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Old-School Newsman

Even as he drives the South China Morning Post's digital expansion, Gary Liu, techie CEO of the Hong Kong broadsheet's publisher, says the print product will remain relevant and will evolve.

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"Quality objective news is very expensive, very difficult to create, and we do believe that there is a value exchange we have to rediscover." - Gary Liu.

HE'S a Taiwanese-American Harvard grad from the tech industry, tasked with the transformation of a century-old Hong Kong broadsheet.

But Gary Liu, the young, new chief executive of the South China Morning Post's publisher, maintains that he still loves the smell of newsprint in the morning - and the fresher, the better.

He tells The Business Times that he does not read the newspaper before it goes to print - but he swings by the press each month, and "pulling SCMP off of the belt when it's still warm is always an incredible experience".

"I enjoy the sound, the smell and just the atmosphere," he says fondly. "The plant absolutely does not need me to operate, I don't want your readers to get the wrong impression. I go there for my own personal enjoyment.

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"So, if there are people in town who have never seen it before, I'll make an effort to bring them down there at midnight and see the operation - and it really is quite something."

Protecting the press

Mr Liu, 36, joined the SCMP in January 2017, a year after Chinese tycoon Jack Ma's Alibaba Group took Hong Kong's flagship English daily private for HK$2.06 billion (S$364.2 million).

Since changing hands, the SCMP - which has a daily print readership of 330,000 - has been dogged by accusations of tilting politically towards Beijing.

But the California-born Mr Liu, who reads both The New York Times and the pro-Beijing China Daily religiously, baulks at such insinuations.

"I think that, under any ownership model, journalists have an accountability to the discovery and dissemination of truth," he maintains.

"Across Asia, I have met some of the world's most convicted journalists (sic) and these are incredibly professional reporters.

"And, regardless of ownership model, what I see day in and day out, in the South China Morning Post newsroom as well as most other newsrooms that I interact with in the region, is the core of journalism, of journalists fighting for the truth."

The fight for the truth can come at a steep price in this part of the world. High-profile detentions in the region include the jailing of former Straits Times correspondent Ching Cheong in mainland China, from 2005 to 2008.

More recently, Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo spent 511 days in prison in Myanmar as part of a seven-year sentence.

With that sordid history in mind, a darker meaning may lurk in Mr Liu's use of the word "convicted". When asked, he clarifies that "I'm not trying to make it a double entendre - I'm talking about moral convictions of journalism, journalistic ethics".

Not just in Asia, "but all over the world, news independence seems to be under attack", he notes. "We are active in speaking out against declining press freedoms. And we ourselves are very, very diligent about protecting independence in our marketplaces."

Right now, Hong Kong is "the one place in China that you can truly report on China objectively", he adds.

"Being based in Hong Kong allows us the intimacy to understand - truly understand - China; to report on China with both breadth and depth, while at the same time enjoying Hong Kong's freedom of the press and the independent judiciary that protects the freedom of the press," he tells BT.

In fact, his profession of faith in Hong Kong's civil virtues is undaunted by the mass protest movement that has paralysed parts of the city over the last three months.

"The world's attention has been on Hong Kong and how the Hong Kong people, and the spirit of the Hong Kong people, is still on clear display.

"I'm very proud of the South China Morning Post's newsroom, that's been out in the streets every single day, with protesters, with the government, with the police force, covering every aspect of the story, because that - the multiplicity of perspectives, and the comprehensiveness of on-the-ground reporting - is critical to really understanding what's happening," he says.

Mr Liu sat down with BT in June, just weeks after protesters first hit the streets. When contacted again in end-August, he decided not to give any updates to his earlier views.

Still, the stand-off has since escalated and turned violent - including the storming of the legislature building; gang attacks by counter-protesters; and a days-long airport sit-in.

Business leaders have been pulled into the conflict as well: Li Ka-shing, the richest man in Hong Kong, cryptically called on citizens to "overcome anger with love", while Cathay Pacific Airways CEO Rupert Hogg quit amid Beijing's ire over airline employees' involvement in the demonstrations.

Daddy's deep pockets

In the financial realm, backing from Alibaba has given Mr Liu's team the freedom to fail grandly - a luxury, amid ongoing industry disruption.

"There has been a devaluing of high-quality news, and a lot of that has to do with having raised multiple generations of Internet users who believe content ought to be free, whereas we as news organisations don't believe that," Mr Liu proclaims.

"Quality objective news is very expensive, very difficult to create, and we do believe that there is a value exchange we have to rediscover."

One might find it a bit rich to reject free content, since the SCMP scrapped its paywall in 2016, after the buy-out.

But Alibaba co-founder Joseph Tsai pegged the move as part of a 10-year plan to turn the SCMP around, and Mr Liu elaborates: "If you don't know the South China Morning Post brand, you will not be willing to pay... so removing the paywall allowed us, actually, to reach a lot of new users and new audiences around the world. But it is not a permanent solution."

According to Mr Tsai's road map, Mr Liu should be thinking up a revenue model now, before tackling profitability in the fifth to seventh years.

