Alibaba's deal to buy SCMP confirmed; ambitious plans for top China coverage

Chinese tech mogul and Alibaba founder Jack Ma has big plans for the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post, which has seen its earnings and circulation falter against the onslaught of online rivals.
Chinese tech mogul and Alibaba founder Jack Ma has big plans for the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post, which has seen its earnings and circulation falter against the onslaught of online rivals.PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

The world's biggest e-commerce company, Alibaba, is buying one of Asia's oldest newspapers, the South China Morning Post (SCMP), with ambitions to make the 112-year-old publication a "global media entity covering China for readers around the world".

The deal between Chinese tech mogul Jack Ma's outfit and Malaysian "sugar king" Robert Kuok's family, which has controlled SCMP since 1993, was signed last night, confirming weeks of widespread speculation.

In a filing to the Hong Kong Stock Exchange, SCMP Group announced that it has entered into an agreement over the sale of its media assets to an Alibaba subsidiary.

Besides the flagship newspaper, the deal includes the magazine, recruitment, outdoor media, events and conferences, education and digital media businesses, said SCMP Group chairman David Pang.

The price was not disclosed. SCMP Group has a market value of about HK$3 billion (S$540 million).

The sale is subject to the fulfilment of certain conditions, including regulatory approval.

The move by Alibaba echoes the purchase of The Washington Post by Amazon founder Jeffrey Bezos in 2013. And, like Mr Bezos, who has sought to rejuvenate the American masthead with e-commerce tactics, Mr Ma has big plans for the Hong Kong-based SCMP, which has seen its earnings and circulation falter against the onslaught of online rivals.

In an interview with SCMP uploaded last night, Alibaba executive vice-chairman Joseph Tsai sketched out a vision that positions the paper as one that provides top coverage "for anybody who cares to know more about China".

"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.

The newspaper's paywall, for instance, will go down, to reach more readers. There will be more investments in the newsroom, particularly in digital operations, he added.

All this means an infusion of resources from the New York-listed Alibaba, now worth about US$200 billion (S$281 billion). It should also see partnerships with existing holdings.

While it is mostly known for its marketplace Taobao and payment method Alipay, the conglomerate has acquired stakes in Chinese social media sites Youku Tudou and Sina Weibo. This year, it ventured into news media, investing in China Business Network, a financial news and data provider, and partnering financial magazine Caixin to launch an online news provider.

There could also be synergy with search engine Yahoo, which owns about 15 per cent of Alibaba.

Owning an influential albeit fading English-language newspaper is probably catnip for a former English school teacher in Hangzhou, who 16 years ago started Alibaba with 17 friends in his apartment.

But politics likely played a role too. And one question mark over SCMP's future is whether the paper would see its editorial independence compromised by having an owner with links to the Beijing leadership and whose business interests depend on those connections.

Another issue is Mr Ma's relationship with the newspaper's editors. In 2013, he had a run-in with the paper when he claimed he was misquoted by a reporter over controversial comments on the 1989 Tiananmen incident. Mr Ma reportedly described the late Chinese strongman Deng Xiaoping's actions against protesters in Tiananmen Square - believed to have led to at least hundreds of deaths - as "the most correct decision" at the time. He later said the remarks as reported did not reflect what he told the reporter. The newspaper stood by the report.

In a nod to such concerns, Mr Tsai pledged that editorial independence will be upheld. But he also made clear that SCMP will provide an alternate narrative to the Western media's view of China.

"Present facts, tell the truth - that is the principle that we are going to operate on," he said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 12, 2015, with the headline 'Alibaba's deal to buy SCMP confirmed; ambitious plans for top China coverage'. Print Edition | Subscribe