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South China Morning Post CEO: ‘News outlets need to be tech companies – or become irrelevant’

The recently-installed chief executive officer of the South China Morning Post has said struggling news media owners should be “committed to becoming technology and product companies” or risk becoming obsolete.

“We no longer live in a world where we can create one story and expect it to be everywhere.”

Gary Liu, who joined the Hong Kong-based daily last year, said newsrooms that fail to think like tech companies will become “irrelevant, arguing that would be “really bad for the world”.

Formerly the head of content aggregator Digg and Spotify Lab, Liu said that the Alibaba-owned news outlet now employed 120 people in its research and product development division – a tenth of the title’s overall workforce.

Speaking during the World Association of Newspapers conference in Singapore, he said: “If we as news companies are not committed to becoming technology and product companies, there is no reason for us to continue.

“What the editorial product is is the intersection of that news gathering – the path of journalism that you must protect at all costs – and understanding how consumer behaviour work today. If you’re not a technology company as a news organisation, then you will become increasingly irrelevant. And that’s really bad for the world.”

Discussing the English-language title’s shift in strategy, Liu revealed that platforms and not SCMP homepage had now become the top priority for the product team.

“If we’re lucky, 30 per cent of our unique views come to [the homepage],” he said. “But we are going to see less and less of that percentage as we grow in scale. So the first product [the team] are showing me is the Google search page; or they show me the Facebook or the Twitter news feed. Or they’re showing me what it looks like when shared on Whatsapp or WeChat. Then they show me the news journey from that point of discovery through the rest of the product.

“We no longer live in a world where we can create one story and expect it to be everywhere because every distribution platform is a different product. But I think we should aspire to get to place where your journalists and editors publish once and then the technology can re-assmble that story in different ways with different platforms.

“If we’re thinking of every platform as a different editorial product, then we have to be thinking about that user journey. We have not one demographic anymore: we have dozens. And our editorial products has to serve every single one of them.”

 

Asked whether the reliance on third-party referrals had made SCMP a “slave to each platform”, the 34-year-old added: “The reality of the world we live in is that we have to work with them.

“Millennials are in their 30s now. We talk about Generation Z most of the time… They are spending eight hours online a day of their own accord. Fifty-two per cent of their time is smartphones – and there are three apps they spend their time on:Facebook, YouTube and SnapChat in the US.

“So yes we can point fingers at platforms and say, ‘it’s your fault our industry is dying’. But that means we’re not listening to our consumers: we don’t realise they’ve already made a choice. If we don’t work with these platforms and figure out a way as a news industry to hold ourselves accountable in this new consumption market, we are going to fail. Friend or enemy, we just have to learn to live together.” 

Following Alibaba’s US$266 million purchase of SCMP nearly two years ago, the title has made heavy investments in transforming itself from just a Hong Kong daily news site to a global media company.

The acquisition saw the removal of the site’s paywall, expansion into mainland China with bureaus in Shanghai, Guangdong and Shenzhen and the appointment of two US-based reporters in Washington and New York.

In a recent interview with Mumbrella Asia, SCMP editor Tammy Tam said the acquisition had “guaranteed” the title resources while other newspapers continue to struggle. 

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