UNC senior lecturer Jock Lauterer is on a two-week Fulbright to China to give lectures and lead seminars at three Beijing universities. He is the author of “Community Journalism: Relentlessly Local,” 3rd. Ed, and most recently was the project manager for Prof. Chen Kai’s groundbreaking 2012 book, “An Introduction to Community Newspapers in the U.S.”

Friday, May 25, 2012

Remember that old Tom Hanks classic movie, “Joe Versus the Volcano”…? Today I met the Chinese version of our film hero – and this case the “volcano” is the challenge of making a community paper work in China.

Is the launch of community journalism in China such an unattainable idealistic fantasy?

Zhou Chen doesn’t think so. “Mr. Joe,” is the editor (tantamount to the American role of publisher) of the New Peoples’ Evening News, an experimental community newspaper in Shanghai. The enthusiastic newspaperman attended my lecture at Tsinghua U. and won the hearts of the students when he made his impassioned case for his paper and its mission of community-building.

“Mr. Joe gets the connection between community journalism and democracy,” my host explains.

That’s half the battle right there.

So many Chinese have asked me: “What is the meaning of the community newspaper?” Mr. Joe already knows. His paper is, of course, government-sponsored like all newspapers, but what sets it apart is its local content. That and the fact that the government is watching closely to see if Mr. Joe can pull it off. If he succeeds, that would make him a real trailblazer for other visionary idealistic editors.

“Idealism is a luxury China cannot afford,” one Chinese scholar tells me. But another far-sighted editor thinks otherwise, “There are too few idealists in China,” said Yang Chi Yang, editor of the journal, “Media.”

No wide-eyed tenderfoot, Mr. Joe strikes me as the right mix of hard-ball pragmatism and idealistic expertise, willing to take risks to make his unique paper work.

The issue, as always, is press freedom and government control of the media. The government restricts the number of newspapers by requiring each to apply for a “number,” aka a license, from the government; and then if the paper’s content doesn’t reflect the government line, the government can and does sack the editor and or individual reporters. Talk about a chilling effect. Additionally, each day local governments send to the media a list of story topics that are off-limits. Talk about prior restraint!

Now you get what I mean when I talk about Joe Versus the Volcano!

Sitting eye to eye across the table from Mr. Joe, barely an arm’s length away, as I listen to his excited staccato Mandarin coming directly at me, it’s as if I CAN sense what he’s saying – even before my host translates. For after all, do we not both “bleed ink,” Mr. Joe and Mr. Joke?

How appropriate is it then, that Zhou Chen is coming to N.C. later this summer, not just to see his daughter Kate, a freshman at Davidson, but also to visit one of North Carolina’s great community papers. Publisher Bill Horner III of the Sanford Herald has graciously agreed to host the Chinese editor – and I can’t wait to be there to witness the event and share in the experience.

The beat goes on.

One Response to ““Mr. Joe” Versus the Volcano”

  1. Stephanie Brown

    Very exciting! I hope the N.C. community newspaper community can help encourage Mr. Joe to keep up the good work!!

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