By PN Balji
The South China Morning Post’s digital transformation is worth watching. Its purchase by Alibaba Group two years ago and the appointment of California digital media influencer and innovator Gary Liu as the Hongkong paper’s CEO earlier this year show a sure-footed ambition to make the Post a digital powerhouse.
A media watcher said: “The product perspective, which the paper is pursuing, is the stuff that is missing in the industry.” The heart of the issue is the difference between two words: Product and content. “The Post people start the conversation by asking: What do people want? How do they want it? How can we build something that solves that need? Content people start with this: I’ll write an article and you will read it because it is good,” he explained.
It is clear that the Chinese e-commerce giant’s acquisition of the Post is where the digital story begins. An article in WAN-IFRA quotes Liu as saying: “They (Alibaba) are so far ahead of practically any other player, besides Baidu, here in Asia. And they are certainly far ahead of us. It makes no sense to try and develop on our own something that Alibaba may already have built.” It is big data and artificial intelligence that the Post is after. Liu told Wan Ifra: “I think of big data in three ways. It helps us operate the company with more precision and efficiency, it improves our user experience by making our products smarter and it contributes to a future of artificial intelligence.”
All these will only help the journalists, he said. “This will allow our journalists, who are infinitely more valuable than machines, and a limited resource, to focus on impact reporting: investigative and deep-dive journalism that elevates thought and understanding.” Such smart thinking is missing from the Singapore Press Holdings’ strategy. Instead, Singapore’s biggest newspaper company, talks vaguely about the future. “We have to convert ourselves from the news business to the insights business in digital,” CEO Ng Yat Chung told a meeting with shareholders. Nothing about content, let alone about product.
Even in the area of content, the Post is pushing ahead vigorously by jumping on to issues with a zeal of a missionary. Its stories are angled sharply and you can detect a central intelligence running through the paper. Its This Week in Asia edition is a clear sign where its priorities lie. The flavour is, of course, China. The Hongkong paper can become a place where in-depth reporting of China can be its selling point. It is early days yet, but a quick look at its China coverage show that it is on the right path.
Here’s a look at some of the headlines on China that appeared in the Post on Friday: China U-turns on coal ban amid growing outcry, North Korean airspace could be no-fly zone after Cathay plane sights missile, Why is China worried about Trump recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital? All have an energy and a must-read appeal to them. But the question is whether China will crack down on the Post if it feels the paper is getting out of hand. Liu has an indirect answer to that. He told WAN-IFRA: “Our mission is to lead the global conversation about China. We believe the world needs to understand China better…because the mass populations around the world have a narrow understanding of what China is and, more importantly, of what China’s rise means for the rest of the world.”
The skeptic will say: Let us wait and see.