GUANGZHOU, China -- Propaganda officials in the southern province of Guangdong have agreed to loosen some controls over an embattled newspaper whose struggle against censorship has galvanized free-speech advocates across China, according to journalists at the newspaper.
The agreement was part of a compromise in which reporters and editors who had said they would strike continued to work to put out the newspaper, Southern Weekend, also known as Southern Weekly, which is published on Thursdays. It is an iconic liberal publication that has regularly challenged Communist Party officials and policies but has come under tighter control in recent years, particularly since the summer.
In Beijing, talk of another newsroom in crisis emerged on Wednesday as reporters at Beijing News, a newspaper co-founded by the parent company of Southern Weekend, said propaganda officials forced the newspaper, against the judgment of its publisher and top editors, to run an editorial attacking Southern Weekend. Some journalists broke down in tears in the newsroom, according to various accounts, and the publisher, Dai Zigeng, threatened to resign, but was still in his job as of Wednesday night.
The deal in Guangzhou, the provincial capital, appeared to bring a tentative peace to a newsroom in turmoil, though journalists said they would have to see whether provincial officials followed through with their promises. The journalists appeared to back down from their demands that the top provincial propaganda official, Tuo Zhen, leave his post. Newspaper employees have accused Mr. Tuo of putting in place much stricter censorship rules since he began his job in May; in particular, they said he had a hand in the rewriting of a New Year's editorial last week that was supposed to have been a call for enforcement of constitutional rights but ended up being more of a paean to the current system. It is unclear what role Mr. Tuo played in the changes, which ignited the call last weekend among some journalists to carry out a strike.
Journalists at Southern Weekend said that under rules imposed by Mr. Tuo, propaganda officials regularly reviewed the content of the paper before it went to print and vetted reporting topics proposed by journalists. Those rules are supposed to be abolished under the new agreement.
Zeng Li, a veteran journalist who reviews articles in-house at Southern Weekend to guard against riling the censors, said, "Now things are calming down."
"To publish a good paper is the hope of both the leaders and the staff," he added.
Hu Chunhua, the new party chief of Guangdong, China's most liberal province, helped mediate the settlement, which took shape late Tuesday, journalists said. The clash over censorship is the first big test for Mr. Hu, 49, who is considered one of the party's rising stars and a candidate to be the leader of China in a decade.
The battle at Southern Weekend also poses a challenge for the central authorities. Xi Jinping, the new party chief, made a trip to Guangdong late last year to stress the need to further open the economy. Analysts have wondered whether he might also call for greater political freedoms. Mr. Xi has made remarks, though, that underscore the need for China to remain true to its socialist roots.
Central propaganda officials appear to have taken a tough line on the censorship issue by demanding this week that the biggest news Web sites and some important publications print a scathing editorial criticizing Southern Weekend that was originally published by Global Times, a populist newspaper, and widely derided by Chinese journalists. The order to run the editorial led to the crisis at Beijing News on Tuesday night.
One journalist described the scene in the office in a blog post: "Some people look sad; some burst into tears; some shout that they are going to quit; some look serious."
The post continued: "We don't want to kneel down, but our knees have been shattered. We are kneeling down this one time while gnashing our teeth."
The despondent journalists stayed in the office past 3 a.m. and tried to dispel their sorrow by drinking alcohol, the post said.
Beijing News has a reputation for serious investigative journalism. Its first editor in chief was Cheng Yizhong, a muckraking journalist who also ran Southern Metropolis Daily, which, like Southern Weekend, is owned by the Nanfang Media Group. Beijing News was brought under the direct management of the Beijing party propaganda office in 2011, in a clear a sign that senior officials were displeased with the newspaper's reporting.
One senior reporter at the newspaper said that some propaganda officials visited the office on Wednesday morning, but that no personnel changes had taken place.
In Guangzhou, a third day of protests continued Wednesday outside the headquarters of the Nanfang Media Group, with about a dozen Communist Party supporters waving red banners, Chinese flags and Mao Zedong portraits confronting advocates of free speech, some of whom denounced Communist rule.
It was unclear what would happen to Huang Can, the editor in chief of Southern Weekend, who is a party official and considered an ally of the propaganda bureau. Journalists said Mr. Huang had forced a newspaper employee to give up a password to the publication's microblog so Mr. Huang could put out a statement that the New Year's editorial had been written by the editors.
If propaganda officials abdicate their power to review articles and reporting topics at Southern Weekend, that duty would probably fall to Zhang Dongming, president of Nanfang Media Group. Mr. Zhang is a party loyalist and was once head of the provincial propaganda department's news division. Starting in late 2002, Mr. Zhang helped suppress reporting on the outbreak of SARS in Guangdong, and just months later he was installed in the media group during an editorial reshuffle.
One senior editor at Southern Weekend, Yan Lieshan, said in a telephone interview that the outcome of the negotiations might seem tentative, but journalists did not want to back senior party officials into a corner.
"Xi Jinping has begun by showing good intentions and creating an atmosphere of reform," he said. "So we don't want to push the leadership to the point where they have no room left to act. We at Southern Weekend want a result that both sides can accept."
Edward Wong reported from Guangzhou, and Jonathan Ansfield from Beijing. Mia Li contributed research from Guangzhou, and Shi Da from Beijing.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.