Haini Xiao
Credit: Tanya Goehring

Haini Xiao, editor-in-chief of Lahoo.ca, claims a readership of 60,000

Mom-and-pop news websites are giving the veterans of Vancouver’s Chinese-language press a run for their money

Print statsThere’s a shakeup underway in Canada’s Chinese-language press—and its epicentre is in Vancouver. Amid the riptide of digital disruption hammering traditional print business models, the emergence of social media platforms like WeChat and a demographic shift thanks to rising immigration from mainland China, the industry is in flux. Even as census data show that from 2006 to 2016, the Lower Mainland’s population of Chinese speakers climbed by 22 per cent, to some 385,000, print stalwarts like Ming Pao and Sing Tao have fought to attract new readers in an increasingly cutthroat market. World Journal, the other big local Chinese-language newspaper, shuttered its Canadian operations in 2015. Filling the gap are upstart news websites, often mom-and-pop endeavours that rely heavily on WeChat to reach readers.

“It’s a bit of a free-for-all,” says Alex Wan, co-founder and managing director of Periphery Digital, a Vancouver-based marketing consultancy focusing on Chinese-Canadians. “There are at least a dozen Chinese-based media companies, and nobody’s emerging as the champion.”

Haini Xiao, editor-in-chief of Lahoo.ca, is making a good run at it. Based in a strip mall in Richmond, Lahoo operates a website publishing about 20 posts a day, as well as a free weekly. Founded in 2013, it started as a direct-to-WeChat news platform before launching its site late that year. Now Lahoo claims to have a readership of some 60,000. Banner ads on one of its recent front pages—for a Jaguar dealership, a high-end homebuilder and a corporate law firm touting offices in Richmond and Beijing—offer a snapshot of its audience.

The other Chinese-language news publications based in Vancouver range from Rolia.net, an online forum with bargain tips, to Vanpeople.com, a meme-heavy celebrity gossip site. Qidian.ca, another Chinese web portal, offers a rough ranking based on Alexa score, which tracks web traffic over a three-month period. On top is BCBay.com, a message board–cum–news site founded in 2003, which has a staff of about 20; followed closely by Lahoo; then student-focused Vanpeople and generalist site Vansky.com.

For all these publications, the target audience is a mix of new and established immigrants from mainland China, as well as the growing cohort of Chinese-speaking international students.

To illustrate the linguistic complexities involved, Wan describes a matrix. On one axis are the two characters systems, simplified and traditional—the former used in mainland China, the latter in Hong Kong and Taiwan. On the second are the spoken dialects of Cantonese and Mandarin. Although it’s less a problem for print than broadcast, speakers of each tend to be used to its idioms and style. Finally, there’s the content: immigrants from Hong Kong want to read about their former home, but readers with mainland ties are interested in news from Shanghai and Beijing.

Online crowdOver the past decade, Vancouver-based daily Sing Tao has made serious efforts to court mainland audiences. In 2007 it launched Dushi Bao, or Canadian City Journal, a weekly compiled by reporters and editors with professional backgrounds
in China.

Sing Tao lacks the robust WeChat presence of its smaller competitors, but it’s the market leader in free simplified-Chinese print papers, with a circulation of 10,000, says editor-in-chief Victor Ho. “We can maintain better quality, a more professional newsroom,” he contends, pointing to the paper’s leading coverage of the New Can Consultants scandal, an immigration fraud case of great interest to readers who are immigrants from China.

Sing Tao maintains a clear divide between its newsroom and sales department, says Ho, who criticizes the practice he claims his publication’s rivals use. “As far as I know, these competitors have so-called representatives that they send to press conferences, but they’re basically salespeople with the capacity to write stories,” he asserts. “In my humble opinion, they’re not journalists.”

Many of Sing Tao’s competitors lean on the reporting of English-language news organizations, often copying, translating and summarizing stories in short posts filled with images and GIFs, Periphery’s Wan says. (On his LinkedIn page, one former Lahoo intern lists “translating articles from the Economist into Chinese” as among his responsibilities there.) “You can’t outlaw it,” Wan maintains of  lifting content wholesale.

Editor Xiao defends Lahoo, which employs professional journalists, including those with experience at now-defunct World Journal and Beijing Television.

Not even online portals are safe, Wan observes. Many international students are turning to news accounts that publish exclusively on WeChat, like the popular Van Bao Bao, which often pulls in as many shares on its content as Lahoo and BCBay, he explains.

Xiao welcomes the competition. “Our main purpose is to make people feel at home in Canada,” she says. “If more people are involved in the same business as ours, that’s not a bad thing at all.”