Rather than question the effects on the independence of its newsroom following tech goliath Alibaba Group's acquisition of the 113-year-old South China Morning Post (SCMP), its chief executive officer Gary Liu believes it is about leveraging to remain sustainable. — Pic courtesy of Alibaba Group Facebook

KUALA LUMPUR: Rather than question the effects on the independence of its newsroom following tech goliath Alibaba Group's acquisition of the 113-year-old South China Morning Post (SCMP), its chief executive officer Gary Liu believes it is about leveraging to remain sustainable.

He took the hot seat early this year, having established himself as a media influencer who served as an executive at Spotify and chief executive of aggregator Digg, among others.

Looking to fulfill his desire as a newsman, he needs to ensure questions about the integrity of the news content brought about by its new ownership are answered, similar to those faced by Washington Post, post-takeover by American tech giant, Amazon.

"If there is a singular statement, it is that we all believe in gathering and reporting the objective truth and being able to elevate the understanding, thought processes and knowledge of our readers and the citizens that we serve," he said in an interview with wan-Infra's Asian News Focus e-paper.

"That, I believe, is sacrosanct. If we are going to call ourselves news media, we need to believe in that."

Alibaba Group vice chairman Joe Tsai had sought to diminish any thought of the sanctity of SCMP's news content early during the acquisition, in 2015.

"Some say the newspaper industry is a sunset industry. We don't see it that way. We see it as an opportunity to use our technological expertise and digital assets to distribute news in a way that has never been done before," Tsai said then.

Liu believes his task is to put those words into motion, firstly by laying out the structure that shows SCMP's governance to be separate from that of its parent company.

"We do not report to the media division of Alibaba Group. That was done on purpose because the independence of this newsroom is extremely important, not only to us, but to the owners as well.

"Our governance is set up in a way that ensures this separation," said Liu.

"I feel very strongly that the sanctity of the news industry is actually very important for the maintenance of global peace, also for the education of multiple generations," he added, noting that this structure ensures that operationally, there is no integration between Alibaba and SCMP.

Benefits come galore, as Liu points out.

Firstly come cost-effective measures with SCMP's data and content technologies being parked on Alicloud, while SCMP plans to leverage on Alibaba's prowess in big data and artificial intelligence (AI), which are a big part of SCMP's digital transformation.

"They are certainly far ahead of us and it makes no sense trying to develop on our own, something that Alibaba has already built," said Liu.

"I think about data in three ways. First, it helps us operate the company with more precision and efficiency, second it improves our user experience by making our products smarter and third, it contributes to a future of artificial intelligence."

He stated that as far as AI is concerned, SCMP looks at it to impact in two areas - NLP (natural language processing) and NLG (natural language generation).

"NLP will allow users to discover and consume SCMP news content in a myriad of new ways, such as intelligent speakers (Google Home and Amazon Echo). It will also allow us to better understand the sentiments of the world through data analysis," said Liu.

NLG, meanwhile, will allow SCMP to outsource commodity news creation such as sports results, financial reporting and earnings to machines.

"Which are much faster and more accurate than us. This would allow our journalists, who are infinitely more valuable than machines, a limited resource, to focus on impact reporting, investigative, deep-dive journalism that elevates thought and understanding," said Liu.

This progression also significantly marks SCMP's transformation from a Hong Kong daily newspaper to a digital platform that brings China to the world.

This was marked by the first step, which was to bring down the paywall, which saw

SCMP as one of Asia's most successful subscription-based news portals, which effectively also doubled its traffic across the board.

"Our mission is to lead the global conversation about China. We believe the world needs to understand China better, as generally there is a narrow understanding about the country," said Liu.

"This meant that we, as a news organisation, had to go from being a paper of record for Hong Kong, into a news organisation that covers China for the world."

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