Covering China: Possible, But Far From Easy

In this post, EXHIBITOR magazine editor Travis Stanton tells us how convincing his publication to send him to cover the World's Fair in Shanghai, China, set the stage for a once-in-a-lifetime experience and a healthy profit.

A new friend recently told me, “In Shanghai, nothing is impossible. But in Shanghai, nothing is easy.” She couldn’t have more accurately described my visit to the 2010 World’s Fair (aka Expo 2010).

Six months ago, I began making the case for my senior writer Charles Pappas and I to attend the event for roughly two weeks. The goal was to scour the theme, country, and corporate pavilions on display and bring home a treasure trove of trends and tips that exhibit and event professionals could adapt to their marketing programs.

But it wasn’t as easy as booking a pair of plane tickets and packing my bags. Sending two writers half way across the globe comes with a pretty hefty price tag. And my company had never before sent anyone to cover a World’s Fair. So before I could start worrying about hotel accommodations, I needed to convince my chief operating officer that the trip was worth the investment.

Business Plan. After several discussions with him and other internal stakeholders, I presented a rough business plan consisting of:
  • an Expo 2010 microsite that would house ongoing coverage;
  • an awards program that would recognize some of the most impressive pavilions, exhibits, and presentations at Expo 2010;
  • print magazine coverage in our December issue; and
  • a workshop based on our experience that Charles and I would be able to present at my magazine’s annual conference in March of 2011.
My hope was to recoup at least some of the hard costs associated with the trip.

Based at least partly on my own confidence in the plan, my COO approved the trip and we began exploring our travel options.

Booking airfare was easy enough, but finding a hotel proved a bit trickier. We found several hotels that claimed to be mere blocks from the Expo 2010 grounds. But when we used online maps to chart directions from the hotels to the fair grounds, we found that something must have been lost in the translation from meters to feet, as these hotels were more like 10 miles from Expo.

Walking Distance. Later in our search, we found a hotel that appeared to be within walking distance, but just before booking the rooms we read the fine print: The rooms had no windows! After weeks of hotel hunting, we finally settled on New Harbour Service Apartments Shanghai. We weren’t sure what to expect (and were later disappointed that the “free breakfast” we were promised actually cost 48 RMB — roughly $7 — per person), but it was affordable, within a reasonable distance, and offered free internet access.

With airfare and accommodations out of the way, we set our sights on passports and business visas. The passports were easy enough, as we simply needed to renew them for the trip. But obtaining our visas was an absolute nightmare. We decided to use a visa processing company to help us complete all the paperwork correctly and serve as our liaison with the Chinese consulate in Chicago.

Even with their help, we still needed to complete numerous forms and obtain an invitation letter from someone in Shanghai. Luckily for us, EWI Worldwide, an exhibit house in Livonia, MI, has an office in Shanghai, and agreed to help us out. But the processing firm initially directed us to apply for a basic business visa.

After a couple of weeks waiting for our visas to arrive, the processer contacted me and indicated we needed to sign an additional form. She faxed me the form we needed to sign, which basically said that our trip was in no way related to our jobs as journalists, and that our actions would in no way deviate from the actions of a tourist.

Red Tape. Obviously, we couldn’t sign those forms. Our invitation letter from EWI Worldwide’s Shanghai office, and all of the documentation we submitted to the consulate stated very clearly that we were going to Expo 2010 to report on the trends exhibited there. And we had a pending application for a press pass at Expo 2010, which required our visa number. And lying to a foreign government is not a good start to an international trip to a developing, Communist country!

So we began the process of obtaining a journalist visa (aka J2 visa), which requires additional paperwork. We naively assumed that our visa processors would be able to confidently guide us through this final step in our application, but they seemed as confounded by the consulate’s requests as we were. The Chinese consulate asked us to contact the foreign ministry and get a hard copy of an “official visa notice.” No instructions on how to apply for an official visa notice. No contact information for the foreign ministry. Nothing.

We tried contacting the U.S. embassy in Shanghai, but they simply sent us a URL with information on applying for passports and business visas. We tried contacting the Chinese embassy in Washington, DC, but our voicemails went unanswered (and when we actually spoke to a receptionist, we were quickly transferred to dead-end extensions that nobody ever answered). We reached out to our state senators, hoping they could help. One of them took more than a week to respond (which was too late), and the other offered to call the embassy in Chicago and ask them to help us — but said that given our circumstances there was nothing more they could do.

We asked our Chinese contacts to contact the foreign ministry in Shanghai on our behalf, and when they did so they were told it would take more than 10 days to get an official visa notice. But we did not have 10 days. We were scheduled to leave in roughly a week. It was starting to look like the best-case scenario would be delaying our trip, and the worst-case scenario would be never seeing Expo 2010.

