sheera Frenkel, Daniella Cheslow and Joel Greenberg from Israel, Adam Baron from Yemen, Alan Boswell from South Sudan and Nairobi, Jon Stephenson in Kabul, Saeed Shah and Tom Hussain in Islamabad.
There were many firsts, but some I think of often: Nancy Youssef was first to report that there had been no demonstration outside the Benghazi compound, and she did so within hours of the attack; Roy Gutman was the first to raise the issue of Obama’s lack of involvement in the negotiations over leaving U.S. troops in Iraq; Tom Lasseter, with an assist from Matthew Schofield, was the first to systematically interview former Guantanamo detainees about their time there, and David Enders reported in 2012 that al Qaida’s Nusra Front could be found at the fore of many key rebel victories in Syria.
I’m sorry to see that Miami Herald plaque disappear from that door in Beijing, but glad to have been a part of it.
This guest blog was written as a Facebook post by Felicia Sonmez, one of the best journalists in Beijing. Many thanks to Felicia for giving me permission to share it with you.
Then you slow down, and so does he. You start up again and bike faster, and so does he. Finally he gets ahead of you and stops at a corner. You hesitate for a moment, then turn right, back toward the long road to the Square. And before you know it, he’s approaching you on your left side, and suddenly, he’s crashed into you.
“Sorry!” he says.
“What are you doing?” you ask, as he stumbles off his bike.
Rather than stick around to find out the answer, you hurry to get back on your bike and pedal away as fast as you can, without looking back.
Ordinarily, you might be worried about the chance of some stranger following you back to your house. But in this case, you’re almost relieved to get home. He probably works for the government. And they already know where you live.
It’s June 3, 2014, the eve of the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre, and also a year to the day since I moved back to Beijing. The visit last month from black-clad plainclothes security agents to our bureau — as well as most every foreign news outlet in Beijing — warning us not to do any newsgathering related to the anniversary has had several weeks to sink in. So have the various warnings that have come down from the Chinese foreign ministry.
Dozens of Chinese activists, rights lawyers, artists, journalists and others with even the most tenuous of links to Tiananmen have been detained over the past few months — enough to make it clear that any reporter would be foolish to think of heading down to the Square on June 3 or 4 and expect to get any reporting done, let alone avoid getting detained.
So, after a day spent in the office, I decided on a whim to hop on my bike and just go for an evening ride around town, to see what I could see. I left my recorder and notebook and home, bringing only my pocketbook, a deactivated smartphone I use for taking photos, and a few H&M shopping bags, which I threw in the basket of my bike.
I was only gone for an hour, and I wasn’t sure what I’d encounter.
I biked down Dongdan North Street until I got to East Chang’an Avenue, about four big blocks away from Tiananmen Square. Central Beijing usually has a fair police presence to begin with, but tonight felt different. Every police car or van that passed was silently flashing blue and red lights, as was every police box on the street, and officers were stationed at every main intersection. I must have passed more than 100 police over the course of my bike ride.
As I approached the corner, there was suddenly a lot of yelling. I looked on as four uniformed police officers dragged a young man across the street and toward the accordion gate that was blocking part of the bike lane.
About a dozen bikers waiting for the light to change watched as the police forced the man onto his knees and yelled at him. I couldn’t make out what the man had done wrong. But a woman with him was making a phone call, and one of the bikers next to me was recording the confrontation on his smartphone. I snapped a few photos, then turned onto Chang’an Avenue and kept biking to avoid causing a scene myself.
The police presence on Chang’an Avenue has been ramping up steadily over the past few weeks, with dogs and armed officers gradually being added to the mix. But tonight was unlike anything I’ve seen. Officers and police vehicles were stationed all along the giant east-west thoroughfare, which has seven lanes of traffic on each side. A few other bikers were riding along like me, including a few guys clad in racing gear and spandex (not like me). Even among those pro-looking riders, there was a palpable tension as they sped down the road under the officers’ watchful gaze.
I approached the Square. It was unlike any time I’ve ever seen it in the eight years since I first came to China. It’s normally a pretty festive place, teeming with tourists snapping photos, as well as a fair amount of police and vendors. That’s how it was two days ago, when I came by with some friends visiting from out of town.
