Alibaba founder on buying spree in China's media sector

Reported interest in HK's South China Morning Post follows other high-profile investments

Mr Jack Ma stepped down as Alibaba CEO in 2013 and is now its chairman.
Mr Jack Ma stepped down as Alibaba CEO in 2013 and is now its chairman.

Chinese e-commerce mogul Jack Ma's reported interest in buying Hong Kong's South China Morning Post (SCMP) has captured global attention, but his Alibaba Group's 20-plus investments in mainland China's media sector since 2013 have also caused quite a stir.

His buying spree, which has sparked comparison between him and Australia-born media mogul Rupert Murdoch, began with an 18 per cent stake Alibaba took in the Sina Weibo microblog in 2013.

Other headline-grabbing moves include the takeover of video streaming giant Youku Tudou this month, in a deal believed to be worth a total of US$4.8 billion (S$6.8 billion), and a US$240 million stake in Huayi Brothers film studio late last year.

Alibaba, which now has a 32 per cent stake in Weibo, is also reportedly seeking to buy out online media firm Sina Corp, the parent of Weibo.

Most of the 24 investments, based on media reports, are in social media tools, video-streaming sites, online news portals and film. Only four are in traditional media firms like newspapers and magazines, and none appears to come close to the 112-year-old SCMP in stature.

  • Jack Ma's key media buys

  • April 2013: Takes up an 18 per cent stake, worth US$586 million (S$827 million), in Sina Weibo, China's Twitter-like microblog portal. Alibaba now holds a 32 per cent stake in Weibo.

    April 2013: Invests in eBusiness Review, a Chinese print publication modelled after the Harvard Business Review.

    March 2014: Makes a US$280 million investment in US-based messaging app Tango.

    March 2014: Pays US$800 million to buy Hong Kong-based ChinaVision and renames it as Alibaba Pictures Group, which invests in this year's Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation film.

    April 2014: Invests US$1.05 billion along with partners in Wasu Media, a state-backed digital content provider.

    April 2014: Invests US$1.22 billion in Youku Tudou video-streaming site. Agrees in November this year to pay a further US$3.6 billion to take over the site.

    June 2014: An Alibaba subsidiary reportedly purchases a 40 per cent stake worth 1 million yuan (S$221,000) in Huxiu, one of China's leading technology and business blogs.

    November 2014: Invests in a US$240 million stake in the Huayi Brothers film studio.

    March 2015: Invests 2.4 billion yuan in Beijing Enlight Media, one of China's leading TV and film producers.

    May 2015: Invests in Beijing Youth Community Daily.

    June 2015: Invests US$193 million in China Business Network, a Bloomberg-like financial news and data provider.

    September 2015: Alibaba partners with financial magazine Caixin and the Xinjiang government to launch Wujie Media, an online news provider.

    October 2015: Alibaba partners with the parent company of domestic newspaper Sichuan Daily to form an online media company.

    Kor Kian Beng

Still, it is a remarkable about-turn for Mr Ma, who told a reporter four years ago that he was not keen on media ownership as it is linked to politics, said the Wall Street Journal.

Analysts believe that commercial considerations are the key reasons for Alibaba's investments, especially those in social and online media firms.

Mr Ma, who stepped down as chief executive officer in 2013 and is now Alibaba chairman focusing on strategy, said he believes there could be better synergy between media outlets and businesses that work with Alibaba, such as retailers on its e-commerce portals.

Speaking to Bloomberg TV earlier this month about his investments, he said the media can help small and medium-sized companies in promoting their products, while the "huge" advertising dollar gathered from the businesses can in turn help the media.

"And the media can definitely, using our data, tell the economy in an accurate way," he added.

Other commercial considerations cited include securing its own media platforms to shape public opinion or the image of Alibaba, cutting advertising costs and boosting revenue through increased interaction with readers and viewers.

Analyst Cai Ling of the CIConsulting industry research firm said Alibaba is playing catch-up with the other two Chinese Internet giants - Baidu search engine and Tencent media group - in the media sector.

Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent are referred to as BAT in China.

"Alibaba's strategy is to rapidly buy up media outlets to make up for its weakness," she told The Sunday Times. She said Alibaba, which has cornered some 80 per cent of China's e-commerce market, is also sitting on a valuable repository of big data material that it believes could be better used through its media platforms.

Analysts say investing in Sina Weibo reflects Alibaba's aim of boosting its social media presence against that of its competitors. Tencent's Wechat instant-messaging tool and its electronic wallet function are also seen as a rival to Alibaba's Alipay online-payment tool.

But some analysts say there is no discernible pattern nor method to Alibaba's expansion into the media and related sectors, judging by the diverse nature and scale of its investments.

A clue could come from Mr Ma's reply during an interview in July on why he has entered the film industry. "Whichever sector Alibaba enters, it is because it is something China needs 10 years later. If something is already hot now, our principle is not to invest in it," he said.

The buying of traditional media proves to be a more intriguing move by Mr Ma, whose wealth stands at around US$22.5 billion. His interest in SCMP has been likened to Amazon founder Jeff Bezos' purchase of the Washington Post in 2013.

Bloomberg technology reporter Brad Stone said in an interview that it smacks of "arrogance" on Alibaba's part that it believes it could revive the newspaper sector that has seen declining profitability due to challenges from online and social media.

Others believe politics is another factor, particularly returning the favour to the government for its policy support in Alibaba's early years that has allowed it to become a world leader in e-commerce.

Mr Cai Wei, president of SAIC Capital Internet consultancy and a former journalist, said Mr Ma may be responding to Chinese President Xi Jinping's calls last year for the establishment of new media firms "that have strength, communication capacity, credibility and are influential".

Speaking to officials at a closed- door retreat, Mr Xi reportedly said the new groups should be "diversified, advanced and competitive" and the relevant state authorities should properly integrate and manage traditional and new media.

"Jack Ma's investments into media groups could be seen as fulfilling that responsibility, and we could see more of such investments," Mr Cai told The Sunday Times. "In a way, BAT's development today has had to do with the government's policy support. They have an obligation to respond when the government calls."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 29, 2015, with the headline Alibaba founder on buying spree in China's media sector. Subscribe