But Mr Liu tells BT that the 10-year plan is not a hard-and-fast rule: "There are going to be differences in timing and sequencing, and I think that we ourselves have been very, very aggressive about growth."

The CEO notes that revenue from print and digital advertising, as well as a new branded content agency, are driving turnover. As the SCMP hunts for revenue streams, he adds "There's money to be made in expertise."

"What we used to call niche audiences now scale because of the Internet, so I think news organisations have to discover where their expertise translates to value that readers are willing to pay for," he says.

"For us, our experimentation has been finding specific audience use cases and building products that serve those very specific needs ... That engaged community will be willing to pay for the interaction with that content, or even interaction with one another across the platform."

Digital-only lifestyle publications that the SCMP has rolled out include Abacus, which focuses on consumer technology in China, and Goldthread, covering food, travel and culture.

Asked if these sub-brands are here to stay, Mr Liu calls them, perhaps fancifully, "an experiment born out of a hypothesis that we have very quickly proven to be meaningful" in audience size and revenue protection.

Other publishers have taken this road too - whether they opt to buy, like The New York Times' purchase of product review website Wirecutter, or set it up from scratch, like The Washington Post's woman-centred The Lily.

"I think you will see more and more news organisations explore this," Mr Liu muses.

"But, at the same time, it's important not to lose sight of the centuries-old brands that we have built. These brands represent credibility... It would be unfortunate if, in chasing a portfolio model, news publishers squander the importance and the value of their core brands."

Creative journalism

As the SCMP makes a high-tech push - its websites and apps "will be better for the audience with the infusion of AI (artificial intelligence)", Mr Liu tells BT - what happens to jobs in a world where bots churn out stories?

"The reason why news organisations are cutting back on people is not because there's less demand but it's because of economic pressure," he replies.

"Natural language generation, using AI to write news stories - it shouldn't take away jobs from people.

"In fact, it should free up our journalists to be pursuing the type of creative and investigative journalism that really pushes products. That's the type of journalism that is going to change society; and that journalism cannot be done by machines."

Mr Liu also hopes other old-school newsroom positions are here to stay.

"We have had some very successful transitions in our own organisation... traditional graphics editors becoming digital graphics editors," he offers as an example. "I do hope that more news organisations invest in that kind of people transformation."

As for copy editors, whose roles have infamously been treated by newsrooms around the world as fat that can be trimmed, Mr Liu also engages in a bout of hand-wringing.

"Just because news is now distributed... discovered and consumed on digital platforms does not make copy editors less important," he says.

"There becomes less accountability in how news organisations articulate the truth and are able to separate editorialisation or opinion from fact. That is concerning. That is a concern."

Mr Liu is old-school in other ways, too. Without naming names, he notes that "a lot of digital-first or digital-only news organisations have grown rapidly off of the backs of other networks" - that is, social media.

"The business model - which has always been, to some degree, suspect - has proven now to not be sustainable; and, because of that, there is also consolidation across digital news companies. I also think that we're going to see more of this in the next few years."

As proof that he has given the matter thought, Mr Liu discloses that "I have a habit of reading key articles on both print and digital to see how it's represented differently" at the SCMP.

In fact, despite the SCMP playing around with videos and podcasts ("Audio is a format that traditional newspapers have not had to work in, for most of our history, but it's become increasingly important"), Mr Liu still believes that a print product - the daily broadsheet - is relevant.

"There is still a very material print audience around the world... At the same time, I believe that the print product will evolve," he says.

"Print products are no longer the thing you pick up in the morning to catch up on what has happened in the last 24 hours, because, generally speaking, all of the breaking news, you've already read on your smartphone.

"The print products are a great place to go deeper: long-form articles, full-page infographics, centre-page spreads, the juxtaposition of opinions... We have to evolve print to really highlight those use cases."

He reminisces: "I grew up in a household where my father has always been an avid newspaper reader, so I learnt to read the newspaper and appreciate the structure and the shape of it from a very young age."

Calling print newspapers "an entertainment model", Mr Liu adds: "I want to have time, when I pick up a print newspaper, to spread it out across the table - very cliched - with a cup of coffee, and work my way through articles and content that provide me more depth and insight."

Specifically, he is a fan of broadsheet pages, with the main selling point "the space for design - and again, for juxtaposition of content, broadsheet will always win ad sales".

But he does make one exception.

"One of the tabloid formats I really enjoy now - when I travel the United Kingdom - is The Guardian," he admits, while conceding that "the tabloid has a lot of advantages that I think more and more of the news industry is discovering", such as cost savings and user-friendliness.

"It's much easier to read a tabloid on the Tube, on a bus."


GARY LIU

CEO, South China Morning Post Publishers

Born in 1983 in Anaheim, California, United States

EDUCATION

BA in Economics, Harvard University, 2006

CAREER

2007 to 2009 Senior operations associate and analyst, Google

2009 to 2011 Senior director of business operations, Clickable

2011 Director of operations and strategy, AOL

2011 to 2013 Global director of ad product strategy, Spotify

2013 to 2015 Head of labs, Spotify

2015 Chief operating officer, Digg

2015 to 2016 CEO, Digg

Since 2017 CEO, South China Morning Post Publishers