I-Der Jeng, editor-in-chief of the China Press, remembers the 10th anniversary of the daily Mandarin newspaper in early 2000 as one of the proudest days of his life. He rattles off a list of the U.S. presidents who sent letters of recognition: Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush. Then-mayor of New York City Rudy Giuliani declared Jan. 5, 2000 “China Press Day.”
Jeng beams. He was one of the founding members of the China Press, and has seen the paper through many years of change, not the least of which was transitioning from publishing in traditional Chinese to simplified.
“I think the presidents’ letters proved the China Press was nationally recognized,” Jeng says. He’s not shy about saying his paper deserved the recognition. “Our newspaper is a very responsible newspaper,” he says.
Responsibility, thoroughness, balanced reporting: these are the qualities Jeng, 58, considers hallmarks of good journalism, and tries to uphold as standards for the China Press. He says he’s not as concerned with the way technology is reshaping news as he is with maintaining high journalistic standards.
“I’m old school,” says Jeng. “I still think social responsibility should be the main goal of a newspaper.”
A Lifelong Career in News
Jeng has worked in newspapers for his entire career. Born and raised in Taiwan, Jeng flirted with the idea of becoming a politician until junior high, when he decided he wanted to pursue journalism.
“I knew journalism could help me to help someone else,” says Jeng.
Journalism is in Jeng’s DNA. His father, Shyh-Rony Jeng, founded two different newspapers, Kong Lun Pao in Taiwan and the now-defunct China Post in New York.
In 1975, Jeng set out for the U.S. to attend Hunter College and study media. In those days, he says, CUNY schools did not offer degree programs in practical journalism, so he focused on media theory, print and movies. He earned his B.A. in Mass Media in 1979 and an M.A. in Media Studies from Queens College in 1983. His got his first job out of graduate school at the China Daily News– but the paper ceased publication a few years later in 1989, and Jeng found himself looking for a new place to work.
It was then that Jeng began working on a project that really excited him. Along with eleven other journalists, many of them colleagues from the China Daily News, he founded the China Press, a newspaper designed to serve the Chinese community in the U.S. The group of eleven founding members collectively invested $50,000 to get the project off the ground. Some of them contributed by working for months without pay.
The founding editors of the China Press came from Hong Kong, Taiwan and mainland China. Though they spoke different dialects, they could all communicate in Mandarin.
Despite their mixed cultures and lingual differences, Jeng says clashes over vision were rare.
“There weren’t really many cultural differences, because we all had the same idea to create a paper to serve the Chinese community,” says Jeng.
Jeng says the China Press has four objectives: to promote relations and friendship between the U.S. and China, protect the interests of Chinese Americans (by increasing their knowledge of U.S. law, for instance), help readers understand what’s going on in China and promote the peaceful reunification of China and Taiwan.
The China Press publishes about 50 pages daily, with U.S. news, international news (with a special focus on China, Taiwan and Hong Kong), arts and leisure, and a section on New York City news.
“We view ourselves not as a community newspaper, more as a national paper,” says Jeng.
The paper’s daily circulation in New York City is about 65,000 copies per day. In Los Angeles and San Francisco it’s 230,000 copies per day. The paper has 16 weeklies in other cities across the countries, which each cover their own local news and have roughly 25,000 copies per week.
Joe Wei, editor-in-chief of the World Journal, another daily Chinese newspaper with national circulation, is a friend of Jeng’s. He says that he and Jeng don’t feel too much rivalry, as their papers take different stylistic approaches.
“They have a large audience from mainland China, mainly older people, who are used to the old style of writing and reporting,” Wei says. “The China Press uses what people would call a Xinhua style of reporting, an official Chinese writing style combined with more non-subjective descriptions. So they’ll use phrases like ‘This reporter observed…’ Our style is more straightforward. ”
Overseeing an Overhaul
Though the China Press was originally published in traditional Mandarin, from its earliest days Jeng always insisted on including one page in simplified Mandarin for young readers. Then, in 2000, Jeng decided that the entire paper should be published in simplified Mandarin. Jeng remembers that the paper’s editors felt nervous about the change – they anticipated losing readers. Because traditional Mandarin is used in Taiwan and simplified is used in mainland China, Jeng says the editors worried that the switch would be construed as a politically charged move.
