Telum Talks To… Dan Martin, Shanghai Bureau Chief of Agence France-Presse
What does a typical day of the Shanghai Bureau Chief of Agence France-Presse look like?
There’s really no such thing as a typical day, and that’s what I love about my job. For example, who would have thought a little more than a year ago that we would wake up to a devastating worldwide pandemic? That’s an unpleasant example, of course, but for the most part, it’s exciting to know that tomorrow you could be delving into an interesting new subject that you’ve never really had much exposure to. But in broad terms, AFP’s Shanghai bureau seeks to open a window on China to our readers worldwide through the prism of its biggest and most exciting city. We look each day for interesting subjects that tell us something about China today, how it's changing, who its people are, why they do what they do. Each day’s subject could be business, culture, the arts, technology, consumer habits - you name it. But in general, we see our mission as trying to explain this huge and fascinating country to the outside world.
You are an award-winning journalist with more than 25 years of experience working in the Asia Pacific region. What made you embark on your journalism journey at AFP?
Journalism draws different people for different reasons. I think for me, it was because I have an extremely wide range of interests from history to music to sports to food to just about anything that’s interesting, and journalism seemed like one of the few professions that could satisfy this and prevent me from getting bored. I also love the written word but crucially also have always seen the value of staying informed about the world around us. Despite predictions of the demise of journalism, I feel it’s more important than ever in this era of disinformation that we live in.
How do you think AFP’s China coverage can bring new perspectives to local readers? Any breakthroughs you would like to achieve in the industry?
Like many other foreign news organisations, AFP is not really targeting local Chinese readers. China has strict rules on foreign news organisations distributing their products within China, so our mission remains focused on telling the rest of the world about China. That’s a bit of a shame because it would be nice for Chinese readers to have easier and wider access to foreign perspectives such as those provided by AFP’s worldwide coverage. But despite that, our coverage in China often can touch a chord with locals, particularly if we spotlight or profile a Chinese person who is doing something admirable or courageous (and the subject matter is not political!). Then you’ll often see reactions on the Chinese internet numbering in the millions, which is very gratifying for our journalists. In one example, our lifestyle correspondent did a story about a foreign resident here who was providing children of mostly well-to-do families with training in how to conduct themselves in “high society” – walking with a book balanced on their heads for posture, how to conduct themselves at dinner parties etc. These parents were most probably just seeking to “better” their kids, but many Chinese online saw it as an example of elitism, and there were some pointed comments.
You can speak Mandarin very well. To what degree have you seen it benefit you at work and at capturing the little detail of the city in developing stories? Any interesting experiences?
There is no doubt that being able to speak and understand Mandarin is a huge plus -- just imagine a journalist trying to cover the United States without being able to speak or understand English. Too much would be lost in translation. It’s important not only because of the time saved that you would otherwise spend having things translated, but also because you miss many of the little nuances about HOW Chinese people express things, the often colourful expressions that are used, etc. These often offer a window into the Chinese psyche and culture. But perhaps most importantly, it makes Chinese people – who are often intrigued but a little shy toward foreigners – more likely to open up to you and tell you their story if they know you are “speaking the same language”. Chinese will often turn to another Chinese person and ask about my language abilities, and it often comes out as “Does he speak?”, as if not being able to speak Mandarin means you can’t speak at all! On a personal level, speaking Mandarin to a local and getting them to open up to you is very gratifying. It lifts a barrier and reminds us both of our commonalities.
Any trends or topics that you are looking into in the coming year?
One of the key things that AFP and other news organisations are focusing on is making sure we adapt our product to suit the changing needs of the news consumer. Good basic journalism and newsgathering will always be needed by the public. But what you write about and how you present it are always changing with the times. In particular, we are always tweaking our work to keep it aligned with the priorities of a new generation, and that means younger people. Younger people might be less interested in traditional “news” topics such as diplomacy or industry and more interested in topics such as health, the environment, or tech breakthroughs that may make their lives easier or offer them a business opportunity. If you are covering COVID, for example, you might focus less on news of government policy toward the pandemic, and more about health tips, the effect on the jobs market, or a profile of a young individual’s experiences amid the pandemic. So we try to change with the times and provide that, as well as staying current on HOW today’s news consumers want to receive their news. Many will want to “see” it via video or “hear” it via a podcast, so AFP is rapidly transforming to meet that.
What is an ideal pitch? What elements would you like to see in a pitch?
I feel that since news is about, created by, and consumed by people; we should keep people at the centre of things. How does the subject affect a group of people or an individual person? If the pitch can be humanised that way, it’s more likely to catch interest, at least for me. And numbers too. Any pitch can make a claim, but hard numbers are the quantifiable proof that this or that issue is significant and needs to be noticed.