Alibaba buys South China Morning Post Group’s media business, pledges to uphold editorial independence and remove paywall

PUBLISHED : Friday, 11 December, 2015, 8:52pm
UPDATED : Monday, 29 August, 2016, 10:43am

Alibaba Group, China's e-commerce giant, has bought the South China Morning Post and all other media assets from the SCMP Group, and has pledged to uphold editorial independence and to invest to strengthen the quality of the content.

The acquisition, for an undisclosed amount, would combine Alibaba’s digital strength with SCMP’s editorial excellence, paving the way for the 112-year-old newspaper to transform into a global media entity covering China for readers around the world, said Joseph Tsai, executive vice chairman of Alibaba Group.

"SCMP is a unique property. It's the only English-language paper in Hong Kong that everybody will read... We see this as a great opportunity to create a unique product... it is for everybody who cares to know more about China and to understand it – whether you are in New York or London or anywhere where English is spoken," Tsai said in a wide-ranging interview with the Post from his Times Square office in Causeway Bay.

READ MORE: Alibaba buys the South China Morning Post: Full Q&A with executive vice chairman Joseph Tsai

He said the decade-old paywall for all SCMP news sites will come down shortly after the acquisition so that the newspaper can reach out to more readers around the world.

"Some say the newspaper industry is a sunset industry. We don’t see it that way. We see it as an opportunity to use our technological expertise and our digital assets to distribute news in a way that has never been done before," he said.

Tsai, who has been dubbed Alibaba’s rainmaker, stressed that the new owner sees maintaining content quality and readers’ trust as the key principles of the newspaper business.

"We have to have the readers’ trust. That will depend on reporting that is objective, balanced and fair. If we don’t have that trust, we cannot build up our readership. Even though we are the corporate owner, we will let the editors decide the editorial policy and direction of coverage for any story. That’s our basic principle," he said.

Tsai said that when it comes to covering China, a country of such size and importance, the world needs more than a single narrative. He said SCMP’s reputation for its objective and balanced reports on greater China will help people around the world to better understand the country, and in turn the business of Alibaba. He believes Alibaba will benefit from giving free rein to SCMP to provide objective and nuanced greater China coverage to readers globally. 

"China is a rising economy and it is the second-largest economy in the world. People should learn more about China, [but] the coverage about China should be balanced and fair," he said. "Today when I see mainstream western news organisations cover China, they cover it through a very particular lens… We believe things should be presented as they are. Present facts, tell the truth, and that is the principle that we are going to operate on."

This year, the Post won more than 100 prizes in various regional and international editorial awards, including for its coverage on the Occupy Central protests in Hong Kong and a special project on the 25th anniversary of the June 4th Tiananmen crackdown in China.

To further improve the paper’s editorial quality, Tsai pledged to invest more in the newsroom, particularly in its digital operation, but Alibaba intends to retain the print edition, acknowledging the iconic status of the broadsheet.

"We feel that what underpins success is editorial excellence. We are willing to make an investment to hire more journalists, more editors to maintain the quality of the paper and to strive for broader and more in-depth coverage. That is our commitment," he said.

Tsai said a focus on distribution via mobile devices will be a big part of Alibaba’s plans for SCMP and he believes the best way to drastically increase its digital circulation is by taking down the paywall.

"The paywall is so inconvenient, even for people who want to pay, there is friction… Why not make content more accessible to anybody who wants to come on a global basis, on a mobile app, on a mobile phone? That is our philosophy. It’s a very internet company philosophy because we believe users should not pay for service or content – the people who end up paying are advertisers who want to reach out to these users," he said.

First published on November 6 1903, the SCMP is one of the leading English-language newspapers in Asia. It was first listed on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange in 1971 and was taken private by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation in 1987. Murdoch relisted the company in 1990.

In 1993, Malaysian tycoon Robert Kuok’s Kerry Media bought a controlling interest in the SCMP.