Features

SCMP editor Tammy Tam: ‘Alibaba guaranteed us resources while the print industry struggles’

Nearly two years on from its controversial acquisition by Alibaba, the editor-in-chief of the South China Morning Post Tammy Tam and managing editor Brian Rhoads speak exclusively with Eleanor Dickinson about press freedom, ending the paywall and global expansion

When the South China Morning Post first announced its buyout by the Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba, many were naturally sceptical.

For the last 112 years, the Hong Kong-based newspaper had been at the forefront of Asia’s media scene, providing a rare guide to the inner-workings of China without the trappings of the Communist Party’s censorship.

However, when the US$266 million sale to the billion-dollar retail giant was announced in December 2015, many feared the move was merely a cynical ploy by Alibaba founder Jack Ma to influence editorial coverage, as well as curry favour with Beijing’s leadership – as The New York Times put it.

These allegations are nothing new to SCMP’s editor-in-chief Tammy Tam, who took over the leadership from Wang Xiangwei shortly before the Alibaba deal was announced. “There are people who worry that we have become only for China after Alibaba,” she says. “But those that have that concerns should just come to our website and read our products: they will see we are very multi-dimensional.”

Tammy Tam: “We are very multi-dimensional.”

The homepage on both SCMP’s Hong Kong and international editions indeed remains, at the time of going to press, something of a mash between local Hong Kong stories and those of the mainland. Meanwhile, any apparent skew towards Chinese politics is hardly unwarranted given the simmering tensions over North Korea, and China’s role in the ongoing global face-off.

Nevertheless, in July this year, SCMP mysteriously retracted an investigative commentary piece into a Singaporean investor with alleged links to the Chinese president due to its “multiple unverifiable insinuations”. A sceptic could be forgiven for raising an eyebrow at the decision, given its controversial subject matter and references to President Xi Jinping. However, the newspaper insists the decision was made “purely based on editorial standards”.

While at the time of the acquisition, Alibaba said it would maintain SCMP’s editorial independence, the buyout did come with its own set of strings in that the news outlet would serve as an alternative to the ‘singular thesis’ on China portrayed by the western media.

Meanwhile, even though Hong Kong’s “one country, two systems” guarantees the freedom of speech, the recent disappearance of five publishers and booksellers from Causeway Bay has prompted fears that the days of unlimited free are increasingly fading.

When pressed about whether the acquisition, and increasingly fraught political climate in Hong Kong, had led to a curb on SCMP’s reporting freedom, managing editor Brian Rhoads says: “We’re going to cover China: the good and the bad. We try to be as fair and as even-handed as possible. We’re telling the story from an inside-the-region perspective and that gives us an edge. Hong Kong still has a vibrant and free press and we’re big supporters of that.”

Brian Rhoads

At whatever potential editorial cost, it is without doubt that Alibaba has given SCMP resources that many a struggling media outlet has been crying out for. Although SCMP Group’s revenues were increasing at the time of the acquisition, its net profit had suffered a steady decline since 2011.

“This is a difficult time for whole the industry: everyone is struggling and looking for a business model,” Tam explains. “The biggest support from Alibaba is the guarantee of resources for us when other media players are tightening their budgets. We can continue to expand.”

Despite its readership in mainland China still being restricted by the foreign media firewall, SCMP now operates four self-described bureaus in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangdong and Shenzhen, and has also recently hired two reporters in the United States – based in Washington and New York – with a third hire in the pipeline. “We think Chinese-US relations are the more important bilateral relations right now. We want to bring in the US perspective on this, not just China,” she adds.

Upon the deal’s completion, one of the first moves by Alibaba was to lift SCMP’s paywall, a move that truly spearheaded the digital publication into the global sphere, says Tam.

“Both Jack and Joe [Tsai, Alibaba co-founder and executive vice chairman] told us that the reason they wanted to lift the paywall and make it free, was because there was lots of potential for SCMP to go global. But first of all we needed to reach out and reach the critical mass: if we continued to keep it as a pay-website, our traffic growth would not be as it is today.

“Now, 40 per cent of our readers are local, which means the rest are from around the world; the US is our second-largest market. We could not expect triple-digit-figure growth [from Hong Kong alone] so we had to go global. So we had to take the bold step and lift the pay-wall.”

According to Tam, SCMP’s website doubled its number of unique users in the first year after the pay wall lift. Last month, the site received nearly seven million unique views – partly on the back of Typhoon Hato – and the previous month hit six million.

Meanwhile, SCMP’s flagship daily newspaper remains stable although “not huge” in terms of readership. “With our print, we already take the market share in Hong Kong,” says Tam. “But the problem is, where is our growth. The world is getting smaller with globalisation so online is the only place for us to grow.”

Digitisation has of course the hot topic of any newsroom over the last five years. In SCMP’s case the move towards creating a digital-first title has led to more investment in video reporting, social media talent and recently an increased focus on using Facebook Live as a tool for distribution – the recent typhoon being a prime example of its use.

Last month, the company reshuffled its newsroom to create two separate print and digital teams. The print team, consisting of sub-editors, designers and print production managers, now accounts for 10 per cent of the overall newsroom. Meanwhile, everyone else, aside from photography and graphics, will operate solely on digital.

According to Rhoads, the restructure did not lead to any layoffs. In fact, he says: “We’re in the lucky position of being able to hire people. It’s rare to be in a position to be managing expanding budgets.”

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