Wei Xing — the founder of Chinese startup Pear Video, which produces more than a thousand viral news clips a day — doesn’t fear rapid change, reports NiemanLab.
In almost two decades in Chinese media, he’s moved from working at newspapers in Shanghai to setting up some of the most innovative digital media outlets in China: The Paper — which is overseen by Shanghai United Media Group, a conglomerate owned by the Chinese Communist Party, but has touched on some controversial topics — and its English-language sibling Sixth Tone.
Not content with working only on text-focused ventures, Wei launched Pear Video in 2016. With a cash injection of more than $15 million from China Media Capital and a reported Series A funding round of nearly $100 million, Pear now claims it’s China’s leading short news video platform, generating around 500 million daily views. The platform isn’t profitable, but it’s starting to earn revenue through preroll ads and sponsored videos for brands.
Distributed through the platforms of Chinese tech giants Sina, Tencent, and Baidu (the latter two are also investors), Pear’s 1,500 daily videos attract not only young Chinese urbanites, but also some older and more rural residents. The company relies on a country-wide network of 30,000 videographers — none of whom are full-time journalists with Pear — based out of “every province, small city, and in the countryside.”
Below is a conversation with Wei Xing about how he adjusted to the technological revolution in China, how the editorial process at Pear works at such a scale, and how his news ventures try to survive in a tightly state-controlled media industry. The conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.
Wei Xing: After 2011, 2012, we felt that the traditional media had declined. The circulation was declining and depended mainly on advertisements. People didn’t like to read newspapers anymore.
In 2014, we launched The Paper, a model that worked quite well. It gained a lot of influence at that time, when Xi Jinping was launching his anti-corruption campaign. We gave quite a lot of coverage to corruption cases, like the Ling Jihua one.
The foreign media was interested in some of The Paper’s reports. We thought: Why can’t we establish an English media outlet ourselves? That’s how we first had the original thoughts about Sixth Tone. But the English media is very strong, so we were thinking: How can we be different?
We decided to focus on the forgotten topics that happen in China. For us, it is easier to travel around China, and we didn’t want to be another China Daily, another NYT. We wanted to report about common people involved in uncommon stories.
Almoguera: Sixth Tone was and still is a pretty successful title inside China among certain circles. What made you leave it to embrace a new experience?
Wei Xing: I think Sixth Tone is very good, but its audience is very narrow. Why? Because for foreigners the first choice is their native country’s media, and the second tier is the international media. I don’t think an ordinary foreigner would choose Sixth Tone as his first or second choice, so the audience is very limited. I wanted to reach a bigger audience, and the Chinese audience is quite big.
Another reason is that before. I was always doing text mostly. I had never tried TV or video. I wanted to try something different. And the background was that China’s audience is changing — young people are using their smartphones more and more. So in 2016, I left Sixth Tone and built Pear Video from scratch during six months, with some colleagues from The Paper.
Almoguera: Pear Video doesn’t have full-time journalists. You have defined the model as being based on the “decentralization” of news gathering and an exhaustive fact-checking system. Where do the videos come from?
Wei Xing: We have 500 staff, including tech, marketing, and some administration people. We have built and operate a huge network of videographers; in Chinese we call them paike (拍客). We have around 30,000 in our network — mainly in China, in every province, small city, and in the countryside — and we are still growing that number.
Wei Xing: In every province, we have two people, full-time employees, who act as our local representatives. Their main job is to build and maintain a local videographer network. Every day, these videographers pitch me videos. I make the first judgment. Out of 200 pitches, maybe I choose 30 of them, and then I send these videos to the editing team. Our editors based in Shanghai do the second judgment.
But we also find videos online. We monitor videos that are uploaded on social media. We have some people who check the content uploaded by citizens, and if we think it is interesting, we will contact that person. In China, if you upload a video, according to the regulations, you have to put your ID, so we can trace that person back. But the offline channel is the main source of content.
Our videographers are not full-time journalists. Every day, we are recruiting new videographers, but they aren’t just anyone. We don’t think that would be reliable.
Wei Xing: Our local staff does the first step in verifying, because they are based in that province and they know much better than us in Shanghai what’s going on. They will do phone calls, and they have many local contacts to verify the content, so they will do some basic verifying process.
The second step is taken by our verifying team, which is made up of 20 people, each of whom must verify at least 25 videos a day in order to meet their production schedule. They do cross-checking with social media. They do interviews, call local governments, local witnesses. They monitor Weibo, WeChat. And we also use some AI basic tools to verify the news through an existing database.
But not all the videos need the same process. For example, if it’s breaking news, we will of course give it priority and deal with it first.
Almoguera: Have you ever had problems with the government because of a video’s content? In December 2016, Chinese authorities announced regulations concerning the sharing of “unofficial” online videos. We’ve also recently seen a clampdown by the Chinese authorities on Toutiao and WeChat.
Wei Xing: We need to be much more cautious now on the content. We have to abide by the regulations.
Our focus is not much on politics or macroeconomic topics, in the line of Sixth Tone. For two reasons: Most of these topics are not suitable to be covered by short-form news videos, because they are relatively boring. Not so many people want to watch them. And the second reason is that we are focused on the forgotten stories, the people stories, which are almost forgotten by the mainstream media.
In many cases, we are quicker than the traditional media.
Half an hour after last year’s earthquake, which happened around 9:30 p.m., we had the first video about it, because we had the videographer there. Three or four hours later, we had more than 100 videos about the earthquake. I don’t think traditional media could do it.
Almoguera: What is your target audience? Are short videos meant to be more popular among millennials, who would normally use their smartphones to watch them?
Wei Xing: Of course, the young people, the millennials, are born into the digital era. The video audience is much larger in their age range than in text.
But it’s not only young people who like to watch videos — older people like it too. And not only the people who are living in Shanghai or Beijing, but also people who live in the countryside, because it is difficult for them to read a very long article.
Wei Xing: We are still not profitable, because we have only existed for 1.5 years. Our main focus now is to expand our audience, our brand, and our content. It is more difficult to charge the audience for a short video than for longer videos.
Our main revenue comes from advertisements of two kinds. The first one is native ads, solutions for brands. We make the ads for them, and also we distribute the content for them. Another kind is just some very short advertisement previews before the video.
Almoguera: At Pear, you produce news without full-time journalists. What type of message does that send to journalists out there? That new formats don’t need them anymore?
Wei Xing: The product of traditional media is limited. With Pear Video’s network of videographers, we have many more sources, many more news topics. So that’s why we speak of decentralization. We could liberate the journalist’s work — they could focus on other things.
But we try to combine both things, like in our fact-checking system. I don’t think technology itself could resolve this; we still need to apply the classic journalism concepts to verify the content.