Jack Ma, the founder and chief executive of the Chinese Internet giant Alibaba. Photo: Reuters
Jack Ma, chairman of the Internet giant Alibaba Group, is in talks to buy The South China Morning Post, an influential English-language newspaper based in Hong Kong, according to a person with direct knowledge of the discussions.
A deal would echo the purchase of The Washington Post by Amazon’s founder, Jeffrey P. Bezos, in 2013, which gave a major media brand substantial backing at a turbulent time for the business.
Like Mr. Bezos, Alibaba’s founder, Mr. Ma, made his fortune in Internet commerce. Like The Washington Post, The South China Morning Post is struggling to adapt to the changing media environment. And in neither case does the purchase create obvious business advantages for the buyer.
It has not yet been decided whether the buyer would be Mr. Ma or Alibaba, the person said on Tuesday.
Any deal for the Hong Kong newspaper will have a political dimension.
The prospective takeover is raising concerns that the newspaper’s editorial independence could be compromised by a corporate owner whose market position depends in large part on the good will of the Chinese government. Unlike the rest of China, Hong Kong guarantees freedom of the press, a right enshrined in the laws that have governed the former British colony since its return to Chinese rule in 1997.
Mr. Ma “needs support from Beijing to continue his dominance of the Internet transactional world, and therefore he’s going to be careful in what he does in the publishing world,” said Andrew Collier, a former Beijing-based reporter for the newspaper who now runs a China-focused financial research firm in Hong Kong.
A deal could be weeks or even months away, said the person with knowledge of the discussions, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the negotiations were private. The talks could also fall apart.
Nevertheless, talks between the two sides have made “significant progress” in recent days, the person said.
Alibaba declined to comment. Benson Chao, a spokesman for The South China Morning Post, said the company did not comment on “market rumors.”
A deal has been the subject of media speculation for much of the past month after news of the possible acquisition was reported in China Daily, an official mainland Chinese newspaper, on Nov. 9.
In the past, Mr. Ma’s deal-making style has come under scrutiny for purchases that seemed out of line with Alibaba’s strategy. For example, the company bought into a soccer team in 2014.
Having Mr. Ma make the investment personally would mean that only one company board, the newspaper’s, would need to approve it. “For him, it’s like pocket change,” the person said.
A deal for The South China Morning Post, the person said, would fit in with Alibaba’s broader holdings. The company owns stakes in Chinese Internet sites with a media bent, like Youku Tudou, which is similar to YouTube, and Sina Weibo, akin to Twitter. The person said that The South China Morning Post had a good brand and that the takeover “might lead to some synergy.” Any such advantages would be easier to realize if Alibaba were the buyer, the person said.
But the companies have drastically different audiences. Despite having a Chinese-language service, The South China Morning Post is primarily focused on the limited English-speaking market in Hong Kong, although its coverage of China is read globally. Content on Youku Tudou and Sina Weibo is overwhelmingly in Chinese.
Under an agreement announced this month, copies of The International New York Times for Hong Kong and China will be printed by The South China Morning Post beginning in February.
The main concern among some people who study the Chinese and Hong Kong press is that ownership of the newspaper by Mr. Ma or Alibaba could further erode media independence in Hong Kong. Mainland Chinese enterprises have been deepening their stakes in the local industry, and journalists here say they are feeling increasing pressure to soft-pedal issues deemed provocative by the governing Communist Party in Beijing.
In recent years, The South China Morning Post has written about topics that are off limits to newspapers in mainland China. Last year, the newspaper provided extensive coverage of the huge sit-in protests in Hong Kong, the so-called Umbrella Movement that had drawn the ire of the central government. The newspaper also published a multimedia retrospective last year on the 25th anniversary of the crackdown on student demonstrators in Tiananmen Square in Beijing.
The newspaper has found itself at a crossroads. While the company — started in 1903 and controlled by the family of the Malaysian billionaire Robert Kuok since 1993 — remains profitable, the media business is becoming more difficult. The Kuok family, which also has large real estate and hotel interests on the mainland, has lately chosen top editors who have tended to be less critical of the central government than earlier leaders of the newspaper.
At times, Mr. Ma has been an outspoken critic in China. When major state-owned banks took aim at his financial business, he accused the banks of failing to keep pace with market reforms.
Still, Mr. Ma walks a fine line.
In a 2013 interview, he told The South China Morning Post that the Chinese government’s move to suppress the 1989 student-led Tiananmen Square demonstrations, in which hundreds of people died, was “the most correct decision” under the circumstances. And while Mr. Ma says he avoids doing business with the government, some of the investors in Alibaba ahead of its 2014 initial public offering had ties to China’s ruling families, The New York Times reported at the time.
“Obviously, we’ll have to watch and see what impact a Jack Ma or Alibaba stake in The South China Morning Post could have on its editorial line, and particularly its coverage of mainland China,” said David Bandurski, editor of the China Media Project website at the University of Hong Kong.
“But in recent years, the gravitational pull of mainland Chinese business interests has already had a very real negative effect on editorial independence in Hong Kong,” Mr. Bandurski said. “That pull could be very direct in this case, especially given the deep political interests associated in this group and its chairman.”
The person familiar with the negotiations played down concerns that The South China Morning Post under Mr. Ma’s control would be beholden to the Chinese government. Alibaba, the person said, has “a very high global profile,” and Mr. Ma’s stewardship of the newspaper would be similar to that of the Kuok family. It is in his interest to keep the newspaper as an independent voice, the person added.
“Jack Ma is a savvy businessman — he should know that the stakes are high,” said Ying Chan, founder of the Journalism Studies and Media Center at the University of Hong Kong. “He could create a paper of the highest standards, or turn it into a party mouthpiece. The world is watching.”