Disconnect is a weekly column in which TIA’s Charlie Custer pokes at holes, plays devil’s advocate, or otherwise attempts to rain on the tech industry’s parade
Like most news that PR people fear could be taken poorly, the news that Alibaba is buying the South China Morning Post came late on a Friday. It’s not clear how much the company spent acquiring the paper and its assets (though I’ve seen estimates of around $100 million), but the end result is that Jack Ma and company now own SCMP.
Why is Alibaba buying a newspaper? Here’s the company’s explanation, straight from the press release:
“The South China Morning Post is unique because it focuses on coverage of China in the English language. This is a proposition that is in high demand by readers around the world who care to understand the world’s second largest economy,” said Joe Tsai, executive vice chairman of Alibaba Group. “Our vision is to expand the SCMP’s readership globally through digital distribution and easier access to content.”
But it’s not just about covering China. It’s about making China look good. In an interview with the New York Times, Mr. Tsai said that “when people don’t really understand China and have the wrong perception of China, they also have a lot of misconceptions about Alibaba […] What’s good for China is also good for Alibaba.” In fact, Alibaba even hired Eric X. Li – a Shanghai venture capitalist who is notorious for his spirited defense of China’s government and political system in English-language media – to consult on the SCMP purchase.
In other words, this is a political move. Alibaba is buying the South China Morning Post to spread a positive narrative about China. That’s a terrible idea.
To begin with, Jack Ma seems to be breaking his own advice here. He has repeatedly said that one should “love the government, but never marry it,” meaning that one should cooperate with the government but (again, these are his own words): “never do projects for [it].” But operating the South China Morning Post as a pro-China paper is essentially doing work for the government. It’s for-profit political propaganda.
Why this matters
Now, how much this will actually change things at the South China Morning Post remains to be seen. The paper was once lauded as one of the few major China-based media outlets that had the guts to report on topics mainland China’s government didn’t want covered, but since the paper was purchased by the Beijing-friendly Kuok family in the 1990s, it has seen a series of high-profile firings and departures and has increasingly been accused of pro-China bias. For example, when prominent Chinese labor rights activist Li Wangyang died under suspicious circumstances, many papers ran it as a front page story with full coverage, but SCMP – at the orders of the paper’s chief editor – ran it as a short news brief that it “buried in the back pages.”
Given that (and a litany of other similar stories), some would say that Jack Ma’s influence on the paper is likely to be minimal because the SCMP has already become a pro-China newspaper. Plus, it has a circulation of less than 100,000. As my former colleague Josh Horwitz put it: “Who cares?”
In terms of the effects on the South China Morning Post’s editorial independence, I’m inclined to agree. That ship, as they say, has already sailed. Or perhaps sunk. Alibaba isn’t likely to push the paper much closer to Beijing’s Party line because (at least according to many of its critics) it’s already pretty damn close.
The problem – and this is the big mistake Alibaba is making – is that now Alibaba becomes the scapegoat for any and every instance of pro-Beijing bias found in the paper. The next time somebody like Li Wangyang gets arrested or turns up dead and the paper buries the story, people aren’t going to be saying the SCMP is biased. They’re going to be saying Alibaba is biased. They’re going to be saying Alibaba is whitewashing political repression. They’re going to be saying that Alibaba is trying to hide China’s sins from the world.
Whatever you believe about China’s political system, this is terrible PR. Taking a side on a divisive political issue is always a risky move for a company, because you alienate some of your potential customers and partners. A few months ago, somebody who was upset about the SCMP’s slide into pro-Beijing bias (or upset about pro-Beijing media bias in general) would have no reason not to shop on Tmall. But now they do. A few months ago, someone who disagreed with Eric X. Li’s politics would have no reason to link that feeling of disagreement to Alibaba. But now they do.
This is already probably a PR loss for Alibaba, and I think the company knows it. Friday night – which is when Alibaba broke this news – is not the time you release news when you want it to get noticed. Friday night is the dumping ground for negative stories you hope will fly under the radar while people are off enjoying their weekends.
But the real issue here is how that PR loss can get compounded, repeated, and multiplied. A little bad press for buying a newspaper with a political agenda in mind? That’s the sort of thing Alibaba can shake off pretty easily. But this is a newspaper that covers China every day, and there are already lots of people watching it and comparing its coverage with that of other news media. Every time the SCMP runs a pro-China fluff piece or glosses over some negative piece of China news, people are going to blame Alibaba for it. It’s the PR gaffe that has the potential to keep on giving.
