By Michael Miner
She’ll Always Have Beijing
A really great job in journalism beats any job in the world, and you’ll happily shoulder the misery that always comes with it.
For the sake of her terrific job, Margaret Davis lived illegally in a firetrap tenement high-rise and trudged up and down six flights of stairs because the woman who ran the elevator would have turned her in in an eyeblink. She took the roundabout way to her newspaper every day because she assumed she was being followed. And every few weeks her office changed locations.
That was life in Beijing. “I had the best job I’ve ever had,” she says. “I loved jumping on my bike every day. I loved that work. There are 13 million people in that city, and they all want to know what movie’s playing.”
In February 1997 Davis, then 29, flew to China to take over as managing editor of Beijing Scene, an English-language biweekly that said where to go and what to do. Its publisher was a former UPI reporter named Scott Savitt, who’d been in China forever. Savitt and Davis went from black and white to full color, from 12 pages to 40, from biweekly to weekly, from free to ten yuan, or $1.20 an issue. Beijing Scene turned into what Davis calls an “economic powerhouse.”
If you knew English and had a pocketful of yuan to burn on the good life, you were probably a reader, says Davis. “We printed about 10,000 copies,” she says, “but our ad department said we had a readership of 100,000. We did have a huge pass-along rate. They were like sacred items, a totally useful resource. We finally went to paid because students would pick up piles of the papers and sell them on campuses, and we thought we’d rather make that money instead of them.”
For a couple of months after Davis arrived Beijing Scene operated out in the open. But even though the paper steered clear of politics, a little attitude goes a long way under a dictatorship. “We sometimes threw quotes around Taiwan ‘province,’ described Inner Mongolia as the ‘part of traditional Mongolia under Chinese control,’ and slyly joked about Hong Kong returning to ‘the motherland’s embrace,'” Davis recalls.
“We were being satirical and smart and funny in a place where that attitude was in short supply,” she says. The Westerners liked that kind of stuff, and so did Chinese readers who could see beyond Beijing’s smog-draped horizon. As for the authorities, Davis figured their English was so bad they’d never catch on. “That is the kind of sarcasm that goes right over the heads of Chinese officials.”
Except that a couple months after she took over, those officials showed up. They pulled up in a black Mercedes and trooped into the Beijing Scene office. As they came in the front door, every Chinese member of the staff disappeared out the back. They’d all come to Beijing from the provinces looking for work, and none of them had residence permits. Davis didn’t have one either, which is why she lived furtively in a tenement, but to her, being sent home didn’t seem quite so terrifying.
Savitt offered the visitors tea and chatted with them in Mandarin for a couple of hours. What were they like? I ask Davis. “They were sort of like middle-class businessmen,” she says. “Ill-fitting suit jackets, nice haircuts–they obviously weren’t peasants or anything. But kind of sleazy.” She says they’d get up from time to time, saunter the length of the office, studying copies of the newspapers and staring jealously at Beijing Scene’s modern computers.
The officials left. But they came back. “There would always be four or five of these guys,” Davis says. “It was like a big posse. There was a chill in the room when they walked in. Even if you didn’t see them come in you had to look up, because the environment had changed. And suddenly none of the Chinese people were around. They’d have slipped out the back door to take a long lunch or something.”
Davis thinks it wasn’t the smart-alecky tone of Beijing Scene that brought the authorities. It was the prosperity. “All the government-run English-language papers were just awful. When we came along, people were just running to us to sign up for long [advertising] contracts. Our advertising rates were just amazing.”
These were the high-end advertisers, she says–airlines, hotels, bars and restaurants, consulting firms, Volvo. “That was probably our biggest mistake–being too successful. Our government-run competitors got really worried.”
One day the usual faces arrived at the newspaper accompanied by an imposing-looking man in a blue uniform. When they left, Savitt called a meeting. “He said, ‘In 24 hours we’re out of here. Don’t even show up tomorrow. Take your computer’–we all had these little Apple PowerBooks. ‘And we’ll call you with our new address.'”
So Beijing Scene went underground. It moved three times in a month. The new spaces were off alleys, and there wasn’t a sign on the door. The authorities never did find the floating newsroom, but a month later they tracked down the separate advertising office and “confiscated as many computers as they could carry.” Beijing Scene was out of business.
Davis, a Reader editor in 1993 and ’94, had spent 1996 in Beijing studying bookbinding. Beijing Scene was a “ragtag” newspaper then, launched by Savitt in a bedroom a few months before, but when Davis returned to the States she remembered it. “I was so lonesome back here,” she says. “I felt, ‘This is boring.’ Every minute was an adventure over there.” So she wrote Savitt and asked for a job.
When the paper went under she’d had enough. “It was such a high. And when it was shut down, it was, ‘Well, why do I want to live here?’ I could stay. I could work in PR. But that’s not what I came to China for, to be a flack. I don’t want to spend this much energy living in a rat hole and keeping a job that doesn’t keep me busy. I might as well go home.”
Savitt stayed in China. He’s tried to start up again at least three times, Davis says, and each time the government has shut him down. According to his Web site (www.beijingscene.com), the next launch date is April 1. Savitt wants her back. “I wouldn’t go back to get shut down again,” she says. “If it were a sure thing–which China can never deliver–I would go.”
She’s now an editor for a law firm in Portland, Oregon, and life’s less exciting than it was. There was the night when Britain had just turned Hong Kong over to China, and Tiananmen Square filled with people from all over China waving flags and taking pictures. Colonialism was dead, the West had pulled out, and jubilation reigned. But one man came up to Davis and said softly, “These people don’t know what happened here. But we Beijingers remember what happened, and our hearts hurt.” Then he vanished.
