DALIAN, China -- Interview requests in China have to go through a special procedure: Convincing the PR office that there will be no money involved.
A recent interview request to an equipment manufacturer in Guangzhou, Guangdong Province, was met by a familiar skeptical voice on the other side of the phone. "You say you want an interview, but you will ask for money, right?" the woman said.
After multiple attempts at trying to tell her that this was not the case, the PR officer requested that Nikkei put in writing that "We will never ask for money." When pressed for a reason, she replied without hesitation. "I don't trust the news media. Even state-run China Central Television asked for money."
It was a reminder of how commonplace it has become for reporters to pester private companies for pocket money in return for favorable coverage.
The Guangzhou-based manufacturer had a hit product in 2017 and was showered with media requests. One of those requests was from a person claiming to be a CCTV reporter, preparing a program that focused on up and coming companies.
Lured by the prospect of nationwide coverage, the company cooperated with the program production. But just days ahead of the promised air day, the reporter requested money in the name of "advertisement fees." The company said no and the program never ran.
Several former CCTV employees confirmed that news reporters do not take part in such program production and that requesting money in return for coverage was strictly banned at the company.
Yet one former reporter, who had been with CCTV for over ten years, said that it is often the case that subcontractors use the CCTV name to demand money. "Some reporters also do so on the sly," he said.
Another former reporter, now a PR officer at a large private company, notes that while the practice has been around for years, it is getting worse in recent years.
As more Chinese go online for news, conventional media are seeing bottom lines plunge, affecting the salaries of staff, who try to make ends meet by demanding cash from up-and-coming enterprises in exchange for favorable press.
Advertisement revenues of internet-based media are already twice that of TV broadcasters, whose falling ad revenues reflect the new reality. Newspaper are also in trouble: In the five years through 2016, 34 were forced to fold.
The People's Daily and other state-run media are less affected thanks to subsidies, but local government-affiliated newspapers are being hit hard.
A worker in his 30s at a local newspaper in Dalian, Liaoning Province, earns 1,000 yuan ($157) per month, much less than the average university graduate's 5,000 yuan.
Reporters at state-run media also feel the squeeze. "My pay hasn't increased, but my workload has," lamented a reporter at one organization. "I now have to write stories for both the newspaper and breaking news published in the online version. I also have to shoot video for stories."
In the absence of better pay, reporters demand money from private companies in cash-for-coverage schemes -- in effect, using extortion to cash in on the country's economic growth that has passed them by.
Conventional media are not the only ones pestering companies for cash. Online news sites are also looking for handouts, though indirectly.
"Zi mei ti [self-media] are a real headache," complained an official at Dalian Wanda Group, a huge Chinese property developer. "They publish unsubstantiated reports whenever the want."
Until recently, Wanda had been on an overseas acquisition spree. After Beijing tightened capital controls, stories of alleged scandals involving Wanda Chairman Wang Jianlin frequently appear online.
Self-media like blogs, many of which are run by individuals, receive advertising fees if their stories are picked up by other online media. Since fees are based on the number of views, self-media has a tendency to sensationalize stories.
China has little tolerance for reporting that is critical of the government or Communist Party. Hence, the media targets private companies, said an executive of a major online company.
In fact, "fake news" about Wang, Asia's richest person, Alibaba Group Holding's Jack Ma Yun and other business luminaries is seen online almost daily.
Wanda has even sued some media, and its legal and public relations departments are inundated dealing with questionable media reports. "Physical and personnel costs have continued to increase," said a Wanda official.
Nevertheless, when it comes to protecting oneself from such baseless accusations, companies often reach for their wallets.
It is now customary for companies to offer "car fare" to reporters attending news conferences. The fare used to be several yuan, reflecting the actual cost to come to the venue. Today, those car fares, often tucked into an envelope in the press kit, have risen to between 200 yuan and 1,000 yuan.
Reporters view the fare as part of their income, while companies consider it a form of extortion.
"Chinese reporters take it for granted that we'll give them money for stories," a Chinese company executive claimed. "If we stop paying, they'll just write nasty stories."