CEO of SCMP describes transformation of news
“I’m a product person,” said Gary Liu, who was named CEO of Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post (SCMP) in January. “One of the values I bring to this organization is that I can think about news as a product and user experience in the digital world.”
The Harvard economics major has worked with AOL, Google, Spotify and Digg before being named CEO of the SCMP, a 114-year-old English-language newspaper company based in Hong Kong and owned by Alibaba, the Chinese e-commerce giant.
In an era where Liu believes “news is more important today than ever before,” the 34-year-old CEO is helping the SCMP transform from a print newspaper company to a digital newspaper. Ahead of an upcoming visit to Seoul to participate in the Yumin 100 Years Media Conference on Nov. 29, Liu shared his views about the future of newspaper companies and the possibility of coexistence between newspaper companies and web portals in a Google Hangouts video interview with the JoongAng Ilbo.
Q. You are one of the world’s youngest CEOs in the news and media industry. Prior to the SCMP, you worked at media tech companies including Digg and Spotify, but you are not from a journalism or traditional media background. Why do you think Alibaba chose you as CEO?
A. I think that traditionally, news organizations have just tried to translate what the broadsheet newspaper looks like in physical space, and tried to move it onto a smaller screen. It’s been proven over the last twenty years that doesn’t work, yet we still keep making that mistake. I would like to completely shift the way we think about product and user experience in today’s world for the context of news. So that probably makes me more unique in the news industry. I have always been a lover of news and a student of this industry.
You are spearheading the digital transformation of the SCMP, which is of course print. What is the meaning of digital and technology for the SCMP today?
We are only at the start of that cultural change. It’s very hard because we are trying to change culture while keeping the same people and making sure we protect the way we’ve done things. The discipline and the independence of the newsroom shouldn’t change; it’s the speed and the actual expression of the news product that needs to change. The most important structural change is that we created a dedicated print team, and we launched that in September. So it used to be that 250 to 260 people in the newsroom were all worried about what tomorrow morning’s printed newspaper looks like, now everyone is worried about what our digital platforms look like, except for the twenty people who have the responsibility of taking the best of our online content and packaging it into tomorrow morning’s newspaper.
No matter how hard media companies try digital innovation, it is structurally difficult to stop these web portal companies such as Naver or Facebook from controlling the news service market. Do you think coexistence is possible between newspaper companies and web portals?
I think this coexistence has to happen and I think it requires some things on the newspaper side and some things on the platform side. On the newspaper side, it requires us to understand that our editorial products have to look different on social platforms than they do on our own website, and we have to build editorial products for those new platforms. We have to focus on user experience and user journey through those platforms, and build products that fit those platforms. So that is one change on our side. On the platform side, they have to believe that they have an accountability to distribute quality news and to raise media literacy. They have to feel responsible to fight the fake news issue. So if news organizations start realizing that we have user experience accountability and that we have to build products better for our platforms, and platforms feel that they have to have stronger news accountability, then we can coexist properly. I absolutely believe we need that, because our users have chosen that they want to discover content through platforms. We have to come together and have aligned accountabilities.
Even if media companies and web portals can coexist, newspaper companies need profit. Do you think newspaper companies can bring in profit?
I believe that in the long-term we will find a way to monetize news so that we can create a sustainable industry. I believe that advertising is just not enough. It has to be a combination of digital advertising, subscription products and other things; it could be conferences, ancillary businesses. It has to be a combination of many things, not just one or two things. I do believe that subscription is absolutely necessary because it holds new organizations accountable to create the best quality news and make sure that we can remain independent, or else we will always be beholden to some other interest that is paying the bills. Of course, this is ironic coming from me, because we are a completely free news product today, but that’s for a very specific purpose. I do believe that eventually, SCMP will have subscription products on the digital side. One of the most important things for our [newspaper] industry right now is to have open conversations about our struggles, about our users, about our relationship with platforms, so we as an industry can come to a solution together, because I don’t think we will be able to do it by ourselves independently.
How do you think the SCMP will change when its digital transformation is complete? What is the future you envision for the SCMP?
I think most importantly, the mission of the company will change. The SCMP, for most of our history, has been a newspaper about Hong Kong for Hong Kong. The future of our company is for us to be a digital company that reports on China for the world. We just have to be a company that reacts faster than our competitors when things change. If we do our job right, in five years, the world will see the SCMP as the most credible and the most authoritative source on China.
BY CHO HYE-KYUNG [firstname.lastname@example.org]