The government that brought in tanks and opened fire in 1989 had just closed Davis’s newspaper, so she felt a modest kinship with the stranger. “Your heart goes out to people who want the system to change and maybe were helping it to during the student movement,” she says. “But the people in power are the ones with the army. Chinese officials don’t have the confidence to let there be a free press. They would be exposed as the buffoons they are.”
Out of the Loop
The basic unit of reporting prowess is the exclusive. Whether it’s tomorrow’s hard news today (feds to announce indictment) or a feature too bizarre to be anything but proprietary (Bisquick reformulates), newspapers at war keep score by counting scoops. On March 3, for example, Fran Spielman delivered big in the Sun-Times with her report that Mayor Daley had asked his recent campaign manager, Avis LaVelle, to take over the CHA. The Tribune’s response couldn’t have been lamer–spinning Daley’s nondenial denial into a couple of flaccid reports that the mayor (March 4) was “discounting reports” and (March 8) had “discounted the notion” that LaVelle would get the job.
But for reasons that the Sun-Times can’t hold anyone responsible for but itself, the battlefield isn’t as level as it was a month ago. Last Thursday the Tribune had a telltale scoop. It ran a front-page story on the dangers facing tactical police officers, and a big chunk of the story was an interview with the widow of slain cop James Camp.
When cops die in the line of duty the Hundred Club calls on their family with a check. These presentations make good photo ops at the very least, and the Hundred Club announces them beforehand. News desks knew early March 10 when and where the Hundred Club would visit Opal Camp that day, because the visit was listed in the daybook of Chicago’s new local wire service, New City News.
Aware that Opal Camp intended to receive guests, the Tribune’s Chicago bureau chief, Celeste Garrett, sent reporter Megan O’Matz to the scene. O’Matz got there early and was invited up. Later Camp came down to the lobby and spoke with other reporters.
Opal Camp made news in a lot of the Chicago media, but not in the Sun-Times. The Sun-Times doesn’t get New City News, so it didn’t know what was happening.
The predecessor wire, the storied City News Bureau, died at the end of February because the Sun-Times, which owned it with the Tribune, got tired of covering losses and forced its liquidation. For a time City News Service of Los Angeles intended to expand into Chicago and plug the gap. But the Tribune preemptively created its own wire, staffing it with CNB veterans operating out of the Tower and offering it to Chicago’s major TV and radio stations.
Needless to say, the Sun-Times wasn’t invited to the party. Neither were two news services that could tip off the Sun-Times about what’s going on. One’s the Associated Press, which has modestly upgraded the much less ambitious daybook it used to sell only to Chicago’s minor radio and TV stations and has begun supplying it to the Sun-Times and other area newspapers excluded by the Tribune. The other’s the Medill News Service, which sells its stories to the Sun-Times. The AP and Medill both used to be CNB clients.
So what’s the Sun-Times to do? Editors have told the staff there’s a plan, but it seems to consist of the AP and Medill, plus some 500 letters sent to frequent news makers asking them to keep the Sun-Times posted on what’s going on. Apparently the Hundred Club wasn’t one of those news makers.
In addition, veteran reporter Gary Wisby has been assigned to spend his days in a communications room off the city room monitoring police and fire radios, watching TV, listening to WBBM AM, and making calls. “He’s a consummate reporter and a beautiful writer,” says a colleague, “and they’ve got him squirreled away–all because the company wanted to do in City News.”
Credit where it’s due. To the Sun-Times, which led its business section last Wednesday with the good news that North Shore magazine “is turning heads in the publishing industry.” Midway through the tribute to North Shore’s “new look, tougher reporting and an energized marketing campaign,” the Sun-Times correctly mentioned that the magazine’s owned by the company that owns the Sun-Times.
And to travel writer Wink Dulles, who knows which experts to quote. Writing in the Tribune two Sundays ago on third-world cops who make bogus arrests of tourists and shake them down, Dulles offered a smart piece of advice by Robert Young Pelton: “Act stupid and don’t confess to anything.” In his previous Tribune appearance, in February, Dulles had wondered why third-world bandits who risk execution by kidnapping tourists often shoot the moon and try to seize entire tour groups. Because “you can only get killed once,” explained Robert Young Pelton.
This useful intelligence comes from the coauthor of The World’s Most Dangerous Places, a recent book Dulles each time plugged by name. Admirably, he saw fit to identify himself as the other author.
Who had it right?
From the Los Angeles Times: “‘Oh Joe, you’ve never heard such cheering,’ she reportedly gushed upon returning.
“‘Oh yes I have,’ DiMaggio said quietly.”
From the Boston Globe: “Monroe said, ‘It was so wonderful, Joe. You never heard such cheering.’ His reply: ‘Yes I have.'”
From the Gannett News Service (as carried by the Sun-Times): “The most famous quote of the marriage came when Monroe returned from entertaining agog U.S. troops and breathlessly told her husband he had no idea what it was like to be cheered by 80,000 people.
“‘Yes, I do,’ replied the man who played in 51 World Series games.”
From Ron Rapoport, Sun-Times: “Gay Talese wrote an article for Esquire that contained an exchange between Marilyn Monroe and DiMaggio that has become legendary: ‘It was so wonderful, Joe. You never heard such cheering.’ ‘Yes, I have.'”
Who had it right? Rapoport, the writer who gave credit where it was due, to Gay Talese.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Margaret Davis photo by Margaret S. Davis.