E-commerce giant Alibaba buys South China Morning Post.

Why Does Alibaba, China’s Answer to Amazon, Want to Own a Newspaper?

Why Does Alibaba, China’s Answer to Amazon, Want to Own a Newspaper?

Moneybox
A blog about business and economics.
Dec. 11 2015 2:44 PM

Why Does Alibaba, China’s Answer to Amazon, Want to Own a Newspaper?

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Alibaba Group Executive Chairman Jack Ma speaks at a trade fair in Hanover, Germany.

Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images

The South China Morning Post is Hong Kong’s biggest and perhaps most influential English-language newspaper. Because it doesn't face the censorship controls faced by mainland Chinese media, it has been able to build reputation for critical reporting on key political issues that state-run media outlets are prohibited from covering. Today, the 112-year-old daily calls itself “the trusted platform on China.”

And now it’s about to be owned by one of China’s biggest companies.

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E-commerce giant Alibaba announced Friday plans to buy the media assets of the SCMP Group, including the Morning Post. The big concern? Alibaba is known for its close connections to the Chinese government. As the Washington Post explains, the company “has over the years built and maintained strong relations with the Chinese government by positioning its e-commerce businesses as aiding Beijing in achieving its economic goals of creating jobs and helping businesses.” The company will be the first owner of the paper with a mainland Chinese background.

The deal, which has been in the works for more than a year, is worrisome to those who value the paper’s objectivity and critical reporting on China. Alibaba has pledged to let the Post keep its tradition of editorial independence and stressed that its ambition is to improve the world’s understanding of China and maintain trust with readers. In an interview with the South China Morning Post published Friday morning, Joseph Tsai, executive vice chairman of Alibaba Group, said:

Our perspective is this: China is important, China is a rising economy. It is the second-largest economy in the world. People should learn more about China. The coverage about China should be balanced and fair. Today when I see mainstream western news organisations cover China, they cover it through a very particular lens. It is through the lens that China is a communist state and everything kind of follows from that. 

Tsai said Alibaba plans to scrap the Post’s paywall to make the newspaper more accessible to a global audience. In addition, he has promised to invest more in the paper’s editorial team, particularly its digital operations. “Even though some say the newspaper industry is a sunset industry, we don't see it that way,” he said. “We see it as an opportunity to use our technological expertise, and use our digital assets and know-how to distribute news in a way that has never been done before.”

With the Post acquisition, Alibaba will extend its tentacles and influence far beyond film and e-commerce. But this is only the latest in Alibaba’s recent string of high-profile buys. Before its IPO filing in 2014—one of the biggest in America history—it bought stakes in companies including microblogging service Weibo, China Vision Holdings, American ride-hailing service Lyft, and app developer Peel Technologies. That same year, it bought Chinese mobile Internet firm UCWeb and purchased a 25 percent stake in Hong Kong–based Intime Retail. Last February, it acquired a $590 million stake in Chinese smartphone-maker Meizu.

Alibaba’s prominence and continued expansion has made it one of China’s most closely covered companies. So when they read stories about Alibaba in a newspaper owned by Alibaba, should readers be concerned about where their news is coming from? Not according to Tsai:

People don't need to worry about that. The policy should be determined by the editors on how they are going to cover, not just Alibaba but all companies. I don't think people need to worry that Alibaba may use SCMP to say good things about Alibaba. Nobody will believe it. 

Rachel E. Gross is the science web editor at Smithsonian.