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So What Do You Do, Undercover Deadspin Olympics Reporters?
They search for stories you won't see anywhere else- August 13, 2008
Not every journalist covering the Summer Olympic Games in Beijing this month is busy broadcasting an eye-glazing 3,600 hours of coverage (2,200 of which concern Michael Phelps) or sporting a "J"-is-for-journalist visa in their passports. But finding coverage of these Games that hasn't been pre-packaged along the jingoistic story lines of the country of your choice has so far been hard to come by. One of the few highly visible outsider attempts at coverage is the sports blog Deadspin's "Beijing Bureau," a trio of recent New York University graduates who have already spent more than a year in China living, working, and gearing up to cover the Games. Like any enterprising young stringer, they approached then-Deadspin editor Will Leitch about filing regular dispatches covering the broader issues surrounding the Games, written in a voice that's neither pompous nor overly sensitive of offending the host nation with inconvenient truths.
They are just sensitive enough, however, to request anonymity. Not willing to be the ones responsible for their arrest or deportation (all three are carrying tourist visas which do not allow them to practice journalism), they are presented here as the Deadspin Beijing Bureau Chief, and Correspondents #1 and #2. The interview was conducted via email, with past and present Deadspin editors Will Leitch and A.J. Daulerio confirming their identities and backgrounds.
Name: "Deadspin Beijing Bureau Chief"
Hometown: Poconos, Pennsylvania
Education: BA, philosophy, New York University (2007)
Marital status: Single
First section of the Sunday Times: Sports
Favorite television show: Deadwood
Last book read: Collected Short Stories of Jack London ($2.50 USD at the foreign bookstore!)
Guilty pleasure: Reading the Times' Sports section
Name: "Deadspin Beijing Bureau Correspondent #1"
Hometown: New York City
Education: BA, metropolitan studies, New York University (2007)
Marital status: Single
First section of the Sunday Times: The City
Favorite television show: The Wire
Last book read: After Dark by Haruki Murakami
Guilty pleasure: Cheese
Name: "Deadspin Beijing Bureau Correspondent #2"
Hometown: Des Moines, Iowa
Education: BA, journalism, New York University (2007)
Marital status: Single
First section of the Sunday Times: "Movies, because I'm nerdy when it comes to Martin Scorsese, Spike Lee, Paul Thomas Anderson, so on."
Favorite television show: Chapelle's Show
Last book read: "Trying to finish Ghost Wars. It's dense but awesome."
Guilty pleasure: Vice magazine's Dos and Don'ts
What was the genesis of your project? How did you meet, what are your backgrounds? What drew you all of you to China in the first place, and what's your take on China and the Games?
"Deadspin Beijing Bureau Chief": The three of us got to know each other during a semester abroad in Shanghai. Neither [Correspondent #1] nor I really knew any Chinese before we arrived, though [Correspondent #2] had studied Chinese since high school. I was a philosophy & linguistics major, and when one gets [to] one's third year or so in the program, he or she starts to think about post-graduate, professional plans. I thought learning Chinese might be a good career move. I'd always been interested in the Far East and planned to spend the summer in Beijing. But when NYU announced the opening of their Shanghai program during the spring of my junior year, I decided to jump on it. I put off my Beijing summer plans and took a job in New York for the summer (working with AJ Daulerio, incidentally).
I spent the fall of 2006 in Shanghai and it was really a life-changing experience. The three of us had a journalism class in Shanghai. Our professor had been a war correspondent in Africa and now ran a film production company in town. He had dropped out of Missouri journalism school to move to Africa when he was 23 to sort of strike out on his own as a journalist. I think his story was pretty inspiring for us, and it was definitely was proof that one could be successful going out on one's own in a foreign country.
Once we returned to New York, almost immediately we started to brainstorm about how we could come back after graduation. [Correspondent #2] had the idea to move to China in the fall, establish ourselves there, then look for freelance work during the Olympics. The idea developed and we began to reach out to Web sites and publications we enjoyed reading to see if there were possibilities for collaboration. I had been a reader of Deadspin since about the first post, and I reached out to Will to talk about Beijing. I think AJ lied to him about my qualifications.
"Deadspin Beijing Bureau Correspondent #1": The three of us first met at a restaurant in Chinatown at an orientation dinner for our study abroad program in Shanghai. Pretty soon after arriving, we began talking about coming back to China to do creative projects and study Mandarin. We all really fell in love with the place and didn't particularly want to enter the NYC job market, so we teamed up and moved out here to produce media content -- video, photography, writing -- and learn some Chinese along the way. We also wanted to explore more of the country and fortunately traveling within China is cheap and easy.
