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April 29, 2020, 12:02 p.m.

The Wire China is a new journalism-and-data business hoping to help unlock the country for others

“I think how wasteful is it that most journalists throw away or never use or don’t pass on any of their notes or records. Everyone that comes behind them does the research all over again…I think many great stories are sitting out there in the data, but it’s just too tiresome to go through all of it. People just give up.”

Breaking stories about corruption takes a lot of careful research and patience. If you’re reporting on the shadowy business dealings of high-ranking officials in China, that type of investigative journalism also takes a fair amount of courage.

David Barboza would know. While serving as The New York Times’ Shanghai bureau chief, Barboza won one Pulitzer Prize for exposing corruption by Chinese officials and another, as part of a team at the Times, for explanatory journalism on Apple’s business practices in 2013. The prize committee cited his “well-documented work published in the face of heavy pressure from the Chinese officials.”

During his years reporting in China, Barboza saw that investigative reporters, particularly those trying to untangle business stories, were reinventing the wheel while reporting. He dreamed of building a database that could spit out information, transcripts, relevant emails, and other assorted material on any China-based business you could think of. He thought the database would be a boon to investigative work — and could be sold to other journalists, policymakers, business leaders, and scholars interested in China. In 2016, he came to the Nieman Foundation as a Knight Visiting Nieman Fellow to work on the idea

After a handful of years of fine tuning and hiring, we’re seeing the first part of that gutsy experiment, a digital weekly magazine called The Wire China.

The digital magazine

Barboza and his team wanted to line up four weeks of features for the site’s early April launch but after the coronavirus pandemic broke out, they wound up crashing a cover story — normally a six-week process — in two weeks. “I was working day and night to make sure we had something very topical,” Barboza said.

The online magazine will publish a small collection of articles every week, anchored by a 3,000-5,000 word cover story. (This week’s cover chronicles the collapse of Luckin Coffee, which was supposed to be China’s answer to Starbucks.) The Wire China allows readers to sample one story before hitting the paywall. To see more, like the story on an “economic espionage” plot to steal from American farms or a close look at China’s pharmaceutical monopoly, interested parties will have to pay $19 for a monthly subscription or $199 for an annual pass.

Editorially, Barboza drew comparisons to The Information or Stat News, launched by his former Times colleague Rick Berke, albeit with a much smaller newsroom.

“I think what’s similar is that they focused narrowly in one area. They said, ‘We’re going to do New York Times and Wall Street Journal standards just on technology or just on biotech and the drug industry,'” Barboza said. “I have the same ambition for us.”

(In an echo of famous words by Times publisher Adolph S. Ochs, The Wire China’s “About” page reads: “Our mission is to provide accurate and balanced reporting, in the pursuit of truth, ‘without fear or favor.'”)

“We’re a hybrid of a lot of things — we take a little from The Information, a little from Stat, a little from Bloomberg, a little from Pitchbook or Crunchbase, and we mix it together along with my own interest in investigative reporting and illustration,” Barboza added.

Barboza says he likes the opportunity to “step back” that a weekly publication schedule affords. The Wire China has hired about twenty contributing writers around the world. The team is working remotely due to the coronavirus but only some of full-time staff will work in the publication’s Boston-based office; others will contribute from New York, Czech Republic, California, and more.

The publication is launching into a very different world than Barboza — or anyone else, really — had anticipated. The coronavirus, which originated in China, has swept the globe and left economic uncertainty in its wake. There’s also the small matter of an escalating media war between Washington and Beijing. In mid-March, China announced it would expel American journalists from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post. The diplomatic dustup is unlikely to affect The Wire China, though the team has two freelancers in the country. The plan from the beginning has been to cover China’s global influence — and because of its growth, Barboza believes some of the most fascinating China stories can be found in countries other than China.

“I realized we don’t actually have to be in China to cover China, because the China story is now everywhere,” Barboza said. “It’s gone out of China.”

Barboza said an initial round of funding has bought the publication about 12 months to shore up revenue, prove itself viable, and demonstrate it can break worthwhile stories. The business model balances on two main components: digital subscriptions from The Wire China and a data business that has yet to launch. He said he was happy with subscribers that the first two weeks yielded and noted that 40 percent had opted for the annual (rather than monthly) rate.

It’s been a somewhat quiet launch; The Wire China hasn’t spent any money on marketing or SEO, Barboza said. (The publication ranked only fifth on a recent Google search results for “The Wire China,” behind China stories at the Indian news site The Wire and a wire and machinery industry association and trade fair.) Still, Barboza was encouraged by the “tens of thousands” of pageviews in the publication’s first week and “a good number” of subscribers (he declined to be more specific), considering the strict one-article paywall.

The database

Barboza said most of the initial investment he’s raised has gone into the data side, with the hopes that selling information on businesses in China can, along with digital subscriptions, support the journalistic endeavor.

Though his reporters are using and contributing to the database, Barboza said the site was still under development and, once it appears, will launch on a separate site — and possibly under a different name than The Wire China. (As recently last as December 2019, The Wire China had been planning to launch as the more finance-sounding DealPro.)

The New York Times — which supported Barboza’s Nieman fellowship — expressed interest in the database’s potential, but when Barboza felt the project wasn’t moving forward at the Gray Lady, he started to see advantages to striking out on his own. (Production design has been a passion since he was an editor at his college newspaper.)

Although journalism and data businesses have coexisted before — perhaps you’ve heard of a company called Bloomberg? — there’s typically a firewall between the two operations. Barboza thought there was a way to organize the extensive notes and research required for his investigative journalism and make it available to other journalists — and policy makers, scholars, and other interested parties — for a price.

“Traditionally, journalists are on one side and they do their research, and then they throw it away and don’t give it to anyone else,” Barboza said. “I love a library, I love research, I love data, and I think how wasteful is it that most journalists throw away or never use or don’t pass on any of their notes or records. Everyone that comes behind them does the research all over again.”

The database already includes more than a million companies, and data engineers continue to collect and add information. Barboza said the entries are rich with historical details because he feels a longer view leads to a fuller picture and better stories.

“I don’t want to just Google something and see just what’s happened in the last three years, which may or may not have been buried by what’s happened the last three weeks,” Barboza said. “I think many great stories are sitting out there in the data, but it’s just too tiresome to go through all of it. People just give up.”

Barboza, who has been working on building the The Wire China’s newsroom and database for years, says the long-awaited launch hasn’t given him a chance to relax quite yet.

“We’ve got a one-year mandate to prove we have enough revenue to get a second year. That triples the pressure because every issue is important and every story is important,” Barboza said. “We’re going to fight for every issue, for every subscriber. Our theory is that if you do really solid reporting, people will come. But we’ll see.”

POSTED     April 29, 2020, 12:02 p.m.
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