Three men in Shanghai, at their leisure. Jock Lauterer photo
Three men in Shanghai, at their leisure. Jock Lauterer photo

Mr. Joke Returns to China

Our traveler returns to China this summer for a month of teaching, lecturing and learning at industry and university sites in Shanghai, Nanjing and Chongqing. Last summer, during his Fulbright to Beijing, he was once introduced to a formal conference as “Mr. Joke,” a moniker that has stuck. Following is the record of Mr. Joke’s reprise.

 

China stretches across my couch — from Xingjian’s arid deserts in the west to the prosperous cities of the south, to the political heart of Beijing in the north, to the glittering neon-lit waterfront of modern Shanghai in the east— the old National Geographic map sprawls on the pillows like a crazy quilt piece of art, punctuated by highlighted blobs of colors marking few places this traveler has been. And the map, its vastness and mystery, tells me, ‘Stranger, how little you know of me… and what challenges and adventures await!”

The Back-Story

What am I doing in China — a former small-town newspaper owner-publisher turned University lecturer?

What could I possibly have to offer the world’s largest country, the second largest economy, and a land of 1.3 billion people, force-fed by a state-controlled media system?

Therein lies the tale.

When in 2008 I received an email from an unknown Chinese scholar in Beijing requesting a year of study with me at Chapel Hill, I thought to myself, “Why bother?” and dismissed the notion…until the following year when Associate Professor Chen Kai wrote again informing me this time that UNC  had accepted her as a Visiting International Scholar, and that she intended to spend the year studying American community newspapers, and that I had been assigned as her mentor!

Why me? Because she had stumbled across my book, “Community Journalism, the Personal Approach,” in her university library (the Communication University of China in Beijing).

Why Community Journalism? Because even with a state-controlled media system, community newspapers are being launched, under the radar, illegally and in something of a shadow media ecosystem. And with the burgeoning growth of the Web and blogs, there is much interest in the development of a local news reporting — as a new revenue stream for existing newspapers, as a way to generate new interest in local affairs, and most importantly, as a way to achieve that old and elusive Chinese goal: the Harmonious Society.

Bill Horner lectures in Shanghai as wife Lee Ann, center, listens while Prof Chen Kai translates. Jock Lauterer photo
Bill Horner lectures in Shanghai as wife Lee Ann, center, listens while Prof Chen Kai translates. Jock Lauterer photo

In the US, we would call that “civic engagement,” namely that individual citizens realize their single importance, become involved, and

In the U.S., we call that “civic engagement,” the process by which individuals embrace their role as stewards and caretakers of their local affiars. Of course, we believe that an informed citizenry is vital to the maintenance of a free society…to the maintenance of a robust community.

But there’s the rub, isn’t it? The concept of “community” is largely unknown to many Chinese, especially in the cities where growth from rural areas is exploding. And the concept of the “watchdog press” is also foreign to their way of thinking.

 

Into the Breach

So how could I say no?

Prof “Karen,” as she called herself, arrived on campus in August 2009 with her 12-year-old son, Coco (Frank) — and almost immediately we began targeting what I call “Great Good Papers” across the state.

Over the course of the year we visited the Chapel Hill News, the Daily Tar Heel, the Carrboro Citizen, the Shelby Star, the Sanford Herald, the Spring Hope Enterprise,  the Fayetteville Observer, the Washington Daily News, the Greenville News-Reflector, the Carolina Weekly Group in Huntersville and the Pilot of Southern Pines. At each paper, she conducted exhaustive interviews with publishers, editors and reporters. During that time she also accompanied me on my annual summer Community Journalism Roadshow as I led workshops at the Caswell Messenger in Yanceyville, the Montgomery Herald in Troy and the Louisburg Journal.

Prof. Karen’s extensive observations, notes and photos turned into the seminal book, published in Mandarin last year, titled “Introduction to Community Journalism in the U.S.”  by the Nanfang Daily Press. I am honored to have served as project director and having written the foreword.

I threw myself into the project because I came to believe that such a book would fundamentally alter the landscape of Chinese understanding of community journalism.

Skyping China, student-to-student
Skyping China, student-to-student

According to Prof Chen, Chinese professionals had gotten their stereotyped and inaccurate impression of American newspapers only anecdotally and indirectly — not directly from visiting American scholars and practitioners— especially those with whom they could establish personal relationships. And about community newspapers, they knew almost nothing!

The publication of that book led directly to a Fulbright last summer to Beijing, where I taught at three universities and met with industry leaders.

“Our” book also led us to another scholar, intrigued by the notion of community journalism. Associate Professor Li Ren, associate dean of the School of Global Journalism at Southwest University of Political Science and Law in Chongqing, contacted us.

And soon a full-blown Skype relationship had been initiated —not just between we three, but also between our classes. Live Skyping across 9,000 miles, face to face with fellow students, journalists and colleagues.

To my way of thinking, Skyping represents a stunning life-altering way of communicating, teaching and learning. To my knowledge, our Sino-U.S. student-to-student Skyping sessions were the first-of-its-kind in our school.

All of this leads to the summer of 2013 and our current lecture trip, headlined by the inclusion of Sanford Herald Publisher Bill Horner III and his wife, Lee Ann.

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