Alibaba has jumped into the news business after the Chinese company confirmed on Friday that it has agreed to acquire the South China Morning Post (SCMP) following weeks of rumors. The Hong Kong-based newspaper and SCMP Group’s other assets, which includes local editions of Esquire and Elle, will cost Alibaba a little over HK$2 billion — around US$262 million — according to a regulatory filing.
Alibaba didn’t disclose the cost of the deal when it was announced late on Friday — at nearly 9pm China time to be precise. That’s an awfully suspicious time, and it suggests that the e-commerce giant was trying to avoid creating headlines with this deal.
Why would Alibaba want to bury this news, or at least minimize the coverage? Many reasons, most of which are fairly obvious. Corporate companies owning media is a dicey topic at best — case in point: Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ purchase of the Washington Post — but when you throw China into the mix, the waters are further muddied.
For its part, Alibaba tried to make its intentions clear.
In a letter to SCMP readers, Alibaba executive chairman Joe Tsai said that the company would not exert pressure on the paper’s work, but instead intends to use its resources and digital savvy ” to take the SCMP to the next level.”
In particular, Tsai argued, there’s a need for stronger coverage of China:
Some have suggested that ownership by Alibaba will compromise the SCMP’s editorial independence. This criticism reflects a bias of its own, as if to say newspaper owners must espouse certain views, while those that hold opposing views are “unfit.”
In fact, that is exactly why we think the world needs a plurality of views when it comes to China coverage. China’s rise as an economic power and its importance to world stability is too important for there to be a singular thesis.
In reporting the news, the SCMP will be objective, accurate and fair. This means having the courage to go against conventional wisdom, and taking care to verify stories, check sources and seek all viewpoints. These day-to-day editorial decisions will be driven by editors in the newsroom, not in the corporate boardroom.
The problem here is that SCMP, which is over 100 years old and often viewed as an indicator of press freedom levels in Hong Kong, already faces criticism for shaping its coverage of China with a more positive stance than other outlets.
Once believed to be the most profitable newspaper in the world, SCMP has been accused of burying news that it is sensitive to authorities in Beijing. An Al Jazeera report last August suggested that “the paper’s editorial line on China is looking more and more as if it was crafted in Beijing.”
It is not uncommon for media to be accused of bias, every human on earth has opinions and, as journalists, they can shape the nature of storytelling. But the accusations levied against SCMP are most substantial than that.
So, enter Alibaba. A corporation that would clearly like the world to know more about China — and, if possible, think better about the country.
Tsai put it best himself in a New York Times interview.
“What’s good for China is also good for Alibaba,” he is quoted as saying.
That — as Tech In Asia pointed out — puts Alibaba in a troubling and seemingly no-win situation. Last year, readers could complain that apparent bias in a story was down to SCMP’s editorial position. But now, under its new ownership, Alibaba will bear the brunt of criticism. Irrespective of whether it is influencing editorial decisions, that situation would reflect poorly on the company which would be seen to be currying favor and distorting realities. Very unattractive qualities for a company that is listed in the U.S.
Alibaba has been in the media business a while with Alibaba Pictures, a sports group, an investment in Chinese media firm CBN, a pending deal to buy Youku Tudou — China’s largest video streaming site — and a Netflix-like streaming service, but this is its most controversial venture yet.
As for immediate actions, Alibaba has said it will lift the paper’s digital paywall — which set a limit to the number of stories a non-paying reader could view each month — while it has also cancelled SCMP’s proposed acquisition of e-commerce startup MyDress. That deal, which was announced in October, was to be a pivot to help make money from commerce services but, thanks to Alibaba’s deep pockets, it has been deemed unnecessary.
Note: This post was updated to clarify that Jeff Bezos, not Amazon, bought the Washington Post.