What’s wrong with the SCMP?
The venerable Hong Kong English daily South China Morning Post has found itself at the center of a storm over the past few days after an email exchange between Mainland-born editor Wang Xiangwei and senior sub-editor Alex Price was made public.
Asia Sentinel gives us a recap, and notes it all began after Price questioned Wang over coverage of the death of Li Wangyang, a former Tiananmen Square dissident who was alleged to have committed suicide:
“A lot of people are wondering why we nibbed the Li Wangyang story last night. It does seem rather odd. Any chance you can shed some light on the matter?”
Wang answered curtly: “I made that decision.” When Price asked in a subsequent email: “Any chance you say why? It’s just that to the outside world it looks an awful lot like self-censorship,” it generated an explosion from Wang.
“I don’t have to explain to you anything. I made the decision and I stand by it. If you don’t like it, you know what to do.”
“Li Wangyang, a good man died for his cause and we turned it from a story into a brief. The rest of Hong Kong splashed on it,” Price responded. “Your staff are understandably concerned by this. News is printing what someone else does not want printed. Everything else is public relations. Please explain the decision to reduce the suspicious death of Li Wangyang to a brief. I need to be able to explain it to my friends who are asking why we did it. I’m sorry but your reply of “it is my decision, if you don’t like it you know what to do” is not enough in such a situation. Frankly it seems to be saying “shut up or go.”
There are are a couple of things going on here, neither of which is befitting of a newspaper with global aspirations. First, Wang clearly conducted himself dishonourably. It’s a good rule of thumb to not send any email that you wouldn’t want seen publicly. This is rather basic, and Wang showed poor judgment.
Secondly, Alex Price, the sub-editor, made a decision to circulate the email to all editorial staff. It was circulated to me shortly afterwards by one of my contacts in the newsroom. I have no way of knowing if Price tried to talk to Wang privately, or escalated his concerns above Wang before going public, but if not, he should have. Airing a company’s dirty laundry in public can result in a dismissal, and unless there’s proof that Price exhausted all other avenues before widely circulating his private email, he should no longer be employed at the paper.
But this issue masks a much larger and more consequential one: the SCMP’s relevance. What happened this week was merely years’ worth of tension boiling over. The general consensus in Hong Kong is the SCMP has been fading as a relevant source of information since its halcyon days under the British, made worse by ownership changes and management shuffles that have further destabilized the paper and diminished morale.
According to people working inside SCMP, the paper is adrift. There is a lack of communication between departments, increasing factionalism and infighting, and a general lack of leadership or direction. Wang Xiangwei’s appointment has further heightened concerns the SCMP’s coverage may be eroded, as Wang is a member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (imagine a US government advisor as chief editor of the New York Times?) and was born in the Mainland. Since his appointment, he’s recruited several other Mainland staff, so many that Putonghua is frequently heard in the hallways. This is a tectonic, and uneasy, shift for foreigners and Hong Kong people who spent years building the SCMP into a news leader in Hong Kong.
SCMP’s digital strategy
The SCMP’s decline is probably most crystallized in its digital strategy. Danwei, which is one of the most respected online sources of English-language information in China, published an article today saying the SCMP has wasted a golden opportunity to expand by throwing up a paywall on its website. Danwei said:
Niubi (the Twitter winner of Danwei’s Model Worker awards) has more influence on global ‘diplomats, businessmen and others’ than the poor old Post, with its doomed business model, absence from the open Internet, and reliance on the patronage of the Kuok family. The Post‘s slide into irrelevance is a shame, but it’s already a mere sideshow thanks to a decade of dumb digital decisions.
It’s easy to write-off the Post‘s digital decisions as “dumb”, and while I generally disagree with those decisions, the Post has thought them through.
First, Hong Kong is heavily reliant on print journalism. While many North American cities are seeing a rapid decline – or even disappearance – of print journalism (such as the New Orleans’ Times-Picayune just this week), Hong Kong’s print journalism is thriving. The city is home to some 15 (that’s right, 15) daily newspapers. Competition between the papers is absolutely fierce, driving Hong Kong’s well-established sensationalist journalism style. In short, print in Hong Kong remains very profitable, and the SCMP is one of the most profitable newspapers in the world.
Furthermore, unlike in Mainland China, where much of the real news or discussion happens online because print and electronic journalism are mere tools of the state, Hong Kong’s online communities are addenda to its offline journalism. There are vibrant forums in Hong Kong (which I encourage people in the Mainland to check out sometime) such as HKGolden, UWants, 3boys2girls, and others. But they usually react to news published in Hong Kong, and rarely make the news. Sina Weibo, in the Mainland, serves the reverse: it often makes news that is reported later.
