Chinese Buffet – Part 3: Truly Immersed in Beijing

Chinese Buffet is a month-long series that chronicles the travels of an American woman who visited China for the first time in July 2007.

(Immersion Guides Staff, L to R: Reid Barrett, Gabriel Monroe, Shelley Jiang, Jackie Yu and summer interns from Stanford – Amy Xue and Catherine Lee.)

In the Housing and Hotels section of the Insider’s Guide to Beijing, Editor Reid Barrett suggests that residents of the city should “…set the trial and tribulations of your time here to a laugh track rather than a weepy violin.” He’s got the right attitude for navigating this awesome and overwhelming city — and so does the entire Immersion Guides team that I had the opportunity to meet with while in Beijing.

No matter how polluted the air may be, the True Run Media team lives and breaths Beijing. In addition to the Immersion Guides crew, which produces all print guidebooks and maps, the company publishes several magazines, including the flagship city guide That’s Beijing and niche offshoots: TBJ Home and TBJ Kids.

All full-time staff and contributing writers for both the magazines and guidebooks live and work in the city, churing out monthly copy for the city guides as well as impressive annual rewrites of the print guidebooks and mid-year updates of neighborhood maps. We all know how quickly things are changing throughout China, so it’s great to see a media company that is willing to invest in people and pages to stay one step ahead of things…

This is the main room where the That’s Beijing magazine staff works — several other smaller rooms packed with hard working writers make up the headquarters of True Run Media, located south east of the city center. The company began with the magazine lanuch in 2001, and has grown tremendously in the past six years. Now, with the Olympics only one year away, the True Run operation is well positioned to serve a variety of existing and new audiences. In addition to the magazines and Insider’s Guide, they publish a Mandarin phrasebook, a Beijing Excursions guide, restaurant ordering books and a guide to Lhasa, their first title outside of Beijing proper.

Immersion Guides Managing Editor Adam Pilsbury was out of town when I visited, but I was able to sit down and chat with Editor Reid Barrett and Michael Wester, the General Manager of True Run Media, to talk about how their company is managing to cover Beijing from every angle.

Since their writer network in so extensive (with over 40 “insider” contributors), the guidebooks pop with a “panorama of voices” as Reid Barrett explained. “How could one person write an entire guidebook and hope to do it justice? We find people who are experts in their area — someone who does the club scene often writes about nightlife; another writer with a professional background in art dealing covers that scene for us.”

As Mike Wester explained to me (shown here with the very first issue of the That’s Beijing magazine), True Run is willing to make an investment in staff to ensure that their products are the most comprehensive. “There are a lot of city mags in Beijing, but ours is the thickest and has the largest directory coverage. We also invest more in gathering data. For example, we are the only magazine to hire a full-time restaurants editor, and mentally, I think that makes a huge difference, to have someone focused on that topic all the time. Hopefully that is reflected in the quality of our product’s content.”

Mike and Reid both wound up in this business because of their interest in print media and because they had studied Mandarin in college. “People who bother to learn the language usually wind up making it part of their career,” says Mike, who worked as an editor in Taiwan before moving to Beijing to launch the magazine. He now makes his home here with his wife and baby daughter, and is both professionally and personally invested in promoting the city.

“People have had for a long time very negative perceptions of Beijing. If you ask people what they think about the city, now, it’s about pollution. Five years ago all anyone would say was Tian’an Men Square. I’m concerned with the future of the city being a good one. I live here now with my family and I want our products to – not hide the negatives – but also communicate that there is a lot more than pollution and crowds here. We want to share information about how it can be a good place to live and how we can make it better.”

Throughout the week I’ll be sharing more insight and travel tips from the Immersion Guides team at True Run Media.

See you tomorrow — the 365 day Olympic countdown begins!