Alibaba, the Chinese conglomerate founded by Jack Ma, has had quite a year—it went public a little over a year ago in the largest initial public offering ever recorded, with a value of more than $25 billion. Since then, the share price has declined by about 25% on concerns about the weak Chinese economy, but Alibaba(BABA) has not stopped growing. And now, according to a number of reports, either the company or Ma are in talks to acquire the South China Morning Post.
Earlier this month, China Daily reported that Alibaba was in discussions to acquire SCMP Group, the company that publishes the South China Morning Post, from majority shareholder Kerry Group, a Malaysian conglomerate.
But a more recent report from Bloomberg News, says that two unnamed sources told the financial news service that Ma, not Alibaba, is in discussions to buy the Hong Kong-based newspaper. Bloomberg describes the talks as “at an advanced stage.” The sources said that a deal of unknown value could be announced as early as this week. Ma’s net worth is estimated at $22 billion U.S.
If the Alibaba founder does acquire the Morning Post—which at one time was the most profitable newspaper in the world—he would be following in the footsteps of other billionaire tech moguls such as Jeff Bezos, the Amazon (AMZN) founder and CEO who acquired The Washington Post for $250 million in 2013. Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes also bought the venerable U.S. magazine The New Republic, although his ownership has not been without controversy.
Some Washington Post staffers and fans were initially taken aback by the Bezos acquisition, but since the purchase, the paper has improved its financial health and has even expanded its online presence, in part through deals that bundled access to the Post with Amazon Prime memberships.
But like Bezos, Ma will have to come up with some bundling and/or revenue-generating ideas of his own if he buys the Morning Post, because the once-powerful paper has seen better days.
Once owned by News Corp., the Morning Post was sold in 1993 to Malaysian financier Robert Kuok, via his holding company Kerry Group, and has seen its revenue and readership slide substantially in the past few years. In 2013, after SCMP reported its earnings had fallen by more than 25%, its stock was suspended from trading. Most recently, over the past six months, more than 35 staffers left the newspaper —including the editor-in-chief.
Regardless of whether the Morning Post is bought by Ma or Alibaba, the deal may not be looked on positively by some Hong Kong residents. They tend to see themselves as removed from—and in some cases, superior to—their mainland Chinese citizens, while Ma is seen as being relatively close to members of the Chinese government.
That closeness has led to some controversy in the past. For instance, in 2013 the Morning Post reported that Ma had expressed admiration for the Chinese government, and said that the decision to remove protesters from Tianenmen Square by force was “the most correct decision.” This comment was later removed from the story. Editors said a reporter had added it without approval, and the reporter who filed the story was suspended and then later resigned.