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Ring-side seat to the China Story

CHINA is a great story and journalists from around the world are swarming all over it. But other foreign journalists are drawn to work for Chinese media. Xu Wei gets the inside story.

As China hurtles ahead and its booming media becomes more professional, foreign journalists are working at Chinese newspapers and broadcast outlets.

While hundreds of their colleagues are covering the China story for overseas media, these journalists have got both a front-row seat to the China story and a chance to explain China to the world.

These professionals, some of them veterans, share their experience and expertise, help improve news products and coach young journalists. At the same time, they themselves get a more accurate and nuanced picture of China than it is depicted in some overseas media.

Known as foreign experts, they bring a more international perspective and norms to news coverage and features; they also learn about Chinese history, culture, economics and politics. They bond with Chinese news colleagues and make other Chinese friends.

Around 700 foreign staff and journalists are working throughout China's media industry today, according to Li Peichun, deputy director of English division with China Radio International, China's state radio station.

"Our candidates need to fulfill our criteria for professional ability, experience, work attitude and ethic," Li says. "Foreign media workers are allowed to have different opinions on important issues, but they need to respect China's politics, culture and customs."

They are drawn by China's rising international status, competitiveness and the more open and diversified domestic media and communications industry. At a time when many foreign media companies are cutting staff, the booming Chinese economy provides welcome employment opportunities.

Comments on CRI presenter Susan Osman (formerly with the BBC) by her producer Chen Feng of "The Beijing Hour" sum up Chinese attitudes toward many veteran foreign journalists.

"The collaboration is so far so good," says Chen. "The most impressive thing is that she has very high standards for the program - the BBC standards. We are doing our job in a foreign language, not our mother-tongue. That's the major difficulty, but we are trying hard to keep up with her standard."

Chen is also impressed by Osman's dedication, saying it surpasses that of some of his Chinese colleagues.

CRI is China's biggest foreign-language broadcast portal, delivering international and China news and information in around 60 languages. It has 180 foreign employees from more than 40 countries. The English division has 32 foreign staff.

Professor Gu Xiaoming, a sociologist from Shanghai's Fudan University, says globalization is blurring the boundaries between foreign and domestic journalism.

"Moreover, a unique cultural experience in China has a big appeal. But in addition to learning the Chinese language, it is also necessary for them to learn more about Chinese history, traditional culture and philosophy," he says.

Shanghai Daily interviews three foreign journalists - a Briton, an American and a New Zealander - who are working as interviewers and presenters in broadcast media: Susan Osman, formerly with the BBC, now at CRI in Beijing; Nancy Merrill, a former NBC and CBS anchor, now for ICS (International Channel Shanghai); Edwin Maher, formerly with ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation), now at English-language CCTV News in Beijing.

Susan Osman

CRI news presenter, formerly with BBC

Osman, a former BBC News Channel presenter, hosted the Bristol-based "Points West" on BBC One for 14 years.

Arriving at CRI in late 2009, she now is the presenter for the live prime-time breakfast program "The Beijing Hour," covering international and Chinese news and current affairs. She is popular for her relaxed and interactive style.

Ever since childhood, Osman has read many books about Chinese history and watched Chinese films. Years ago she went to Beijing as a tourist, and then she applied for work with CRI.

"My son told me I should go to China and I would learn a lot in this exciting place," says Osman, who is 53 years old.

Before arriving, she knew from her extensive TV and radio news experience that journalism in China would be more sensitive and controlled. But She has found it less controlled than she had expected.

"Chinese media is in its innocent days and it's learning," Osman tells Shanghai Daily in a telephone interview. "The stories you cover in China are not as wide-ranging and comprehensive as they might be, but I do think that's beginning to change a little bit as well."

Osman is also involved in production and together with her Chinese colleagues, she decides on the topics and order of presentation. She copy edits all sections of the program.

In all sections - from international news and business to entertainment - she tries to reflect the Chinese perspective.

In the UK, radio and TV programs have specialized teams for research and production, but in China Osman must do a lot of the work herself.

Osman and her colleagues have just launched a microblog for the program and have 13,000 followers.

She's interested in audience feedback and posts behind-the-scenes pictures and stories on the microblog.