I graduated in December 2007 from NYU having studied film and urban studies, so moving to the biggest city in China and doing film was almost a no-brainer. I grew up in New York City, and I've found few other cities that match the energy and vibrant street life I'm accustomed to like Shanghai. Our day job -- at a local film production company -- takes us back and forth between Beijing and Shanghai among other Chinese cities, though we are based in Shanghai.
I'm pretty sure none of us want to be sportswriters. We all followed Deadspin for a while and loved the community of smartasses that Will created. We thought it made perfect sense for Deadspin to have some sort of China/Olympic coverage, so we pitched it to Will and he seemed to like the idea. My interest lies more in the way China is handling the attention than any sporting event or medal count. Though Chinese people seem very pleased to have an influx of foreign guests walking their streets, sometimes it seems that the government would be a lot happier if everyone stayed home and watched it on TV. The hospitality industry might not be too fond of that, but the Public Security Bureau sure would. There is a palpable nervousness in the air here and an understandable desire for everything to go absolutely perfectly. Seriously, if you're in Beijing, try having a staring contest with a soldier (there's one posted like every 15 feet throughout Beijing). You will win. You can't do that in most places.
"Deadspin Beijing Bureau Correspondent #2": I studied journalism and Chinese in college. Actually, I studied Chinese in high school, too, but took a break from it and restarted in college. I didn't realize until I went to China in 2006 that Chinese was a language I wanted to fully understand. When the three of us got to know each other in Shanghai, I think things definitely clicked. We shared a similar sense of humor, we wanted to test the creative waters after college (meaning I don't think any of us wanted get pulled into office jobs) and we were hooked on China.
|"We like the idea of being under the radar. We don't have much inhibiting us from saying what we want to say and showing what we want to show."|
Former Deadspin editor Will Leitch described your original meeting in New York this way: "They originally contacted me about a year and a half ago, wanting to do Black Table-like coverage of the Games. We met at Art Bar in the West Village, and they had a whole PowerPoint presentation set up. It was rather impressive, actually." What exactly did you show him? And why did you approach Deadspin in the first place?
"Bureau Chief": What's PowerPoint? We showed Will some video projects of ours, namely a short film about streetball in China that I had worked on during an internship in Shanghai. I discovered the Black Table from reading Deadspin… and loved it. As the meeting progressed, I think we realized that Will and the three of us were very much on the same page about how we wanted to cover the Olympics. At the time, Will was really the only one writing posts on the site, and he seemed really excited to expense some drinks. I don't know how successful we've been in providing "Black Table"-like coverage of Beijing, whatever that means, but it is certainly a source that influenced us.
"Correspondent #1": One thing we showed him was a short video of us participating in a snake dinner in South China. We chose Deadspin because it fit with our intention of guerilla style journalism (no press passes, no official accreditation, etc.). Will saw it as an opportunity to expand Deadspin. He told us not to worry about focusing on sports, to introduce China to the readers to build a context against which the Olympics could later be presented. In trying to present China to his audience, we've also learned a lot along the way reading other China blogs and staying abreast of offbeat, less mainstream news.
What's your approach to covering the Games? And did you even bother applying for credentials?
"Bureau Chief": We looked into applying for official credentials for the Games, but found out that the deadline to apply was in September of 2006 -- the week we arrived in China for the first time. So that was never a real possibility. Our thinking was that the actual sports of the Olympics would be pretty well-covered by people more qualified than the three of us. We thought we could make a more relevant contribution by writing about the social aspects of the Games and the particular, novel things you learn about China by living here.
"Correspondent #2": Access is certainly not something that Deadspin worries about, and it's certainly not something we worry about. We would like to be able to go to every event we want to, but a journalist's access in China comes with a lot of headaches. Also, we like the idea of being under the radar and producing stories that won't have us getting into trouble later on. Our anonymity grants us this, to be sure, but our lack of access from the get-go does, too. We don't have much inhibiting us from saying what we want to say and showing what we want to show. That's an important aspect to Deadspin's charm, no matter where its posts are coming from.
We want to provide Deadspin viewers with the Olympics from a local, street-level perspective. That means we'll be doing stories that people who are up-to-date with the news from China won't see anywhere else. We definitely get a lot of good stories from established news providers, but these are stories that do away with the cliché themes -- like how China's booming cities are a boiling point for Eastern and Western values or pollution, for that matter. Pollution is definitely a newsworthy thing to write about, considering China promised to have its air cleaned up for the games, but everyone knows about China's struggle with the environment. And God knows China's government did stress over this and put a lot of effort into fixing it. I would like for the games to go smoothly, believe it or not. This doesn't mean that I want our stories to be soft or without the grime, though.
