Media Moves

From a one-man operation to 1.6 million followers, a new medium emerges

August 20, 2019

Posted by Yvonne Zacharias

Han Zhang of the New Yorker magazine has written an article on a resoundingly successful emerging business model for the struggling world journalism. (

College Daily, which now has more than 30 staffers in Beijing and 15 in New York, launched at the beginning of 2014 as a one-man operation in an apartment in Beijing. 

In its early days, it was a bare-bones survival guide for American campus life, with vaporous posts about boosting your G.P.A. and planning for finals week, Zhang writes in the article. 

Over time, and especially after the 2016 U.S. election, it transitioned to the kinds of stories it features today: Chinese news delivered with nationalistic overtones; tabloid tales of Chinese students living overseas (sex, drugs, murders and missing women appear frequently); and news from the U.S. and the celebrity world.

With about 1.6 million followers on the social-media platform WeChat and more than a million active readers a day, College Daily is one of an increasing number of Chinese “self-media” outlets, sometimes called “new media,” which have no official government affiliation and reach their subscribers exclusively via social media, mostly WeChat. 

Today, it would be hard to find a Chinese student in the U.S. who doesn’t regularly encounter College Daily content, intentionally or not. Even if they don’t subscribe, chances are that their friends on WeChat are sharing its stories to private or group chats or to their time lines. Chinese state media outlets often repost or aggregate College Daily content, too, which helps it reach a wider audience.

College Daily’s potential readership—Chinese students who are studying abroad and those who aspire to do so—is growing rapidly. In 2018 alone, there were more than 360,000 Chinese students enrolled in higher-education programs in the U.S., a fourfold rise from a decade ago. Students from mainland China make up one-third of all international students in the U.S. and outnumber those from the second and third most represented countries (India and South Korea) combined. For the most part, these students don’t watch U.S. election returns on CNN or get word of the latest viral moment via Twitter. They get such news on their phones, often from College Daily, in a stream of memes and Internet-speak.

College Daily’s success can be partly attributed to its lack of direct competitors. Mainstream Chinese media tend to see Chinese students abroad as an élite class of spoiled children, and sometimes question their allegiances; Chinese-language papers based in America, such as China Press or Epoch Times (which has links to the Falun Gong and is vocally opposed to the Chinese Communist Party), traditionally serve an older, less affluent generation of immigrants. Chinese students will find little that resonates with their daily lives or sensibilities in these publications, and the vast majority of them likely find English-language news inaccessible, says The New Yorker article which is replete with descriptions of the types of articles published by College Daily and colorful descriptions of some of its youthful staff. 

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