The Journalism Workshop That Is Teaching Young Chinese How to Be Better Storytellers

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SHANGHAI—You need to jump out of the fragmented-information way of telling stories and bring technology into the newsroom. That’s how we become better story tellers nowadays.” Gu Huini is giving a lecture to her students in the “data journalism” program, a workshop dedicated to empowering students with a combination of data research and journalistic writing.

The ZoomIn Academy is the first and only journalism-based  writing training institute in China. “Our major business could be separated into two parts. One is journalistic writing courses for media professionals and anyone interested in telling journalism stories, and the other is academic writing training for students from the ninth to 12th grade who wish to improve their English writing for university applications,” Gu said.

Ms. Huini Gu, founder of  The ZoomIn Academy

Photo courtesy of Gu Huini

Ms. Huini Gu, founder of The ZoomIn Academy

Gu is a graduate of the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University, and before that she studied at one of the top universities in China. After graduating from Columbia, Gu worked as a researcher in The New York Times’ Shanghai bureau, but she quit to start her own business.

“The New York Times was a fantastic place to start my career, and I only decided to leave when I realized that education is something I would like to devote my life to,” said Gu. “I thought of doing something to relate education and my major, journalism. That’s how ‘ZoomIn’ was created.”

The ZoomIn journalism workshop is usually two days long and costs $99 (U.S.), an average expense considering that a training course in Shanghai can vary from $30 to $200 (U.S.) a day.

Gu’s students come from various fields: a CCTV (China’s largest official television channel) director, a senior editor from one of China’s mainstream economic newspapers, a network engineer from one of China’s largest Internet companies, a journalist from a metro newspaper in Beijing and a Chinese student studying at an American university. Their average age is approximately 26.

“I joined this workshop because I want to expand my knowledge in data journalism, which is becoming very important in the information age,” said Lin, a senior editor from one of China’s economic newspapers, who just completed the two-day data journalism workshop. He said Gu’s workshop is also a place for networking: “I met quite a few interesting media professionals with whom I’d like to keep in touch.”

Gu’s  training has also attracted a few students who have applied to American universities. In the past five years, the number of Chinese students going abroad has almost doubled, from 229,300 to 413,900 last year. Gu seized the opportunity. “Most study consulting agencies in China focus on students’ applications to Western universities, but almost none of them emphasize the importance of actually writing a good story,” she said. Chinese society still lacks good storytellers, in her opinion.

But to Gu this opportunity is also a challenge. She said only a very small fraction of Chinese realize the importance of telling good stories. “Most student applicants would like to find agencies who write for them, and media professionals are still in stereotyped ways of telling stories,” said Gu. “The concept of storytellers has yet to be popularized here, so it seems impossible to me to recruit a large amount of students like other English-training institutions do.”

Gu said Chinese people are in need of a platform to express ideas, tell their stories and present a more accurate image of China to the global society. “When I talked to some of my foreign friends, I found that they still embrace a strong bias towards China. While most Chinese believe we are developing a peaceful diplomatic strategy, foreigners suppose China is a bully. This is a huge contradiction in China’s international relations,” she said.

For a longer-term goal, she is thinking of setting up an online community for Chinese to share their stories. “I just registered a domain name called chinastorytellers.com a few days ago, and the website will probably run at the end of year 2014 if everything goes smoothly,” Gu said. On chinastorytellers.com, Gu is expecting a multiform presentation of things taking place in China, where stories are recorded not only in written forms and photography but also in documentaries as well as statistics charts and projects. To ensure the quality of the contents, at first she will recruit media professionals in China as well as overseas to post stories on the website, she said. Later, interesting stories from everyone will be welcomed, with a final inspection before posting.

Chinastorytellers.com would be an online media platform for sharing stories and ideas about China and will include “every aspect of China, politics matters, culture events or even trivial things happening in the countryside that reflects the rural China,” Gu said.

In China, the online media industry is growing at a striking pace. Caixin.com, for example, was established by Hu Shuli, a former female editor-in-chief of Caijing magazine, a business and economics publication . The site has built up a larger readership than that for traditional business newspapers and magazines.

“We have read so many articles about how print media is falling nowadays, and how the global media industry is experiencing a depression,” Gu said. “Under this trend, journalists shall arm themselves with programming skills and other high-tech knowledge. This has turned out to be an obligation in order to be an omnipotent modern journalist.”

In China, education in the arts and science is strictly separated, so most people who select journalism for their career are experienced writers, but few have technology backgrounds. “It is particularly true in women journalists,” said Gu.

To Gu, knowledge of technology is the foundation of communications and mass media. But what matters more to Chinese media professionals and media lovers is storytelling. “Some journalists started their own websites or magazines to realize their dream in the media industry, and Zoom-in is my way of contributing to the Chinese media industry,” said Gu. “When Chinese citizens become good storytellers, this country will become more clearly visible to the world.”

Featured image source: flickr / curious_e under Creative Commons

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