What do you think of the Western media's coverage so far? Do any of them have a clue about China? Are they making an earnest effort to acclimate?
"Bureau Chief": There are some great correspondents doing work out here -- Evan Osnos of the Chicago Tribune comes to mind. And there are some clueless ones, too. Here's a hint: They're staying at hotels right now. I think most writers make an earnest attempt to get to know the place, but some recently arrived correspondents -- and we aren't exempt from this group; we've only been here a year -- kind of botch it. A quick vignette: We were walking around last night and were approached by a Pakistani-born journalist from the Times of Oman. He had just arrived that morning and was accompanied by a frazzled and bored-looking Chinese security guard. The "Oman in Beijing" as his business card read, asked us desperately where he could buy some bread to go with the barbeque he just managed to get his security guard sidekick to purchase. What the hell is a guy like him, who just arrived that day and could barely feed himself, going to write about? And he told us (for longer than we cared to listen) that he had covered four Olympics.
A writer for The Beijinger, an expat mag here, had a great piece last week about the cliché stories to expect in the next three weeks from newly arrived journalists skimming the, admittedly fascinating, surface.
"Correspondent #2": Western media coverage has been all over the map. We think people have realized you can only write so many articles complaining about pollution and Internet censorship. Granted Beijing has gone against its word on several promises made in order to get the Olympics, and this is certainly newsworthy, but the more interesting stories are about social change in China and especially what's going to happen next month when the circus is over. Will the security lockdown remain? Will foreign journalists lose their freedom to travel and interview? I guess we'll have to see.
What would you like to happen at the Games? A confrontation? A major disruption? Do you intend to cover the protests and/or any crackdowns on day-to-day life in Beijing?
"Bureau Chief": Personally, I don't have any expectations for the Games. That is to say, I guess, that I think anything could happen. No one wants something terrible to happen, but our instincts definitely have us excited for the possibility of a major incident to cover.
"Correspondent #1": Nobody wants to see anything terrible happen at the Olympics. With that said, it'd be a lot easier to root for a hiccup-free two weeks if China had made good on its promises. The attitude towards foreigners has noticeably shifted in the past few months with more crackdowns and restrictions. The city feels incredibly secure right now, so if anything goes down it'll probably be isolated and contained quickly before most press would get wind of it. As for protests, they have to be confined to special protest zones set up far from the Olympic venues. They'll most likely be small and full of non-Chinese, as any Chinese person would most likely be monitored and potentially harassed after the fact. It just wouldn't be worth it for them.
Are you worried at all that the government is looking for you? Or do they have better things to do? I figured there's a reason this interview is anonymous…
"Correspondent #1": We're not too worried about our coverage getting us in any trouble. We're pretty under the radar and we plan to stay that way. Even if something big breaks, acting like a tourist and speaking a bit of Mandarin goes a long way. There are always tricks to getting around Internet censors though you really never know. We think there are bigger concerns than a few sarcastic freelance sports writers.
"Bureau Chief": The 50,000 members of the Beijing Olympic Security Team definitely have better (read: East Turkestan Islamic Movement) to worry about than we three.
What are your post-Games plans, and what do you realistically hope to accomplish, both in terms of coverage and potential career advancement?
"Bureau Chief": We'll go back to our normal jobs after the Olympics are over. I'd love to do creative work in China in the future. None of us came here solely for the Olympics.
It's hard to say what we hope to accomplish at Deadspin, but I will say it has been cool to observe the reactions to our pieces as we've gone along the last few months. For instance, in our "Beyond Beijing" piece, I imagine it was the first time most readers ever heard of some of the cities (Tianjin, Shenyang, Qinhuangdao) we mentioned. And hell, we just graduated. We're writing about whatever we want for a site we really like, and people actually read (some even enjoy!) the stuff we write. It's pretty cool.
"Correspondent #1": At a minimum, we hope that readers have gained a bit of perspective, understanding, and even appreciation of Chinese culture. We get a few comments that make us cringe on each post, but we also get encouraging emails from readers who say they've learned something from our coverage.
We didn't just come to China for the Olympics. We're actually hoping that things calm down a bit after the games are over. We really enjoy it here and we'll probably spend another year out here before returning to the States. The experience has been great. Writing with six hands on the keyboards isn't always the easiest thing, but we've had fun doing it and I'm sure we'll look back on it fondly.
Greg Lindsay is a frequent contributor to mediabistro.com.
[This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]
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