“We had to say, this is not about politics. This is about what’s easier to learn,” he says.
The day the China Press switched to simplified, he penned a letter to readers explaining the change.
“I told them I had to learn simplified Chinese myself. But really it’s easy to read if you understand traditional – it’s simpler.”
Every day for a month after the switch, the China Press published a special translation page, with 3,000 indispensable characters converted from traditional to simplified Mandarin.
Jeng says that despite the worries he and his fellow editors harbored over the character change, ultimately they saw very little difference in readership.
“At first we thought readership would decrease, but really nothing happened,” says Jeng.
International Scale, Narrow Focus
Today, though the China Press cannot be sold in mainland China, where media is state-controlled, readers in China still find and follow the paper on the internet. The China Press has over 2 million fans on Sina Weibo, a Chinese microblogging service akin to Twitter.
“A lot of Chinese people are interested in what’s happening in the U.S.,” says Jeng.
In addition to its New York City base, the China Press has offices in Los Angeles and San Francisco, and smaller branches scattered around the country.
“The China Press is not only a community newspaper,” says Jeng. “It is a very important national newspaper.”
Yet despite its national reach, he says, the newspaper’s focus on the Chinese community gives it a rewarding edge over larger, mainstream newspapers in some ways. He realized this as the coverage of the World Trade Center attacks on Sept. 11 played out.
“9/11 made me believe that ethnic newspapers can serve better than mainstream,” says Jeng. “On that day, mainstream press had to cover the whole spectrum of the city. When they covered that, they couldn’t give details about the black, Hispanic or Chinese communities. But our major energy was focused on the Chinese community. We provided more details on Chinese people who had died, and told people where they could get help.”
Providing this kind of focused coverage, he says, is something that makes him proud to be part of an ethnic newspaper.
Watching the China Press grow and flourish – from the character changeover to expanding readership across the U.S. – has defined Jeng’s career. But even for all his love of journalism, he maintains that media is a taxing industry to be in.
Jeng keeps a framed photo of his only child, Deborah, next to his desk. He sighs as he reflects that his career pulled him away from her sometimes as she was growing up. Deborah is 22 years old now, studying environmental science and East Asian studies at New York University. He says her childhood went by in a flash as he worked long hours overnight at the China Press.
“I used to work the night shift. One day I opened my eyes and she was 18 years old,” he says. “A lot of people in the press feel this way. They don’t have time with their families. Now I’m old – I have more time now.”
Fostering the Next Crop of Chinese-Language Journalists
One of the ways Jeng has used some of his newfound time is fostering a youth program, called the China Press Junior Reporters’ Club. The group of 33 students, ranging from elementary to high schoolers, are annually plucked from a pool of 1,000 applicants based on their scores on a rigorous writing exam and competition in US schools.
Jeng brings the Junior Reporters on trips to the offices of large companies and embassies, and asks them to write about their experiences. They visited Google’s New York offices earlier this fall. Jeng tries to organize about one trip per month.
“I want these kids to learn something, to do something, to write something,” he says. “I want them to have a lifetime experience.”
Despite the program’s name, he says that the goal is not necessarily to encourage the Junior Reporters to pursue a career in journalism.
“These kids are so young. I don’t want them to decide their futures right now,” he says. “The goal is to help them understand the U.S., China and social issues.”
Jeng led 16 of the Junior Reporters on a trip to China this past summer. The young writers met officials at the Chinese ministry and U.S. embassy and had mini-deadlines for writing assignments. Their short reflections on their experiences were published in the China Press back in the U.S.
Jeng speaks about the Junior Reporters’ Club with particular pride. Though his newspaper career has been long and winding, he calls this project one of the most important he’s ever worked on. Not only does he love working with kids, but Jeng also says that helping students learn to communicate can help promote cross-cultural understanding in the long run.
“Journalism is very important for the next generation,” he says. “They have to be great communicators.”
Follow Antonia Massa on Twitter: @antoniabmassa