South China Morning Post Ltd was founded by Tse Tsan-tai and Alfred Cunningham in 1903. The first edition of the paper was published on 6 November 1903.
From its founding, during the Qing dynasty (Ching dynasty) until 1913, one year after the establishment of the Republic of China, it was known, in Chinese, as 《南清早報》 (Naamcing Zoubou, lit. South Qing Morning Post). In 1913, its Chinese name was changed to 《南華早報》 (lit. South China Morning Post), and has remained as such since then. The Chinese name of Sunday Morning Post is 《星期日南華早報》 (Singkeijat Naamwaa Zoubou lit. Sunday South China Morning Post).
In November 1971, it was listed on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange. It was privatised by News Corporation, owned by Rupert Murdoch, in 1987, and relisted in 1990.
Malaysian tycoon Robert Kuok's Kerry Media bought the controlling interest – a 34.9 per cent stake – from News Corp in October 1993 for US$375 million. His son, Kuok Khoon Ean, took over as chairman at the end of 1997. Kuok Khoon Ean's sister, Kuok Hui Kwong, was named chief executive officer on 1 January 2009. Kuok launched a general offer for the remaining shares in September 2007, and increased his stake to 74 per cent at a total cost of HK$1.63 billion ($209 million). It was delisted in 2013 when the shares' free float fell below the required 25%.
On 11 December 2015, it was announced that Alibaba Group would acquire the media assets of the SCMP Group, including the South China Morning Post. The consideration is reported to be HK$2.06 billion ($264 million). The consideration – a similar to the amount Jeff Bezos paid for the Washington Post – represents 10 times earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization, compared to 17 times for the Washington Post
On 5 April 2016 Alibaba Group completed the acquisition and SCMP announced it had taken down the paywall of its online version. Readers will be able to have free access to all contents on SCMP.com and SCMP mobile apps.
The paper's average audited circulation for the first half of 2007 stood at 106,054, while its Sunday edition, the Sunday Morning Post, has a readership of 80,865. In 2012, the readership of the SCMP and the Sunday Morning Post was estimated at 396,000. Its readership outside Hong Kong remains at some 6,825 copies for the same period, again, relatively unchanged. It also had the position as the most profitable newspaper in the world on a per reader basis, profit declined since peaking in 1997 at HK$805 million, yet its growth potential is viewed as being largely dependent on its ability to penetrate the wider Chinese market. Its average audited circulation for the first half of 2015 stood at 101,652 copies, with the print edition representing 75 percent of the number of copies; the Sunday edition registered 80,779 copies on average during the same period.
The Group reported net profit of HK$338 million for the year 2006 (2005 = HK$246m), the operating profit of HK$419m (2005 = HK$306m) was attributable mainly to the newspaper operation.
The selling price of the paper is HK$9 each from Monday to Saturday, and HK$10 for the Sunday Morning Post. A discounted student subscription is also available. It was increased 14.5% (from HK$7) and 25% (from HK$8) respectively in August 2011.
As of 26 August 2010, SCMP Group posted a profit of $52.3 million in the first half of 2010.
The printed version of the Post is in a broadsheet format, in sections: Main, City, Sport, Business, Classifieds, Property (Wednesday), Racing (Wednesday), Technology (Tuesday), Education (Saturday), Style magazine (first Friday of every month); the Sunday edition contains Main, a Review section, a Post Magazine, Racing, "At Your Service", a services directory, and "Young Post", targeted at younger readers.
On 26 March 2007, the Post was given a facelift, with new presentation and fonts. Another redesign in 2011 changed the typefaces to Farnham and Amplitude for headlines, Utopia for text, and Freight for headers.
SCMP.com is a subscription-only service, which also allows the retrieval of archive articles dating back from 1993. It was launched online in December 1996. On 30 May 2007, SCMP.com relaunched with a new look, features, and multimedia content. Headlines and the introduction to stories are now free to view, while the full articles are available to subscribers. Archive photos and articles are available for purchase.
On 16 July 2007, SCMP.com launched its first-ever viral video marketing campaign targeting a global audience and highlighting the new multimedia features of the website.
At present, the SCMP also provides free subscription to "The South China Morning Post iPad edition" for the Apple iPad. SCMP.com launched a major redesign on 20 April 2015.
Upon having been acquired by Alibaba, the new owners announced that the paywall would be removed. The paywall was subsequently removed on the night of 4 April 2016. By doing so, SCMP wished to increase its readership globally and allow the global community to have access to insightful and trusted news of China. It vowed to better adapt to the reading habits of the readers.