Osman says that living in China makes her realize how little she knew about the country.

"By working on 'The Beijing Hour' I have become a better journalist," Osman says. "I've learned so much about China, particularly its political and economic perspectives."

At the World Expo 2010 in Shanghai last year she was proud of the UK Pavilion and astounded by the magnificent design of the red China Pavilion.

Since her one-hour program begins at 7am from Monday to Friday, Osman gets up very early and goes to bed very early too - at around 7:30pm.

In her leisure time, she watches films, meets friends, does hot yoga, sometimes gets acupuncture and goes walking and swimming.

"The good thing of getting up so early is that I have the whole day, especially in summer," Osman says.

Many people think the China story is the economy, but there's so much more, such as rich cultural heritage, which isn't known by many people outside, Osman says.

"If I went back to the UK and reported on China, I would attempt to be much more measured, having an insight into China," she says.

"Western people are not seeing the whole picture clearly. I hope I can give a clear picture of the reality of what China is like."

Formerly an English literature and drama teacher at Roedean School in Brighton, Osman embarked on her career in television in 1983. She has worked in news broadcasting for around 30 years.

"You need to take the job very seriously," she says. "It's a big honor to get to meet people and spend time with them. I had a very blessed and privileged background because of it. I wouldn't be the person I am today without broadcasting, because I had my eyes opened by so many stories and so many people."

Osman also trains and coaches young reporters in China. She gives them her top three tips:

"First, you need to be a good listener, then you should be curious about human nature and what make people behave the way they do. Last but not least, a good reporter should not be judgemental, but observe and report."

In China, there's a story everywhere you go, Osman observes.

"Chinese journalism is in an incredible position to get new stories, new perspectives and a fresh outlook ... For younger journalists, integrity is also very important. They need to be fair, reflecting what people say, rather than what they want them to say."

For more information about "The Beijing Hour with Susan Osman," check

Nancy Merrill

ICS anchor, formerly with NBC and CBS

Starting in March 2010, the Emmy Award-winning TV personality Nancy Merrill has partnered with ICS to launch documentary and interview programs, including "Nancy's Eye on Shanghai: Special Edition Expo 2010" and "Nancy Merrill: Minds of Millionaires."

She applied to ICS, which has around 10 foreign media personnel.

Since the late 1980s, Merrill had hosted her own talk shows, interview shows and prime-time specials on NBC and CBS in Boston.

Before arriving in China, she had no idea what to expect of Chinese TV journalism; she didn't know anyone who had worked in broadcasting media in China.

"Consequently, I really had no way to prepare, except to learn everything about modern China and particularly the history of Shanghai," Merrill tells Shanghai Daily.

"In the West, there are many books and movies about Shanghai because it has an international history and is considered very exciting and rather exotic," she says.

In her weekly 45-minute interview program "Nancy Merrill: Minds of Millionaires," she explores the new generation of Chinese entrepreneurs. Her guests have included Liu Qiandong, CEO of; Zhang Wenrong, chairman of Yalong Investment Group; Peggy Yu, chairman of; and Jiang Nanchun, CEO of Focus Media.

Merrill spends a long time interviewing them, sometimes as much as two and a half hours; then she chooses the most interesting material. She often asks how their childhood influenced them and how they deal with disappointment and success.

"They all have certain things in common - confidence, drive and ingenuity," she says. "What impresses me is seeing what is important to them. They care about their families, employees and they have a deep sense of social responsibility for the Chinese people and (appreciate the) opportunities that China has given them at this time in history."

In the one-on-one program, she takes a Western perspective, curious about their business acumen, their management skills and life skills.

"In America, we all grow up with the concept of the 'American Dream,' where anyone can succeed if they have the will," Merrill says. "With the booming financial environment in China, I believe there is now the 'China Dream'."

Also, she notes some differences between Western and Chinese television. In the US, most of the time is spent on pre-production for talk shows, while in China most of the time is spent on post-production.

"US shows also move at a super-fast pace as there is an unwritten rule in TV and advertising that something must move every three seconds to keep the interest of the viewer," Merrill adds.

Another big difference between Chinese and US interview shows is the physical distance between host and guests.