Tonight, it was completely empty. Not a single person was on the Square as I biked by, just a lone white police van parked in front of the Monument to the People’s Heroes, facing against traffic.
I recalled a conversation with a Beijing lawyer I met recently. Hundreds of thousands of police officers being mobilized across the city — for what? he asked. Just to ensure that a non-commemoration of a non-anniversary remains that way? He thought it was not only a waste, but a shameful one.
I thought, also, of a story the lawyer had told me about a friend of his. It was last year, and news had just broken of the arrest of venture capitalist Wang Gongquan. Wang was outspoken, but his surprising arrest was taken as a sign that the neither the wealthy nor the well-known would be spared in Beijing’s new crackdown on dissent.
Many were spooked. But perhaps that was the intention. Regardless, the day Wang’s arrest was reported, the lawyer said, was the day his friend decided to pack up and leave China.
I kept biking down Chang’an Avenue, slowing down to snap a few photos with my smartphone, and suddenly something struck me. In clearing out the Square and deploying thousands of police across the city to quell any potential disturbances, the authorities had created a spectacle — a memorial, almost — of their own. The vast emptiness at the heart of the capital was a manifestation of the void that has existed since 1989, and of which the world is reminded — though perhaps not quite so vividly — every June.
That was the thought I was planning to end my night on, until I turned north onto Nanchang Jie. I realized after a few minutes that the old man was following me, and he kept pace with me all the way up the street past the Zhongnanhai leadership compound, across the north end of the Forbidden City and to the corner of Beichizi Street.
The bizarre run-in with him, which echoed stories I’d heard from other reporters during sensitive periods in China, quickly turned my mood tonight from pensive to spooked. But perhaps that was the intention. I left before I could find out more — and before my phone, press card, or other belongings could potentially be snatched.
One of the realities of living in China is that I must communicate differently with friends and family.
No more drinks at the National Press Club. Cell phone calls and individual emails are an inefficient way to communicate with a large number of people.
So how have my communications methods evolved? Here are my five most frequently used sources — dominated by social media.
It is my lifeline. It is how I share my life experiences and travelogue through words and images. It reaches a large audience instantaneously. And it is my primary method of chatting with friends in America and Europe. The only problem is that Facebook is blocked by the Chinese government, so it is necessary to climb the Great Firewall of China to use it. That occasionally means some unplanned days of Facebook blackout.
I had never heard of WeChat when I arrived in China. I knew that Weibo was the Chinese combination of Facebook and Twitter. But I quickly learned (taught by my students) that WeChat is far superior. Almost nobody uses email in China. WeChat is the preferred means of communicating. Its “moments” feature allows you to post updates and photos like Facebook. And group chats allow me to communicate instantaneously with everyone in my class — or with a group of friends heading to dinner. It’s great. And there’s nothing in the U.S. quite like it. Yet.
I hadn’t realized just how much drivel gets posted on Twitter until I left the United States. So many American political reporters post so many unimportant updates. So many politicians have nothing to say. So many words (140 characters at a time). So little value. When I came to China, I spent a month “unfollowing” people who offered little insight and added some of the best tweeters in China. Now, once again, Twitter has value to me. But it is no longer my number one social media source, like it was when I was a reporter in search of breaking news, 24/7.
In the past week, I have Skyped with people in Africa, Iran, Pakistan, Malaysia, Thailand, Texas and France. It is the most cost-effective way for me to do my job as an academic. The quality is usually decent, though, as with everything in China, technology is hit or miss. But Skype allows me to see Pam regularly and to communicate with friends from America to Europe to Asia. I also spend less on long-distance calls today than I did as a college student at the University of Pennsylvania. Thank you, Skype.
My students don’t use email. My colleagues rarely use email. Email is a very “Y2K” thing. But I still use it. It’s the best way to send documents or memos. And it’s the best way to have lengthy exchanges. It’s the only “old-fashioned” way I communicate.
Funny thing: None of these five methods of communication had been invented when I started my career as a journalist. My, oh my, how technology has changed our world.