Alibaba's South China Morning Post readies its US push as it hunts for 'China-curious' readers

  • Alibaba’s South China Morning Post is looking to expand in the US.
  • The Hong Kong-based publication believes that the time is right because China-US trade talks and interest in them are heating up.
  • It’s already launched three US sites aimed at young readers, and is on the hunt for a US-based marketing director.

When Alibaba bought the South China Morning Post in 2015,Jack Ma said his goal was to make his new business a “global media outlet.”

Since then, the SCMP has quietly launched three sites in the US for what it called the “China curious”: Goldthread, covering Chinese culture; Abacus, a consumer tech site; and Inkstone, which reports on current affairs for the China-curious. It’s launched a US edition of its website andpartnered with Politico to work together on reporting in the US and Asia.

But the SCMP is upping its game, with plans to hire a marketing director and grow editorial resources to build its US audience.

Read more: Politico is pumping $10 million into its subscription product as new tech startups muscle into the pricey DC market

“We know there is strong interest from America about China,” said SCMP’s COO, Elsie Cheung. “SCMP’s goal is to become a news organization not only for the ‘China-interested’ but also for the ‘global-curious.'”

The US is the SCMP’s biggest and fastest-growing market

The Post is a Hong Kong-based, English-language newspaper. Founded in 1903, it prides itself on being editorially independent of mainland China but close enough in proximity to report deeply on the country. Because of the name, though, it can be perceived as China-based, and some critics and former editorial staffhave said the paper has shied away from running stories critical of the Chinese government.

This new expansion is happening a time when trade tensions between the US and China have driven interest in the subject. More than 80% of the SCMP’s readership is outside Hong Kong, and the US is already its biggest and fastest-growing market, accounting for 33% of its readers, Cheung said. (Most of that reach is digital; the SCMP has a print circulation of around 100,000. It didn’t share its digital readership.)

Cheung said the SCMP’s core readers are often people who understand China and Asia’s importance, but that it also sees a growing opportunity to reach younger readers who aren’t business or political elites, but are curious about the world.

It’s that group that the three new verticals are aimed at, with articles like “How China inspired the makers of Netflix’s ‘Love, Death & Robots'” and “Video of mother kicking 3-year-old fuels outcry against child modeling.”

In addition to providing news and information for that casual audience, the verticals also serve to promote SCMP’s identity and drive traffic to SCMP’s site.

According to a recent job posting on LinkedIn, the marketing director would be based in New York and lead an effort to “build brand awareness, audience growth and loyalty” of the publisher’s portfolio of media brands by working with teams like marketing, events, and editorial.

The post listed responsibilities including using digital campaigns to increase brand recognition, building a global audience for SCMP in key markets, and finding new opportunities in North America.

The marketing director would join a growing US presence by the SCMP. It has nine people working in editorial, partnerships, and marketing in the US. It has New York and Washington bureaus and is looking to grow its editorial presence in those bureaus.

Alibaba’s Ma has said he wouldn’t get involved in the SCMP’s editorial

Alibaba’s acquisition of the SCMP has been compared to Amazon founderJeff Bezos’ acquisition of The Washington Post in 2013. At the time, Alibaba said it was motivated by a desire to improve China’s image and alternative to Western media’s China coverage, which it saw as biased.The company said fair and balanced coverage would lead to a more positive image of China over time.Observers worried the paper would soften its coverage of China to protect Alibaba’s business interests there.

Alibaba cofounder Ma said at the time that the SCMP’s coverage should remain impartial and objective and that he would give input into the business side but not take part in editorial decision-making, echoing Bezos’ approach at the Post.

Non-US media companies have had limited success making a dent in the US market; the best-known examples, like The Economist and Daily Mail, are UK-based. SCMP’s three US verticals have flown below the radar so far. They don’t appear in Comscore, suggesting their audience is too small to be measured, and combined, they have barely 300,000 followers on Facebook.

But the SCMP has a long history of punching above its weight, and has an opportunity to grow as the China trade issue grows in importance, said Raju Narisetti, a business journalism professor at Columbia University, as well as a former CEO of Gizmodo Media Group and longtime exec at News Corp, where his duties included international responsibilities.

“They have the ability to engage with an audience on a topic that’s only going to become bigger,” he said. “The only question is, how do you tap it?”

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