eSummit: Gary Liu's SCMP grows as HK's troubles heighten

Gary Liu is in absolutely no doubt how the South China Morning Post will react to increasing mainland China pressure on the special administration region.

"Our moral position cannot change," he says. "Our coverage on China and Hong Kong won't change because we don't expect to change."

What might change however, is aspects of the English-language masthead's paywall, lifted when it was acquired by e-commerce giant Alibaba and its billionaire owner Jack Ma.

Liu, who was recruited to lead the SCMP soon after the acquisition, was speaking during the second day of WAN-Ifra's Asia Media Leaders eSummit yesterday.

The paper was among the first in the world - on December 31 - to present reports of the "strange pneumonia" which became COVID-19, and then a WeChat message which was shut down by police.

With strong systems following an internal reorganisation, Liu says the publisher was able to focus on reporters' safety, starting its own office shut-downs after Chinese New Year celebrations on January 22. With its new systems in place for more than two years, SCMP was well placed for distributed working with the rhythm of working well established. "Lots of people remembered SARS," he says.

With the base infrastructure in place, staff got into the routine of putting a print newspaper together outside the office, and handling the logistics of video production - with its enormous video files and hard drives - in similar terms, "but we've been very fortunate to have been prepared," he says.

And then came the protests.

"It's been one after another, we haven't had a break," Liu says, "and with the deeply depressed economy, difficult in different ways."

Liu recalls the physical stress of "protests 14-16 hours a day, tear gas, bean bag rounds... unending" which made it difficult to step into a newsroom and set aside emotion and personal feeling.

"That was what was so difficult," he says.

Then just when they thought they would be able to cope, "all our global revenue disappeared. One on top of the other."

And he says, with staff working strict rotations, encouraged to use resources available, and attention paid to symptoms and signals, "we've taken mental health very seriously."

The upside of "in some ways leading the COVID story around the world" also brought a need to understand the science and politics, in order not to lose out to 'city papers of record' when there was developing "deep fatigue" in the subject.

But Liu says audience followed: "We'd never hidden aspiration for growth - we wanted to serve the world, and we did that."

The four million active users - two in Hong Kong and two overseas - of a couple of months before, soon exceeded 50 million, and it was 48 million around the world, with 160 different countries across a variety of interests, "most rooted on our deep understanding of Asia.

"We can't go on delivering that on just advertising, and have a right to ask for an exchange of value," says Liu.

He says the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated change. "With advertising decimated, one channel will have to be reader revenue. Since we have the data, any subscription product will be very dynamic."

Liu forecasts "some recovery, signs of global revival, by end of the year", and adds "economies will find a way".
But for news, "don't expect advertising revenue to come back. We have to accelerate the shift away from traditional revenues.

"It's been a really rude surprise," he told delegates, "so I hope you've used this as an opportunity to reinvent the industry, or we'll struggle even more."

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