Alibaba’s expanding media and entertainment empire marked another milestone on Friday, with official confirmation that they have entered an agreement to purchase the media assets of SCMP Group.
The deal includes one of Hong Kong’s most influential English daily newspapers. The South China Morning post has a history of covering political and cultural topics forbidden by censored mainland outlets.
Alibaba has been steadily amassing assets in the content and entertainment industry. The SCMP marks the first editorially independent foreign publication to be added to the company’s growing portfolio.
Alibaba’s alignment with the Chinese government has sparked concern from media observers over the editorial independence of the newspaper. The SCMP has historically given intense scrutiny to China’s political and human rights situation, but has softened in recent years.
“Some have suggested that ownership by Alibaba will compromise the SCMP’s editorial independence,” said Alibaba’s Executive Vice Chairman Joseph C. Tsai said in a letter to SCMP readers. “This criticism reflects a bias of its own, as if to say newspaper owners must espouse certain views, while those that hold opposing views are ‘unfit,'” he said.
“We think 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.”
As part of the acquisition Alibaba says it will overhaul several features of the media business. The company plans to remove the newspaper’s paywall, which is currently a feature on mobile and desktop editions. Alibaba claims the strategy will allow them to “grow the readership globally.” The company gave no indication of how they would drive alternative revenue.
The purchase of the South China Morning Post marks Alibaba’s entry into the public political arena. The newspaper occupies a position on influence in Hong Kong and South East Asia where Alibaba has been seeking to extend its business interests.
In an interview with the New York Times, Mr. Tsai noted that “[Alibaba] is so rooted in China, and touches so many aspects of the Chinese economy, that when people don’t really understand China and have the wrong perception of China, they also have a lot of misconceptions about Alibaba.”
In March 2014, Alibaba bought a controlling stake in ChinaVision Media Group, an entertainment and media company also listed in Hong Kong, before rebranding the entire acquisition under Alibaba Pictures Group. ChinaVision Media Group co-manages the distribution of one of Beijing’s largest local newspapers, the Beijing Times.
The acquisition covers several other media assets including the Hong Kong editions of Esquire, Elle, Cosmopolitan, The PEAK and Harper’s Bazaar.