China’s ambitious internet, finance and media group Alibaba has delivered on its promise to pull down the paywall of the South China Morning Post, arguably still the best English language daily newspaper in Asia.
But the jury remains out on what the purchase of a title that delivers the broadest and deepest coverage of the People’s Republic of China by a mainland based company for the first time, will mean for continuing coverage of the Communist regime.
In some ways, Albiba’s purchase has echoes of the purchase of the Washington Post by Amazon founder and chief Jeff Bezos in 2015 for US$250 million: something of a vanity buy by an internet billionaire, in the shape of Alibaba founder and chairman Jack Ma
In Bezos’ case, the move into media was very much one of passion, aimed at saving a storied masthead in an environment where traditional media businesses, led by newspapers, are collapsing.
It is all but certain that network television stations are next.
Criticism of the SCMP, which was founded in 1903, has been slowly mounting since it was purchased from Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp.
It’s worth noting that Alibaba, which incidentally runs China’s biggest version of Amazon in the shape of T-Mall, already has media interests.
It has a film unit (the Alibaba Pictures Group) and a video streaming service. It certainly appears that Mr Ma, not content with being China’s e commerce king, has his sights on becoming a global media mogul.
What remains unknown is how much Ma will kowtow to the Communist Party authorities in Beijing. He is certainly in the ‘in’ list, but the truth is that wealthy Chinese businessmen who don’t pander to the party often find themselves in jail. So he will know on which side his bread is buttered.
That the SCMP has been pulling its punches for a while – not all the time but increasingly – on mainland coverage. And given the increasing grip that Chinese authorities are taking on Hong Kong, underscored by brutal murder attempts on at least two Chinese language media executives, it will continue to do so.
Many Hong Kong locals fear it will become nothing much ore than another Communist Party rag.
Yet one former senior manager at the SCMP who spoke to InnovationAus.com was more upbeat, positing that the publication remains blocked in mainland China, like every growing number of foreign media sites.
It would be a shame if Ma trashed the Alibaba brand – and this would more be by accident of not understanding Western media than by design. Successful people don’t set out to destroy businesses, for one thing their egos don’t allow it.
Instead he should take a leaf from Mr Bezos’ book who has proven that internet experts have plenty to offer traditional media brands.
Mr Bezos leaves the editorial to the experts and has focused on improving the papers’ digital sites and user experience. This has lead to an upsurge in readers and the Washington Post has now past the New York Times for monthly page views, that’s some effort.
[With the paywall taken down today] our focus now should not be on finding the right media business model. Our priority should be on how we should change to better adapt to the reading habits of our readers,” Ma said with the announcement of the paywall removal and a suite of new apps. “This is what we need to do as the media industry transforms for the future.”
So , for now, he is on the right track.
Finally, it’s worth mentioning that Alibaba has quietly set up an Australian office appointing a business development manager, with marketing and communications chief coming onboard in May, but its plans are, as yet, unknown.
You can bet that Mr Ma won’t be stopping at ecommerce.