Digg CEO Gary Liu is leaving to head up Alibaba-owned newspaper SCMP

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Digg, the former internet sensation, is losing the CEO that has nursed it back to good health. Gary Liu is flying the nest to become CEO of South China Morning Post (SCMP), the Hong Kong-based English daily newspaper and media firm that Alibaba acquired for $262 million earlier this year.

A former business development executive Spotify, Liu joined Digg as its CEO one year ago. During that period, Digg said it has tripled its revenues and grown its traffic and audience reach “materially.” The job of continuing that progress will now fall to someone else since Liu will relocate from New York to Hong Kong to take up the SCMP role from January 3. Josh Auerbach, a Digg board member and a partner with parent company Betaworks, will step in as interim CEO and lead the search for a full-time replacement.

[That’s not quite all. Anna Dubenko, Digg’s editorial director, is also departing after five years with the company. She’s moving on The New York Times where she’ll be a senior digital strategist.]

Liu’s arrival is a fascinating move for SCMP. The 113-year-old newspaper has embraced digital with a series of strategies since the Alibaba deal, which have included tearing down its paywall, enhancing its mobile apps, and preparing to integrate e-commerce.

It hasn’t all been plain-sailing, though. Alibaba was reportedly paying big bonuses to satisfy disillusioned staff, while it abruptly shuttered its Chinese language website and ran into censorship issues on the mainland. Furthermore, free speech groups have criticized Alibaba’s involvement as a proxy for the Chinese government.

Nonetheless, on the business side, bringing in Liu is a clear signal of SCMP’s intention to plough further into digital, as Liu explained himself in a blog post:

I am delighted and honored to be the South China Morning Post’s next Chief Executive Officer, joining a world-class senior team that will transform the SCMP into a leading digital media and news company, while maintaining the paper’s legacy of journalistic integrity and excellence. We are in a contentious media world where shifting consumer behaviors and platforms are redefining how news is reported, distributed, and discovered. It is both a grand challenge and an exceptional opportunity for the SCMP.

33-year-old Liu added that, as an America-Asian, he is also motivated by the opportunity to build “a global news organization that fights to bridge this communication gap and bring a balanced and nuanced understanding of Greater China to the world.”

That echoes comments from Alibaba and other key staff at the time of its investment. SCMP editor-in-chief Tammy Tam, Alibaba founder Jack Ma, and key executive Joe Tsai have all stressed that the world needs “insightful and trusted news” from China.

Former SCMP CEO Robin Hu earlier stepped down from his role after five years in order to return to his native Singapore. Liu told TechCrunch that his immediate task is to continue his predecessor’s work:

[Hu] has already committed the SCMP to digital transformation, and the Alibaba acquisition has only accelerated it. My role is to carry that transformation into its next phase. Much of the talent and infrastructure is already in place, which I am grateful for.

The executive team will spend the next few months assessing the current roadmap and strategy, as well as the marketplace, and then make any necessary shifts to position SCMP for success.

Liu had strong praise for Digg in his departure note, saying that he’ll miss the company hugely. He seems to have an appetite for a challenge. Refocusing Digg was arguably one of the most difficult opportunities in tech, and the ambitious SCMP mission — powered by Alibaba — is arguably on at least an equal footing to that.