"When I first got here, the seats would be placed directly opposite and often with a big table in between," she says. "On my new show there is no big table and our chairs are angled toward each other. Some guests said they like the arrangement that makes them feel more comfortable and relaxed."

Merrill had no idea what it would be like living in a foreign country where she didn't speak a word of the language. She's learning through total immersion.

"My Chinese colleagues have the same work ethic as my colleagues in the US - they work long hours, in freezing cold and blistering heat without a hint of complaint," Merrill says.

During the sweltering hot weather for the World Expo last year, her director and crew lugged heavy equipment from one pavilion to another.

She is surprised and touched by the kindness extended to her. She never has to ask for help because someone is always ready to assist her, from security guards at the station to taxi drivers to waiters.

Merrill is a people watcher and enjoys walking around and interacting with locals. On weekends she likes going to galleries, walking along the Bund or in the former French concession. She especially enjoys the fabric market where she buys Chinese silk and embroidered materials and has them made into outfits for her shows.

"Shanghai is my 'adopted home' and its people are, on some very esoteric level, my huge 'adopted family'," Merrill says. "My life is almost perfect. If I could only learn more Chinese, then it would be sublime."

Edwin Maher

CCTV News anchor, formerly with ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation)

Maher is a familiar face, anchoring the nightly news and various shows on CCTV News, for the past seven years.

The New Zealand native started his TV-presenting career in 1965 in Australia and had more than 20 years' experience with ABC.

Since 2004, he has been the news anchor of "China Today," "News Update," "Biz China" on CCTV News.

In 2007, he won the Friendship Award from Premier Wen Jiabao. The award is the highest honor the Chinese government confers on foreign experts.

Maher says he came to China by accident. His wife was suddenly diagnosed with a brain tumor and he had left his work at ABC to look after her. When she died two years later, he wasn't sure what he would do.

It was early in 2003, on a cold afternoon, when he was turning the dial of his old shortwave radio at home in Melbourne and stumbled across CRI.

When the newsreader gave CRI's e-mail address, Maher responded saying the signal from Beijing was very clear and mentioned he was also a broadcaster. He was offered a job as a voice coach with the English section. At first he was apprehensive. CRI offered a 12-month contract, but Maher was uncertain and asked for only six months.

"It was a coincidence that at the end of that half year, another offer came - this time from CCTV-9 or what is now CCTV News," says Maher. "By that time, I became fascinated with life and work in China and wanted to stay. Little did I know I would still be working here more than seven years later."

Maher is one of around 35 foreigners working for the English-language channel.

There are similarities in investigating and reporting stories between the Western and Chinese media, he says.

"Our channel has made big changes not only in the way it looks, but also the style and content as it lays itself on the line to be a genuine competitor in satellite news, especially in Asia," he says. "More big changes are coming."

The language barrier was the biggest problem for him, and while he has tried many times to learn Chinese, he admits he has made little progress.

These days Maher appears on the "News Update" bulletins, which means anchoring from 2pm to 7:30pm. He shares the week with others and enjoys the variety of reading and live interviews with studio guests and correspondents around the world.

"Like all news organizations, we have been especially busy since the Japanese earthquake and tsunami (which happened on March 11) and now the conflict in Libya," he says.

"I love working with my Chinese colleagues. Many are very young and talented. I learn much from them, not just through their ability to work fast and adapt to changing newsroom technology, but from their attitude to life," he adds.

Referring some restrictions in reporting news, Maher says there are rules and regulations in every environment. The door continues to open and this opening is inevitable since the global news environment is competitive.

"In China what amazed me when I arrived still amazes me today - the speed of change," he says. "What many countries have taken hundreds of years to build and achieve, China has done in just over 30 years."

He loves exploring Beijing by bike and looks forward to warmer weather. The air is cleaner on the outskirts of the capital city and in the hills where he likes to hike. And then there's tennis.

"There is no definite plan for my time in China," he says. "As long as I can contribute, I am happy to stay. Beyond that I have friends - the Chinese family which 'adopted' me the year I arrived. I miss my children, but the world is a small place and we are in regular contact with visits and phone calls."

For his programs, check


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