The Post weathered 10 editors in 11 years since 2000. Mark Clifford, former editor-in-chief of The Standard from 2004–06, was hired as editor-in-chief of 'The Post' in February 2006. Clifford brought with him several staffers from The Standard, including business section editor Stuart Jackson, who departed after seven turbulent months. He presided over the controversial dismissal of several journalists over an internal prank, and himself resigned with effect 1 April 2007. Following Reginald Chua's short-lived tenure at the Post, from 2009 to April 2011, and deputy editor, Cliff Buddle became Acting Editor-In-Chief for 10 months.
Wang Xiangwei (王向偉), a member of the Jilin Provincial Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, succeeded in 2012. Wang previously worked for the China Daily, the BBC and the defunct Eastern Express. Tammy Tam, senior editor of the China section, was elevated to deputy editor under Wang. In May 2015, the Post told columnists Philip Bowring, Steve Vines, Kevin Rafferty and Frank Ching – all of whom have criticised the government in commentaries to varying degrees on different subjects over the years – that their services would no longer be needed. The manner of their dismissal generated criticism, as well as speculation as to who had effected the removals.
In January 2016, Tam was promoted to the paper's editor-in-chief.
The ultimate owners of the publication, Kerry Group's Robert Kuok and his family, are widely recognised to be inclined towards the central government of China, and questions have been raised over the paper's editorial independence and self-censorship. The paper's editors have nevertheless asserted their independence during Kuok's ownership. There have been concerns, denied by Kuok, over the forced departures, in rapid succession, of several staff and contributors who were considered critical of China's government or its supporters in Hong Kong. These included, in the mid-1990s, their popular cartoonist Larry Feign, humour columnist Nury Vittachi, and numerous China-desk staff, namely 2000–01 editorial pages editor Danny Gittings, Beijing correspondent Jasper Becker and China pages editor Willy Lam.
Not long after Kuok's purchase of the newspaper, and after running several cartoons about the culling of human body parts from Chinese prisoners, Larry Feign was abruptly dismissed and his satirical comic strip "Lily Wong" axed in 1995. His firing was defended as "cost cutting", but was widely viewed as political self-censorship in the face of Hong Kong's imminent handover to the PRC. In his book North Wind, Hong Kong author Nury Vittachi documented that then editor, Jonathan Fenby, who had freshly joined from The Observer, suppressed letters querying the disappearance of the popular strip and then busied himself writing letters to international media that had covered the Feign case defending the sacking. Vittachi explained his own departure from the journal in his book, linking it to the pressures he – and other contributors – faced from top management and editors to abstain from writing on topics that were deemed "sensitive", basically in denial of the free speech rights enshrined in the Hong Kong Basic Law and the one country, two systems policy.
In 2000, Fenby was succeeded by Robert Keatley, a former Wall Street Journal journalist. After the paper ran a story by Willy Lam on its front page about a delegation of Hong Kong tycoons meeting with Chinese President Jiang Zemin, in which it was reported that business opportunities in China were being offered as a quid pro quo for the tycoons' political support, the China Liaison Office raised objections of insensitivity as well as incurring the owner's wrath. Kuok berated Keatley in his office and wrote a 2-page letter, which Keatley published in the letters section of the paper. Kuok stepped down as group chairman that year.
Editorial page editor Gittings complained that in January 2001 he was told to take a "realistic" view of editorial independence and ordered not to run extracts of the Tiananmen Papers, though ultimately was allowed, after protesting "strenuously", to do so. The editor had believed that there had already been sufficient coverage.
At the launch of a joint report published by the Hong Kong Journalists' Association and Article 19 in July 2001, the chairman of the Hong Kong Journalists' Association said: "More and more newspapers self-censor themselves because they are controlled by either a businessman with close ties to Beijing, or part of a large enterprise, which has financial interests over the border."
Editor-in-chief Wang Xiangwei, appointed by the owner in 2012 after consultation with the Liaison Office, was criticised for his decision to reduce the paper's coverage of the death of Li Wangyang on 7 June 2012. Wang, who had left the office for the day, reportedly returned to the paper after midnight to reverse the staff editors' decision to run a full story. The Post published a two-paragraph report inside the paper; other news media reported it prominently. A senior staff member who sought to understand the decision circulated the resulting email exchanges, that indicate he received a stern rebuff from Wang. Wang made a statement on 21 June, in which he said he understood the "huge responsibility to deliver news... [and]... the journalistic heritage we have inherited". and said that his decision not to pursue extensive coverage as the story broke was pending "more facts and details surrounding the circumstances of this case". Wang admitted that his decision on Li Wangyang was a bad one in retrospect.
Reporter Paul Mooney said that the Li Wangyang story was not an isolated incident: Wang Xiangwei has "long had a reputation as being a censor of the news... Talk to anyone on the China reporting team at the South China Morning Post and they'll tell you a story about how Wang has cut their stories, or asked them to do an uninteresting story that was favourable to China." Mooney, who had won 10 journalistic award and whose contract with the paper was not renewed in May 2012 ostensibly because of "budgetary reasons", said that for seven months prior to his departure from the newspaper, Wang had marginalised Mooney by blocking him writing any China stories, and then hired a batch of novices mainly from mainland China after he had been ousted.
