Thomas Shao of Modern Media

While foreign media companies continue to struggle in China, the last ten years have seen the development of a few independently operated Chinese media companies that are starting to produce profitable, high quality products that do not rely on content licensed from foreign publications.

Modern Media Group is one of these.

The founder and CEO of Modern Media, Thomas Shao (邵忠) is a fascinating character: a home grown media tycoon in the making. All of his magazines are in original, slightly quirky formats, and while there are plenty of foreign influences, none of them are modeled on a foreign title. A little like the man himself: dressed in understated designer clothes, he is elegant and cosmopolitan-looking, but he has never lived outside China.

Below is a Danwei TV episode, featuring an interview with Shao. You can also watch the video in a larger format at the Youtube website or on Revver.com

Shao is from Guangzhou. His parents were both government cadres. His mother worked at the Guangzhou Daily. As a youngster, he used to visit the printing presses with his mother, and he attributes some of his interest in media to his early experiences.

In 1983, Shao joined the Guangzhou City Government Planned Economy Committee. In 1988 at the young age of 27, he became a department head of the Village and Town Enterprise Administration.

In 1993, he left the gold rice bowl of his government job and went into business. That year he started the company that is now called Modern Media Group (现代传播), launching Modern Pictorial magazine (现代画报), a glossy lifestyle magazine that was the only serious local competitor to Elle China, launched in 1988 and Trends (now (Cosmopolitan China).

He was involved in other businesses at the same time, but his passion for media eventually convinced him to drop everything else and focus on magazines. In 1997, he launched Modern Weekly (周末画报), a weekly news magazine with information about business, current affairs, fashion, culture and entertainment. It made an immediate impact on the drab newsstands in Guangzhou, Shanghai and Beijing with its bright colors, and eye catching design.

There was a certain genius in the format that Shao likes to call ‘paperzine’: it is the size of a tabloid newspaper but printed on glossy paper. The combination of glossy paper with a low price (5 yuan compared to 15 yuan and up for most fashion magazines) helped make it one of the best known magazines in avery short space of time. Modern Weekly now prints nearly half a million of each issue and is an established market leader in the Chinese print media, attracting advertisements for luxury and fashion brands, mobile phones and high-end consumer products.

Another strategy that Modern Weekly pioneered in China was targeted free distribution: the company installed small racks in upscale shops and restaurants all over their target markets. These racks ensured that the emerging middle class — people who work in high-end office buildings and dine in smart restaurants — very quickly had a high awareness of the magazine, and read it even if they did not buy or subscribe.

Since 2000, when Modern Weekly started to leave serious amounts of black ink on the company’s spread sheets, Shao has been putting his energy into new ventures.

In 2002, he launched The Outlook Magazine (新视线), a monthly glossy about design, designers and the creative industries.

The next year, Modern Media Group also recently acquired Hong Kong’s City Magazine (号外), which has been one the territory’s leading magazines since the 1970s. This was perhaps the first time a PRC media company had bought a magazine outside the Mainland, although it is certainly not going to be the last time.

In December 2005, Shao launched China City (生活) magazine. It’s a large format glossy that costs 50 yuan. It looks similar to the Hong Kong City, but the content is completely different. The articles are essays, profiles and features about a variety of subjects from architecture to travel. The magazine even has music and art directors who contribute to each issue: Tan Dun the Chinese composer who won an Oscar for his Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon score, and McArthur Genius Award winner, New York-based artist Xu Bing.

In the future, Shao hopes to continue expanding his print media business, but also has plans for the Internet. He defines his products as “non-mainstream mainstream media”, which means that all of his magazines are aimed at niche markets: he is not interested in making mass media. He will pursue the same direction online: looking for small groups of readers and users with similar interests and incomes, rather than pursuing the bigger mainstream groups that newspapers and celebrity magazines go after.

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