‘It is hard for international media to understand China’s complexities’ – SCMP’s Elsie Cheung

In an interview with Mumbrella's Ravi Balakrishnan South China Morning Post chief operating officer Elsie Cheung talks about being objective in its coverage of the Hong Kong protests, the ongoing transformation to make the paper the world's window to China and why print still matters


There has been a fair degree of uncertainty on where SCMP lies when it comes to coverage of the ongoing unrest in Hong Kong. Initially the perception was that the coverage was neutral, but as we reach the fifth month, we are hearing that the centre of gravity has shifted towards the mainland. Do you have a point of view to offer on this critique? 

“First of all, I don’t represent editorial. But as part of the senior leadership, what I understand is our newsroom has been reporting the protests in a very balanced way. 

“In my personal experience though, when I speak with people who are pro-protestor, they think we are speaking for the government. While my pro-government friends think we speak for the other side.

“The situation is serious – society is so divided that people will only consider you are on their side, if you are writing for them. My personal conclusion is that we are pretty balanced. People on both sides are angry. 

“The fundamentals of independent journalism is that you report the truth. You are giving voice to both parties – that’s what we have been doing. 

“In some situations, news appears on our site later than elsewhere. And that’s because we check everything. It’s a balancing act that our newsroom colleagues have to do on a daily basis.  When you receive a sentimental video, you want to be sure it is real, before you put it up.” 

When you repositioned, you wanted the paper to be a window to the world when it comes to China. Typically, audiences seeking a global perspective rely on papers like The New York Times or The Guardian. So how do you plan on getting those looking for a perspective to gravitate towards SCMP?

“Our mission is to lead the global conversation on China. We came up with it because clearly the world needs to understand China better. This is our big bet on information that the world will be looking for in the next decade or two, with the growing influence of China.

“The world is not as simple as before. We have the US threatened by the rise of China. If the two large economies of the world are not understanding or talking to each other, all of us get affected. 

“The New York Times, The Guardian, Washington Post – all report on China very diligently and have been doing a great job. But they report with a western perspective.

“What the SCMP can offer is a different perspective. We are part of China and understand things like ‘one country two systems’ very well. Because of that, we have the freedom to report on Hong Kong. It’s an insider perspective – a unique story that no other news organisation can offer.

“Reporting on China needs resources and intelligence. We have the opportunity and access that our global peers may lack. And while they may send people to China, it is harder for them to understand its complexities.  

“Our scale is a fraction of The New York Times. We are smaller than The Guardian but are catching up. We understand that we won’t be a mass world newspaper that reports on everything. Our editorial focus will always be China, but there are many focus areas that we can offer: its politics, culture, military, technology and business.

“When it comes to readership, 32% comes from the United States; 30% from Asia; Hong Kong is at 10%  and the rest of the world at 28%.” 

Newspapers are a very challenged business in most of the world. How have you dealt with the threats to the business? The Straits Time, for instance, seems to be doubling down on real estate. Do you have separate business model like that or are you relying on the core?

“We focus our investment and energy in our core business – telling stories. We do not have a different business venture. 

“With the investment Alibaba put in a few years ago, we expanded our editorial resources and newsroom which had been previously under-staffed. 

“We strengthened the content in China reporting – especially our coverage of technology since it had traditionally not been well covered – unlike the stories about Silicon Valley tech companies in the USA.

“We have invested in content and production, with very positive results. We see 4X to 5X growth in monthly average users. 

“Our investment in video has increased exponentially. 

“With that foundation and more users coming to the site, our revenue opportunities have expanded. In Hong Kong as a traditional paper, we only  got local clients. But now we are a global news organisation based out of Hong Kong.”

What sort of difference has being backed by Alibaba made? 

“The first thing Alibaba did when they acquired us was to remove the paywall. They believe if we open our content, more people will come in, and advertising will follow. 

“And so, we have a clear objective to build scale and have made investments in ad tech. Though we know that programmatic CPM is not good compared to more engaging formats, it is the volume that we need. 

“Also on the revenue side, we have launched a branded content offering called Morning Studio. It is unique, since it is editorially backed. 

“We are quite clear that advertising and branded content alone is still not enough to fund expensive journalism. We are looking at reader revenue. 

“At this stage, we don’t have a concrete plan to start a paywall again. But whether we charge users or not, we want to build engagement and loyalty. If they are not a regular user, it will not help our ad business.”

What’s the status of your print product?

“A decade ago, our print circulation was over 100,000 copies and that number persists today at 105,000 in Hong Kong. Our print is a premium product and we serve a very niche business executive or expat audience. 

“That group of loyal users are still there. It declines by 1% or 2% a year, but the circulation is still stable. 

“We used to see a slump in copies when we raised the price, but for the last few years, we haven’t seen that decline. 

“Print still a significant portion of our revenue, with advertising from a lot of premium marketers. They are declining but still significant.”

“The reason is simple: the print price and yield is always higher than digital ad dollars. “Compound that with the removal of paywall print is still significant. 

“Digital advertising yield which was always low when compared to print is getting lower still due to the abundance of ad inventory which has been commoditised. Besides, Google and Facebook are capturing the largest part of growth. It’s a harsh reality we face since they are more efficient than us due to their scale and ability to target users.”

What are your plans for the print product considering the age and demographics of your readers mean they simply won’t be around for much longer?

“It is a fact that the audience of our print product are more mature. We do not have a solid plan right now. We always discuss our position knowing there will be fewer readers. And so what sort of a product do we need to build for a loyal smaller high end influential group?

“On the online version, we have been quite successful in getting  younger readers in. Thanks to social media and the protests, our online users have doubled. We are also contemplating a product for the younger aspirational audiences the young people will also read a print paper.

“We don’t know if this will work – these are just ideas. We’ve not thought of giving up print, but instead are thinking of the product we should build and what the audience will be like.” 

How are you approaching programmatic? Do you have a media exchange of your own like SPH and Mediacorp have in Singapore or are you contemplating getting into that space? 

“We don’t have a programmatic network among our publishers. I don’t know why – the Hong Kong publishers don’t talk to each other much. Because we are English and the others are Chinese, the opportunities to work together are smaller than say between SPH and Mediacorp. 

“We would not consider a similar ad network in Hong Kong. Instead, we are looking to Asia. “There are many more English language premium websites that we try to work with. The opportunity in Asia for an ad network is much higher. We are part of the Asia-Pacific committee of WAN IFRA. 

“It has major publications like SPH, Mediacorp and the Philippines Inquirer. We trying to see if there’s an opportunity there.”


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