Despite the reported sentiments of the owners, the Post does report on commemorations of the Tiananmen Square Massacre, and ran an editorial criticising the one-child policy in 2013. The SCMP published an interview with Jack Ma, founder of Alibaba, in which Ma defended late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping's decision to crack down on pro-democracy student protests, saying it was "the most correct decision". The relevant remark was deleted not long after the article was published; the reporter responsible for the interview was suspended and later was resigned. Alibaba said that Ma had been quoted "improperly", and demanded a rectification, but the editor-in-chief refused.
During Alibaba's failed attempt at securing initial public offering on the HK Stock Exchange, the Post published articles questioning the business practices of the platform, including the abundant existence of counterfeit goods.
The announcement of ownership changes at its parent company on 11 December 2015 sparked concerns that the journal would become another mouthpiece of the People's Government. Among the motives of the Alibaba acquisition was to make media coverage of China “objective, fair and accurate” and not in the optic of Western news outlets. Alibaba asserted that the journal's editorial independence would be assured.
Joseph Tsai, executive vice-chairman of Alibaba Group, said fears that Alibaba's ownership would compromise editorial independence "reflects a bias of its own, as if to say newspaper owners must espouse certain views, while those that hold opposing views are unfit. In fact, that is exactly why we think the world needs a plurality of views when it comes to China coverage. China's rise as an economic power and its importance to world stability is too important for there to be a singular thesis." He also said: "Today when I see mainstream western news organisations cover China, they cover it through a very particular lens. It is through the lens that China is a communist state and everything kind of follows from that. A lot of journalists working with these western media organisations may not agree with the system of governance in China and that taints their view of coverage".
More questions were raised about the relationship between the publication and the Chinese authorities after the Post was able to secure an interview with Zhao Wei, the legal assistant of human rights defender Li Heping, who was in the custody of Chinese police. The Post was able to make contact with Zhao Wei a few days after her release from prison, but while she was still in the custody of Chinese security forces, and at a time when neither her husband nor lawyer were able to reach her. The interview quoted Zhao giving what was taken to be a telephone confession, including “I have come to realise that I have taken the wrong path... I repent for what I did. I’m now a brand new person.”
Since the Alibaba acquisition the South China Morning Post has discontinued several subsidiary publications, including its Chinese language edition, the 48 HOURS weekend magazine, and the popular HK Magazine alternative weekly. The 48 HOURS staff continue to write on other SCMP platforms. The closures have been viewed as part of a wider effort under Alibaba management to shift focus away from Hong Kong and onto mainland China, and to market that coverage to western readers overseas, in order to correct what Alibaba's executive vice chairman called "the wrong perception of China" among foreigners.
Zach Hines, who served as editor-in-chief of HK Magazine from 2008–2015, wrote of its closure:
"The South China Morning Post purchased us at the right time, and for sensible reasons. The media landscape was changing dramatically, as it continues to do, and their ownership bought us a few final years of life. But, like “One Country, Two Systems,” this odd and uncomfortable marriage was never going to last.
To be a truly independent press, you cannot be beholden to anyone except your readers. But, to my great dismay, this is becoming an increasing impossibility in Hong Kong, in both the mainstream Chinese and much-smaller English media. The SCMP itself is now owned by Alibaba, perhaps the biggest pro-China organization in the world, if you don’t count the Communist Party. The paper’s business interests are also drifting away from Hong Kong, and toward readers in the United States and the rest of the west. HK Magazine is a canary in the coal mine. [...]Hong Kong Free Press
Initially SCMP stated that the HK Magazine website would be deleted from the internet. This received strong condemnation. The Hong Kong Journalists Association lodged an inquiry with SCMP management. Hines stated: "It is unthinkable that a newspaper of record would ever consider deleting content from its archive. The SCMP should be held to proper journalistic standards. HK Magazine was an important feature of Hong Kong’s media landscape, and it must be preserved. Deleting it would be an utter travesty of journalistic principles – and a slap in the face to SCMP’s readers and to Hong Kong society in general." Following the negative reaction SCMP stated that HK Magazine content would be migrated to the South China Morning Post website before the HK Magazine website was deleted. Additionally, Hong Kong data scientist Mart van de Ven launched a public appeal to help archive back issues of the magazine, expressing doubt that SCMP would preserve the full archive. He found that he was unable to access issue 1,103, which featured Leung Chun-ying on the cover.Gary Botting, writer at the SCMP in the 1960s, now an extradition lawyer in Canada
Jonathan Fenby, editor from 1995 to 1999
Stephen Leather, British thriller novel writer
Ma Jun, Chinese environmentalist, reporter for the SCMP from 1993 to 2000