Green Light. Thankfully, after several emotional e-mails, our contacts at EWI Worldwide’s Shanghai office worked with representatives from Expo 2010 who submitted documentation to the Chinese consulate in Chicago. We waited about three days to find out if what they submitted was adequate or if we were back at square one. Thankfully, with only a few days to spare, we received word that our J2 visas were on their way to Rochester — and that meant we were on our way to Shanghai.

The twenty-four hours of travel, including a 15-hour flight from Detroit to Shanghai’s Pudong International Airport, was nothing compared to the stress and helplessness I felt during our visa-application process. There were, of course, plenty of unique cultural challenges while in China.

Most taxi drivers don’t speak or read English, so when heading to Expo each morning, we routinely asked our hotel’s front-desk staff to write directions in Chinese. But more often than not, the drivers weren’t able to understand those directions either. We even carried Expo 2010 maps with us and would point to where we needed to go. But that was no help — not even in the official designated Expo 2010 cabs. The language barrier was generally too great.

Thankfully, there is a phone number you can call in China, where an English speaker will answer and serve as a bi-lingual liaison between you and your cab driver. But that’s only if your cell phone works.

Before leaving, I contacted my cell provider (T Mobile) and requested the unlock code for my phone so that I could purchase a Chinese SIM card when I arrived in Shanghai. Fortunately, I didn’t wait until the last minute to request this unlock code, because I had no idea it took several days to process the request. Luckily, I received an e-mail with my unlock code the day before I left the United States. On site at Expo 2010, I purchased a SIM card for roughly $32. I popped it in my phone, and it functioned much like a pre-paid card: I don’t recall the exact rates, but I believe calls back to the United States cost about $0.50/minute.

Culture Shock. We also encountered obstacles ranging from the personally aggravating (in Shanghai, there is no concept of personal space and with twice the population of New York, there’s twice the shoving and pushing as well) to the downright frustrating (there’s a lot of bureaucracy for the sake of bureaucracy, such as filling out a form to request the form you need to apply for whatever it is you really want) to the absolutely enraging (like how the Media Center computers auto-translated every word I typed on the English keyboard into Mandarin).

There’s a general lack of directional signage, so you never know which line to stand in, which door to go through, or anything like that. And the smallest of inquiries can cause mass confusion. For example, I asked the English-speaking representatives at the Expo 2010 Media Center what the password was for the computers. She had to call at least three people and get help from no fewer than four other Media Center reps before she was able to get me the password — and Expo 2010 had already been operating for nearly five months before our visit in September.

And then there’s the fact that China is not a country where “freedom of the press” really exists. In many ways, we were treated like celebrities while visiting Shanghai. But in just as many ways, we were treated a little like spies. The general vibe from Expo organizers was, “We’re glad you’re here, but we would feel more comfortable if you weren’t.”

I was surprised to get CNN on the television in my hotel room, but other things we take for granted were not accessible in China. For instance, many websites are blocked by the government. Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube are all inaccessible. And if you go to, you are quickly redirected to the Hong Kong version of Google (which I think should be called Choogle — China Google).

Largest World's Fair in History. Then again, I am still a little awestruck when I pinch myself and realize that I was in China, covering the largest (roughly 1,300 acres) and most well attended (more than 70 million visitors) World’s Fair in history. The fact that China even hosted the event is mind blowing when you consider that much of the Pudong area along the Huangpu River (where Expo 2010 now sits, surrounded by a forest of skyscrapers and high rises) was an expanse of undeveloped farmland just 20 years ago.

And while the media in China is still heavily regulated by the government, the Chinese press enjoys far more liberties than would have been imaginable only a generation or two ago. Unfortunately, it seems that the Chinese might be taking a step backward under Hu Jintao, as regulations regarding the internet and the media have increased since the late 90s. Still, to say Shanghai has come a long way would be an understatement of epic proportions. But to say Shanghai still has a long way to go would be an understatement as well.

We returned to the United States extremely thankful for the opportunity to visit China and to cover what I have no doubt will forever be one of the great World’s Fairs of all time. We took more than 7,000 photos and dozens of hours of video footage.

Mission Accomplished. And that goal of recouping a portion of our travel costs? Between the sponsorships our sales team sold for our Expo 2010 microsite and the revenue generated by entry fees to our awards program, we not only recouped the entire cost of the trip, but we achieved a return on that investment of nearly 4:1. It just goes to show: In Shanghai, nothing is impossible. But in Shanghai, nothing is easy.

