SCMP: Ma survives cloying interview but has no idea how to fix business

The SCMP’s ‘exclusive’ interview with new boss Jack Ma is exactly as you’d expect.

Screenshot 2016-04-21 16.59.02The one highlight is the unintentional lulz from writer Chow Chungyan, who declared that the acquisition had sparked fears that the Post would “change its direction.”  That is 100% wrong; people feared it wouldn’t change course. He adds:

A few even believed the paper might henceforth gloss over sensitive or controversial issues that risked incurring the wrath of the Chinese leadership.

To prove that the Post wasn’t in the glossing over business, the writer refrains from asking about the Panama Papers coverage, the steady decline in press freedom and the bookseller abductions and instead lets Ma to treat us to banalities about eastern philosophy.

Ma’s views on SCMP replicate what we heard from COO Joseph Tsai four months ago – essentially coded messages to assure Beijing that Alibaba is with the programme.  Hence the boilerplates about helping the world “understand China”and being a “connector” between east and west.

So far so normal. But what’s striking is that despite his technology smarts, Ma seems to have no idea about how to improve SCMP as a business.  Ma and Tsai have talked a good game about how Alibaba’s geeks would bring new ideas to the troubled newspaper operation. So far their only contribution has has been to drop the paywall at a time when almost every major newspaper brand is working on some mix of free and paid (the exception being the loss-making Guardian).

Ma’s one specific idea is this privacy-invading nonsense:

“With its access to Alibaba’s resources, data and all the relationships in our ecosystem, the Post can report on Asia and China more accurately compared with other media who have no such access,” he said.

The generous interpretation is Alibaba’s databases might throw up some fresh China economy stories, but they are surely not a meaningful source of information about ‘Asia’. Besides, what businesses are going to remain in Alibaba’s “ecosystem” if it means they’re going to be visited by Hong Kong reporters?  And how are people going to feel about their private data being exposed to the media?

The one thing Alibaba can do is tip a bucket of cash into the SCMP and encourage editors and reporters to chase good stories.

That isn’t going to happen. Instead we get this: the nation’s all-powerful leader expands his job description even further and the Post cheerfully reports it thus:

Screenshot 2016-04-21 10.36.25

The worst thing about self-censoring media is not the information it fails to provide, but that its timorous spirit prevents people from facing truths. A society can’t solve its problems if it can’t ask itself hard questions. Under Alibaba the Post has become fully enmeshed in China’s culture of sycophancy, accentuating the positive, obscuring the awkward, avoiding the sensitive.

If that doesn’t convince, this item on ‘10 surprising reasons to visit Hong Kong‘ comes up with this desperate gem:

Screenshot 2016-04-21 10.48.31

In the happy world of the Post, MTR rage over a bowel movement is a tourist magnet.

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