In a move reminiscent of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos' $250 million buyout of The Washington Post, Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba has confirmed that it's agreed to buy Hong Kong English-language newspaper the South China Morning Post. The deal is worth just over HK$2 billion, or about $266 million, and includes other SCMP Group properties like the Hong Kong editions of Cosmopolitan and Esquire.
While Bezos has taken a hands-off approach to The Washington Post's newsroom, some have expressed fears that SCMP may see compromising changes under Jack Ma's (above) Alibaba. The company says its purchase was "fueled by a desire to improve China's image and offer an alternative to what it calls the biased lens of Western news outlets," according to The New York Times.
"The world needs a plurality of views when it comes to China coverage."
Executive vice-chairman Joseph Tsai attempted to address the criticism. "Some have suggested that ownership by Alibaba will compromise the SCMP's editorial independence," Tsai wrote in an open letter to SCMP readers. "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," Tsai added. "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 SCMP will be objective, accurate and fair."
It's unclear how exactly this will play out in practice. While the SCMP isn't considered to have an anti-Beijing editorial stance, it has published its share of stories that the state-run mainland Chinese media would outright ignore. The paper was noted for its strong coverage of the widespread protests in Hong Kong last year, for example, and reported on the annual vigil to commemorate the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989.
Perhaps the SCMP's biggest international exposure came when it interviewed Edward Snowden while he was in Hong Kong following the publication of his NSA disclosures. Tsai says Alibaba's vision is to further "grow the readership globally," and to that end the company will remove the paper's paywall after taking it over. Whether the tenor of that content has changed by then, however, will be down to Alibaba.