To learn more about Expo 2010, and to see our online coverage of the event, visit

10 Tips for Keeping Your Digital Copy Clean

Kelly Saxton, associate director of publications and managing editor for Paralyzed Veterans of America's Development, Marketing and Communications program, tells us why online publishing is no excuse for sloppy copy. Follow her practical ideas to keep your stories mistake free.

In today’s publishing environment — daily Web updates, fresh rotating content on your home page, blogs — does copy even pass an editor’s or proofreader’s eyes? Are spelling, punctuation, and style the sacrificial lambs of the electronic age?

I asked some current and former colleagues for tips on how they manage error-free copy. I didn’t get a lot of feedback; however, one person did suggest: “Don’t ‘F’ it up.” Great, thanks for playing.

But there’s some truth and guidance in that comment.

We should not let the pace of publishing keep us from putting out good, clean copy. What is it about online publishing that permits sloppiness and errors that would never be allowed in print?

So how do we keep from “F-ing it up”? Hopefully — or as a proofreader would correct — “I hope” the following reminders will help.

1. A Stitch in Time. When time is of the essence, having someone read your copy in sections as you write can save precious minutes. You can input initial corrections while other sections are read or while a proofer reads the finished copy.

2. Proof in hard copy. Whether it’s the freedom from monitor glare, the angle at which we read on paper, whatever — mistakes often are spotted more easily in hard copy.

3. Size Matters. In hard copy or on a monitor, increase the size of the type — and even change the font. Small things, such as dropped end punctuation, loom larger in 16- or 18-point type. And because serif fonts are easier on the language-processing parts of the brain, switching to san serif for a round of proofing will reduce the tendency for your eyes to skip over words.

4. Focus on prepositions. Because the brain processes nouns and verbs first and determines meaning, misspelled prepositions are often ignored as the brain and eyes move on.

5. Check Spelling Early and Often. Spell checking at an early stage during writing (in addition to doing it as a final step) will pinpoint problem words or phrases and help you to spell them correctly and consistently thereafter.

6. Search and Destroy. Take advantage of the search function, especially for names of people, places, institutions, or uncommon terminology, to compare all instances within the text. Search also can be used to ensure consistency of such things as “says” versus “said” or other stylistic concerns.

7. Check It. Fact check, especially proper names and titles. Do not assume the writer (or a previous proofer) verified it. And never rely on Web searches or random Web pages for verification.

8. Say What? Read the copy aloud or with someone else reading along. Many writers do this to improve construction and flow, but it is also useful for slowing down the eyes for sharper focus on each word.

9. One Thing at a Time. If you have time, proofread elements separately. Check spelling, and then focus on punctuation, headlines, subheads, etc. (see Tip #10).

10. Time It. Clean copy takes time. Making a posting deadline at the expense of a proofread should not be an option.



Innovate, Experiment, Evaluate, Repeat

Sharon Machlis, the online managing editor for Computerworld, shares why it's important to constantly innovate, experiment and evaluate when it comes to improving communication among editorial staff or readers.

There's well-deserved emphasis these days on new technologies to engage with our readers — social networks for conversations, wikis for collaborative content creation and interactive databases to display compelling data. But we shouldn't forget that these types of platforms can also be extremely useful inside newsrooms, helping journalists to communicate with each other.

At Computerworld, for example, we started with a wiki to keep track of our online story planning so that everyone could see and comment upon others' entries. It worked well for quite awhile, but we found it didn't scale as more people began using the system and wanted easier ways of keeping up with who was doing what — without being notified every time someone made a minor edit.

Story Planning Tool. I launched an experiment with a database on the Zoho Creator platform; that's evolved into a customized story planning tool being used by dozens of IDG reporters and editors on three continents.

People can sign up for e-mail alerts about entries by specific reporters or by keyword ("Microsoft," "mobile," etc.), tag which stories should be included in our twice-daily e-mail newsletter headlines and quickly view information about upcoming stories sorted by date, status, topic, writer and more.

We still use wikis for other newsroom information that doesn't change by the minute, such as "how-to" internal procedures and training guides where anyone can add useful information about cool tools or new processes.

Decline and Fall of Ning. For the past couple of years, we've also been using our own internal social network, running on the Ning platform, for informal communications. It began as a useful way to share information, especially with our colleagues who are not based in the main office. It was an especially useful platform for brainstorming story ideas.

Eventually, though, it became One More Thing to Log Into and Check, and usage dropped among much of our newsroom as participation rose in other social networks. Unfortunately, there was no way to securely integrate posts from a private Ning network into any other social networking software the way, say, Twitter and Facebook streams both appear within TweetDeck. So we'll probably be dropping Ning soon — and that's fine. With minimal time needed for start-up and development, it was worth setting up and using during the time writers and editors found it helpful.

