Startup Aims to Bring a Different Perspective to News on China

It's the New Home to a Podcast Popular With China-Watchers

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Women in Zhuhai, Guangdong province. China.
Women in Zhuhai, Guangdong province. China. Credit: Brent Lewin/Bloomberg
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These are interesting times for news about China. Chinese propaganda outlets are trying hard to take their message beyond the mainland; they've even using Facebook and Twitter, which are stymied inside China by China's Great Firewall.

Meanwhile, Western news articles about China often focus on important, sensitive subjects that state media avoid, like censorship and human rights. Yet there's an ongoing debate about whether that coverage, taken as a whole, gives readers a sense of what life is like for most people in contemporary China.

Now a news startup based in the U.S. is adding its voice to the mix. Called SupChina (as in "What's Up, China?") its website and app mixes aggregated news and original stories, including personal slice-of-life essays.

It's bringing onboard the 6-year-old Sinica podcast, whose hosts have been prominent figures in China's media scene. Kaiser Kuo was spokesman for Chinese internet giant Baidu (and he also co-founded one of China's most successful heavy metal bands, Tang Dynasty), while Jeremy Goldkorn founded Danwei, a research firm that was acquired by The Financial Times. Mr. Goldkorn relocated to the U.S. last year, and Mr. Kuo is in the process of moving there.

They used to do Sinica in their spare time: "We were an established brand with no business, we were just guys making a podcast with no money," as Mr. Kuo says. Now it's a fulltime job, and they plan 50 in-depth China-focused podcasts annually. They'll also travel to China three or four times a year.

"We are aiming at a very broad audience, not just dedicated China watchers, but anyone more casually interested in current affairs and cultural news from a country really changing everything," Mr. Kuo said.

Also on board is Michael Yamashita, a photographer who has shot for National Geographic for more than 30 years and has 734,000 followers on Instagram.

SupChina's founder and CEO is Anla Cheng, senior partner of Sino-Century China Private Equity Partners, an investment firm focused on cross-border transactions.

Given the rise of ad blocking, it's a difficult time for online publications. There are also already several other sources of aggregated content on China. Ms. Cheng, who is also involved in China-related philanthropic work, intends SupChina to be profitable, and she expects angel investors and VC funding. SupChina will not accept any government funds. Ms. Cheng also says she envisions revenue from advertising, and possibly subscriptions and events: "We're not a charity, we must have revenue."

Ms. Cheng says she launched the project in part because she believes knowledge of China is crucial for understanding the world, and yet "the average American knows very little about China."

On top of that, "American reporters tend to be quite biased on China, and of course the election doesn't help because every four years when the election comes around, it's always China bashing," she said, adding that her publication's aggregated news will mix in other viewpoints, including from Asian countries.

The publication's email newsletter is intended to give a rundown of "China in two minutes a day." Recent aggregated articles featured stories on censorship, a crackdown on the arts and a look at how China is reacting to the Stanford rape case. Original material has included a story about young Chinese campaigning for Hillary Clinton in the U.S.; how a mother and daughter use WeChat to connect across borders; and an article entitled "Three Generations of Red: Why my grandfather, father and I joined the Communist Party of China."

One challenge is that SupChina's editor is overseeing coverage from outside China. The New York-based editor in chief says he wants to share work from writers who have a strong connection to China or live there.

"I want to aim to give people the feeling they are on the ground in China, and closer to the country than they would get in the current (news) diet of what's available," said Amedeo Tumolillo, SupChina's editor-in-chief, a former staffer at The New York Times in New York and Hong Kong. He also says he's more open to personal stories than a traditional news outlet might be.

Interestingly, another just-launched media startup called Sixth Tone is also focusing on more personal perspectives on China. Its parent company is state-owned Shanghai United Media Group, but it seems to be doing a better job than many other Chinese media of developing stories that appeal to foreign readers. President Xi Jinping has ordered Chinese media to follow the party line and "tell China's story well," abroad and at home.

Sixth Tone, written in English but based in China, is subject to the pressure of Chinese censors. U.S.-based SupChina is not, though like all foreign media publications it runs the risk of being potentially blocked off for the masses inside the mainland. Sinica podcast, running for six years, has never been blocked. The New York Times, The Economist, and Time are among the many publications that are.