SCMP’s lost mission

Alibaba COO Joe Tsai was one of the big names at RISE yesterday, but if you went hoping for an insight into a media title grappling with digital, you’d have been disappointed.

There was almost nothing that we didn’t hear at the time of the acquisition, rather confirming the view that the Alibaba crew are billionaire dilettantes not terribly interested in their new media toy.

They’ve been at it for 18 months but neither Tsai nor SCMP CEO Gary Liu could share a single number about page views, ad sales or investment.

Fundamentally, they don’t seem to know what a newspaper, digital or analogue, is for.

Tsai said the Post’s mission is to tell China’s story. “It’s the greatest story in the world.” Every English speaker is a potential reader.

Wrong.

For one thing, China already has an English language daily pumping up China.

For another, telling “the story” of a country isn’t a job for newspaper. You can do that in a brochure.

A news organization is there to hold the powerful to account and to keep its readers informed and engaged.

But that role is not the only thing Alibaba has abandoned. Tsai said the first principle they jettisoned was the idea that it’s a Hong Kong publication.

“It’s a 114-year-old newspaper. How to make it relevant?” he asked. Clearly the answer is to show disdain for your readers.

Imagine the New York Times announcing it’s no longer a New York paper? Its newsroom culture has grown out of the way it reports on its own dynamic city.

People aren’t drawn to the China story. They’re drawn to actual stories. They go to the BBC or the New York Times or Guardian, or the Daily Mail for that matter, because of what they offer. None of those troubles themselves trying to tell someone else’s story.

In fairness, the logical role for the Post is to be the prime English publication for China, but it is blocked right across the mainland.

So their job is hard enough already. Why make it harder by cutting yourself off from your core audience and your core mission?

Most big media titles have concluded that the click-race is pointless and unprofitable. They figure that by erecting part paywalls and seeking subscriptions they also get closer to their primary role of serving their readers, not chasing eyeballs.

The SCMP believes it’s enough to knock down the paywall and pursue foreign readers.

The one revelation yesterday was that Alibaba doesn’t expect the Post to make any money for five years.

We should welcome a big benefactor tipping cash into a media property but so far there’s little to show for it.

Alibaba’s entry into Hong Kong media is driven by politics, not business. It looks lost.

(Cross-posted to Electric Speech)

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