China's Newsstand Fever

Foreign magazines are a hit in China. Will the party let them prosper?

Patrick J. McGovern has made an amazing 87 trips to China, but he's not tired of the place. In fact, the chairman of International Data Group (IDG ) expects to make many visits to the mainland in coming years as he continues to expand his company's stable of Chinese-language editions of foreign magazines -- everything from Computerworld to Cosmopolitan, a Hearst Corp. title that IDG helps publish in China. In all, the Boston publisher has invested $20 million in the mainland since first traveling there 23 years ago. Today IDG has 28 titles in China, with four more expected in the coming year. "I see China becoming our largest single-country market," says McGovern.

Call it a glossy gold rush. The print advertising market in China is growing at 37% annually, with total revenues of $5.5 billion last year. Those numbers haven't escaped the attention of media moguls worldwide. A few early birds in the magazine business -- mostly tech titles -- have been in China since the 1980s. But lately, international publishers have been piling in, forming joint ventures with Chinese partners or licensing their name and content for publication on the mainland. Today, more than 50 foreign magazines have Chinese-language editions, with a dozen more expected in the coming year. "Investors see China as an untapped media market with huge potential," says Li Xiguang, director of the Center for International Communications Studies at Tsinghua University in Beijing.

The opening of the Chinese media market to new publications is partly due to a new regulatory regime for media. The changes that have swept China's economy in recent years are finally reaching the country's 11,000 cash-strapped periodicals. In an effort to rationalize the media sector, Beijing's General Administration of Press & Publications in July announced that it will no longer require Communist Party members to subscribe to many of the turgid, grey newspapers, magazines, and journals published by ministries and municipalities. By yearend, some 1,000 periodicals are expected to close, and thousands of others will need to find new sources of funding. "The government doesn't want to be responsible for paying for the media sector," says Zhao Xiaobing, president of Global China (Beijing) Media Consulting Co.


Urban consumers are already making their preferences known. Except for the Chinese characters, newsstands in Beijing these days don't look that different from those in Paris or Peoria. Computerworld, Network World, and PC Magazine all sell Chinese editions. The McGraw-Hill Companies (MHP ) licenses the BusinessWeek name and content to the China Foreign Economic Relations & Trade Publishing House, which has published a Chinese-language edition since 1986. Since 2000, Fortune, Forbes, and Harvard Business Review have joined the field of business magazines. More than a dozen titles such as Marie Claire, Madame Figaro, Modern Bride, and Harper's Bazaar are trying to woo the country's fashion-conscious urban women.

One stumbling block for foreign publishers has been distribution. To date, fragmented municipal distributors and local post offices have been responsible for getting magazines to market, which makes it hard for foreigners to sell outside of the major cities. But restrictions on distribution are loosening as China opens up under its agreement with the World Trade Organization. The pact requires that China let foreign companies own nationwide distribution networks for books, newspapers, and magazines by December, 2004. IDG expects to launch its own distribution company -- for both its own titles and those of rivals -- in the first half of next year. "One frustration is that we have only been able to get to the 30% of the population who live in the major cities," says McGovern. "We probably could get three to four times our growth once we have a true national distribution system."

That's not to say Beijing is prepared to lift all limits. Don't look for an end to the current ban on foreign investment in newspapers, which are more sensitive because they tend to focus on hard news. And foreign magazine publishers must either compete for permission to license their content or create a joint venture with a Chinese publisher -- who always retains majority control. That reality has led many foreign titles to sign deals in advertising or consulting, but actually help produce content. Magazines that have had trouble getting licensed publish in Hong Kong and export their magazines to the mainland. That works for a while, but publishing in China is preferable, since imported editions are available only via subscription or in a limited number of outlets, such as five-star hotels. (The Chinese-language version of BusinessWeek is published in Beijing.)

Even winning formal approval doesn't mean magazines can publish everything they do in other countries. Indeed, like their local counterparts, some foreign magazines censor themselves or steer clear of controversy. One example: Newsweek Select -- a monthly that just launched in Hong Kong featuring articles from the U.S. newsweekly -- says it will avoid hard news and politics. "We want to focus on softer and more leisure-oriented content for our Chinese readers," says Joseph Poon, CEO of Vertex Communications & Technology Group Ltd., a Hong Kong media company that publishes the Chinese edition. That may make it seem a bit pale in comparison with potential rivals such as Sanlian Life, a sometimes hard-hitting weekly part-owned by Hong Kong media company Tom.

Whatever the content, simply printing translated material from overseas editions will be less likely to succeed in coming years. That's because educated Chinese have become a lot more savvy in the past decade and no longer see foreign publications as their only window on the world. These days, they're looking for articles that will be relevant to their lives in China. "Once one could get away with simple translated content, but now you need local content," says Cao Weiming, head of Chinese operations for Hachette Filipacchi Media, which publishes Elle, Marie Claire, and Car & Driver on the mainland. These days his magazines commission Chinese writers to cover everything from sex to the stock market.

The foreigners are also encountering increasingly tough competition from local rivals. Chinese magazines are quickly reaching a level of professionalism that is often more than a match for their foreign counterparts. China Entrepreneur has become popular for its glossy articles on local business leaders. Fashion mag Rayli has impressive features and photo spreads. And finance biweekly Caijing regularly breaks news on corruption -- and occasionally gets rebuked by authorities for its trouble. "We have to be aware of foreign publications, but for now I don't think they'll be real rivals," says Lin Libo, deputy managing editor of Caijing. Even so, the foreigners are certainly trying -- and they're willing to make as many trips to China as it takes to succeed.

By Dexter Roberts in Beijing

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