Social Networks. We're still on popular social networks to communicate with readers; most of us also try to leverage those external-facing platforms for internal use as well, such as signing up for each other's Twitter feeds as another way to keep up with what our colleagues around newsroom are up to.

Whether for our readers or for internal use, the plan is the same: constantly innovate, experiment and evaluate. In other words, try new ideas and platforms from time to time, keep what works and end what doesn't. Some ground rules that have worked for us:
  • Look at what communication/information issues most need an upgrade in your newsroom and then seek out technology that might help you solve it. That often ends up more useful within the enterprise than discovering slick technology and trying to figure out how to use it.
  • Bring users in early. You'll have more success if you seek advice from colleagues from the outset and are flexible about adding or modifying features.
  • Keep an eye on cool new tools, whether at trade shows, by following some key information streams online or checking in with cutting-edge tech users. While tracking every new startup would be more than a full-time job, adding a few well-chosen tools to your arsenal from time to time can pay big dividends in your newsroom.

Sharon Machlis is online managing editor at Computerworld. Her e-mail address is You can follow her on Twitter at @sharon000, on Facebook or by following her Computerworld article and blog RSS feeds..

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ASBPE Podcast: Serving Your Readers in a Down Economy

Last month, Christina Pellett is the editor of the Agent's Sales Journal, gave us six tips for serving our readers in a down economy.

In this ASBPE Podcast, Christina expands on her advice and describes why her publication:
  • acknowledges the hard times by turning to its readers for practical advice on how best to survive uncertainty and the challenges ahead,
  • generates reader participation by including on editorial staffs' emails tag lines soliciting input, and
  • opts to connect with its readers via LinkedIn more than it does on Facebook or Twitter.

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Content Strategy and Why You Should Care About It

Sara Zailskas, a content strategist with, tells us why it takes more than intuition or seriousness of purpose to consistently deliver engaging content.

I recently took a job as a Web content strategist for an association’s Web site after four years in editorial with a group of housing industry trade publications.

When I shared my new-job news with colleagues in the publishing world, 99 percent of the time I had to explain what content strategy is.

And fair enough! I had only discovered the term a little over a year ago, which is shocking because it’s essential. Content strategy is important, and if we all employed it, we’d be more efficient and more successful.

What is content strategy?

Content strategy is determining the best way to present information to your audience so that it’s valuable and makes them want to come back for more.

Sounds like what you do, right? Probably to a degree. But as an editor, my team and I got so caught up producing and editing copy it was easy to forget to plan for it beyond the basics.

As a content strategist, I ask our content producers (read: writers and editors) questions like these:

• What’s the goal of publishing this? What are you trying to accomplish?
• Who are your trying to reach?
• Is this the best format (Q&A? List? Video interview?) for this information?
• What related content is in the pipeline?

I take a look at the content and ask myself how Joe User would react to the information. I consider where Joe would expect to find it. I think about whether Joe would find it useful. And I assess the likelihood Joe would return to – or better yet, refer to -- us as a resource.

In the middle of discussions or debates, my supervisors will always come back to our guiding questions: what’s best for our audience and what makes the most sense. And isn’t that what all businesses want for their customers?

Why you should care

If you give people useful information, they’ll come back for more. And if they’re coming back from more, that means your traffic, audience feedback and audience loyalty are going up – which hopefully means more money in the bank.

Of course, caring isn’t enough: you need to back up your strategy with metrics. Start with one piece of content. Come up with strategy, employ it, track the numbers, tweak what’s necessary, and keep that top of mind for the future.

Hiccups and how to get rid of them

Content strategy can be tricky. Here are just a few challenges you might face and solutions:

  • Time to plan. You’ll have to make it part of your planning routine. If you need to post a list of content strategy questions next to your computer to ask yourself, do it.
  • Resources. You likely don’t have a content strategy team to turn to for help and thus are your own content strategist. This isn’t a bad thing! Consider the payoff for your business and for your career.
  • Team or management buy in. The fact you’ll have to do a lot of educating about the topic means it’ll take longer for folks to wrap their heads around the concept – and devote money to it. Have patience.
  • Silo’ed thinking. Cross-promotion is a buzzword among us content strategists, but that’s difficult to grasp if you have a specific beat or focus to your work. Keep Joe User’s perspective in mind throughout.
  • Knee-Jerk publishing. The urge to “file away” information or “just get it out there” as opposed to optimizing it. Don’t stop at the first answer you think of.
If you have a content strategist, have discussions with him or her. And if you don’t, I challenge you to become one to elevate your content. Hopefully your traffic, audience loyalty, advertising and other important measures of success will rise too.

Sara Zailskas loves her job the National Association of Realtors as a content strategist for and relies on her editorial background every day.

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