I fear that Alibaba may not be properly prepared for this. And now that the paper’s ownership is based in mainland China, it might not even have full control over how it handles potentially troublesome stories and situations. “[B]uying a newspaper, particularly in Hong Kong, could be hazardous,” Asia Society director and former Columbia University School of Journalism dean Orville Schell told the New York Times. “China is always tempted when things go wrong to take control.” And although the SCMP is located in ostensibly-autonomous Hong Kong, Alibaba is not. Will the company still have the courage to let the paper cover stories that paint China in a negative light? In the case of extremely high-profile stories, China’s government could theoretically exert a lot of pressure over Alibaba to get the coverage it wants.
Journalism does not work that way
But the biggest reason I think Alibaba’s wading into PR nightmare is that the company doesn’t seem to understand journalism. In a letter to the SCMP‘s readers, Joe Tsai attempts to assuage concerns about editorial independence by saying that:
In reporting the news, the SCMP will be objective, accurate and fair. This means having the courage to go against conventional wisdom, and taking care to verify stories, check sources and seek all viewpoints. These day-to-day editorial decisions will be driven by editors in the newsroom, not in the corporate boardroom.
That sounds great, and it’s exactly what readers want to hear. But Tsai also writes that “[Alibaba thinks] the world needs a plurality of views when it comes to China coverage. China’s rise as an economic power and its importance to world stability is too important for there to be a singular thesis.” He writes that those who question whether Alibaba’s acquisition might affect the SCMP’s editorial independence are themselves biased, “as if to say newspaper owners must espouse certain views, while those that hold opposing views are ‘unfit.’”
The implication there, in case you missed it, is that Alibaba is coming into running the SCMP with its own China “thesis” that is “opposing” the prevailing argument about China in the English language press. In simple terms: the global media is being mean to China and Alibaba intends to use the SCMP as a tool to balance the scales.
That’s a perfectly reasonable position for an individual or even a company to hold, and I certainly wouldn’t argue that there’s plenty of bias out there when it comes to China. But at least in theory, the only “thesis” driving a journalistic organization should be the thesis that the truth is worth telling. The fact that Alibaba is apparently going into this endeavor with an explicit political agenda that it wants to push suggests to me that it doesn’t care much about the goals of journalism, and is instead seeing the SCMP as something more akin to a powerful advocacy platform.
To be fair, of course, Alibaba’s far from alone there. Everyone – including journalists and editors – has bias, and that bias often seeps into media outlets, giving them an editorial slant. At poorly-run papers, that slant can be extreme. But the good ones, although they still show their biases from time to time, do their best to avoid advocating any political position in news coverage, and erect editorial structures and make hires aimed at reducing and minimizing the impact of bias on editorial coverage. In other words: a good newspaper may sometimes be biased, but it will try its damndest not to be.
Reading what Alibaba has said about the SCMP, it doesn’t sound like Alibaba is going to try to avoid bias. Instead, it seems like it may be heading into the endeavor with the intentional plan of producing biased coverage aimed at offsetting the biased coverage produced by the Western media. But two wrongs don’t make a right, nor do they make any actual change in perceptions of China.
If we believe Alibaba’s narrative about the existing coverage of China and about its plans, then future readers will essentially be given the choice between the pro-China-biased SCMP and the anti-China-biased Western media. Given that kind of choice, people virtually always choose the perspective they already agree with (think Fox News vs. MSNBC in the US), which means nobody’s mind gets changed.
That means that Alibaba will be taking on all the PR risk I described above for nothing. Its chances of actually changing Western hearts and minds when it comes to China are very, very slim. But in the process of accomplishing nothing, it’s opening itself up to huge PR risk by taking a political stance and aligning itself with an ideological perspective that can become a lightning rod for criticism whenever the wrong sort of news breaks.
Jack Ma is a man who’s known for making gutsy calls that turn out to be correct, and this could be one of them. But I fear that instead, it may become a black mark on Alibaba’s reputation that the company will have trouble shaking off as it continues to expand outside of China’s borders and into places where the pro-China narrative simply doesn’t sell well.
This post was originally published on Tech in Asia.