Finally, Hong Kong is an extremely digital market. Mobile penetration in the city is among the highest in the world, and nearly four million Hong Kong people are on Facebook. From a social media and digital perspective, there are lots of opportunities here. But with advertising revenues still so high from print, there is less incentive for newspapers to focus their journalism for online consumers. This makes Hong Kong unique from both the Mainland market, and from established western markets.
When all of this is considered, the SCMP’s decision to focus on print – which remains a cash cow – doesn’t seem so absurd. Quite simply, the paper isn’t hurting for money and isn’t under the same financial pressure other newspapers are. So what compelling business case is there for changing its digital policy?
Renewing its focus
Even though the SCMP is profitable, it could be doing so much more. It’s blessed with a well-respected brand (still) and a rich history. It also still has a significant number of talented journalists based in Hong Kong and throughout China. With this in mind, I humbly make a few suggestions on how the SCMP can be reinvigorated:
1. Determine what it stands for
Every great company has a guiding principle or philosophy. For Google, it’s “Don’t be evil”; the New York Times calls itself the paper of record. What does the SCMP stand for, and what is its purpose? It needs to find one, and build on it. Perhaps something along the lines of “The premier source for China news in English” would make sense. Whatever it is, it needs to run deep and guide the paper in everything it does. Once a principle is clearly spelled out and adhered to, there would be less skittishness about declining journalism values.
2. Leadership and internal restructuring
Like other organizations that have gone adrift, the SCMP needs somebody to forcefully take the reins. This means changes, and it also means discipline. If somebody like Alex Price makes an email public without going through internal channels first, he should be fired. Factionalism and infighting should not be tolerated; only those who are committed to quality journalism should be kept, whether they be from the Mainland, Hong Kong, or overseas. It’s not about where they were born, it’s about what they can do.
There must also be a vast internal restructuring. The SCMP has become bloated: it publishes magazines, writes books, organizes conferences, runs a recruitment service and more. There is often poor communication within these divisions, and almost none between them. The entire company needs to be streamlined and made efficient, with clear lines of authority and efficient communication. Staff need to be on the same page, and must be pulling in the same direction together.
3. Focus on China
Hong Kong is a big, important city, but there isn’t a huge desire overseas to read the latest on Hong Kong’s public housing debates or banana-tossing at the Legislative Council. Yes, Hong Kong news is extremely important to people living and working in Hong Kong (myself included), but it’s the regional news that is of interest to a much broader audience. The SCMP must think of itself less as a city paper, competing against the likes of The Standard, and more as a distinguished regional paper. It can leverage its expertise in China and Asia to grow its influence and audience far beyond Hong Kong.
The New York Times serves as a good example. While the words “New York” appear in its header, local news is reduced to a New York section printed solely for distribution in New York City. Other copies, which focus on national and international news, are distributed globally to those interested in national and international issues. There’s no reason the SCMP couldn’t do the same, with a Hong Kong section printed in the local edition.
Hunger for English language news about Asia in general, and China in particular, has never been greater, and the SCMP would have almost no competition in filling that void. The Straits Times in Singapore is a marginal player at best, and the China Daily is a non-entity.
4. Implement a new digital strategy
After explaining why I understand the SCMP’s current digital strategy, the paper would need a new one to match its renewed focus. Even though Hong Kong is still print oriented, paper won’t last forever. The SCMP has several long-time columnists and journalists who don’t believe in (or aren’t comfortable) using the internet or social tools to share stories. Unfortunately, the time has come for them to buy in or go. The paper simply can’t grow beyond a certain threshold with so many people on staff who don’t see (or don’t want to see) what’s possible.
The SCMP should have a much bigger presence in social media. The newspaper itself should be much more active promoting content, and SCMP journalists themselves should be engaging far more in the digital realm. Furthermore, the paper should shift its strict paywall policy to a metered paywall, which is working well for the New York Times. Journalism is a profession and stories cost money to create, so readers should be expected to pay – within reason. Ten to 20 free articles a month makes sense, at least as a trial, and would expand SCMP’s coverage far beyond its traditional base in Hong Kong.
(On that note, the SCMP only charges US$51.50 a year for a full digital subscription, which is less than the cost of two months of a full online New York Times subscription).
5. Change of culture
The SCMP, I’m told, has become a wee bit stodgy. To bring a fresh focus to the paper, it needs to hire young and talented people who understand both offline and online journalism, who are digital savvy, have a passion for news and China, and can serve as (and I hate using this term, so please excuse it) brand ambassadors.
Morale at the SCMP is low because it is rudderless. Those that are willing to learn and adapt would be welcome, others who are intent on causing drama or blocking progress need not be retained.
These steps are not easy; they require taking risks and breaking free from legacy ideas. But if the SCMP doesn’t adapt, it will continue its long, slow descent into irrelevancy.