The Straits Times says

SCMP sale a sign of the times

The decision of the Chinese Internet giant, Alibaba, to buy the South China Morning Post (SCMP) is no more exceptional than the sale of The Washington Post to Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. They both are market transactions that seek to marry the digital expertise of the parent company with the rich editorial heritage of the newspaper.

Amazon's ability to use the economic potential of the Internet to turn around the fortunes of the American newspaper -

"I did know something about the Internet," Mr Bezos declared wryly - underlines the appearance of a business model that could be replicated with the 112-year-old SCMP, once the world's most profitable newspaper.

The way ownership of media icons is passing to online companies is an indication of a new world media order in the making. Any enlargement of the digital frontier helps the financial resilience of newspapers, which have grown out of the print era of communication. Wealthy investors who can ride out the advertising industry's volatile moods are a boon to newspapers dependent on print advertising. In particular, the ability to develop related digital media products creates synergy between leaders in e-commerce and traditional media outlets and allows newspapers to tap the vast market in online advertising. The widening horizons of the digital era are apparent in other ways as well, such as Apple News and Instant Articles, a new way for publishers to distribute stories on Facebook. Imagination and innovation are driving the technology of the media industry perhaps as never before.

In this context, Alibaba's expertise, especially in mobile Internet, gives it an edge in leveraging technology to create media content more efficiently for a new generation of Hong Kong readers of the SCMP. Alibaba has denied that it is in talks to buy the leading Chinese-language daily, Ming Pao. Had the sale occurred, the mainland giant would have entrenched its media footprint in Hong Kong further. However, even with the SCMP, it is set to play a major role in the evolution of the media landscape in the Special Administrative Region.

Suggestions that Alibaba's hand was swayed by political considerations are less important than what it intends to do with the SCMP. It has promised to uphold standards at the paper by ensuring that day-to-day editorial directions are taken in the newsroom, not in the corporate boardroom. There is good reason for Alibaba to preserve the SCMP's autonomy: Its profitability will depend on its credibility. Compromising journalistic integrity for corporate reasons is at best a short-term advantage that leads to eventual decline. The shrewd business instincts behind Alibaba would recognise readily the importance of credibility to the SCMP, particularly in a competitive journalistic environment such as Hong Kong's.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 23, 2015, with the headline 'SCMP sale a sign of the times'. Print Edition | Subscribe