Perspectives: Don’t just put digital at the core; be digital-first

Gary Liu December 2018 APAC Region

The Google News Initiative is designed to help news organizations adapt to our changing digital landscape. We sat down with Gary Liu, chief executive officer of Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post, to hear his perspective on the challenges of the modern news era and his strategies for growth.

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Let’s first establish that we are working very hard to ensure everyone in the news organization is with us from the beginning until the end of the transformation. My role as the executive is to provide the resources and training so the team can learn to transform along with the organization.

Second, from a product technology standpoint, we had to invest. We went from 40 people, who covered front-end consumer product, back-end infrastructure, and IT to 130 people with technical expertise across three teams. We’ve also built internal tools to support the growth, and we launched new products in the international marketplace that will help us achieve our vision of leading the global conversation about China.

To stay relevant in today’s media environment, those creating news content – and SCMP is no exception — must be sharper, faster, and more competitive. This new media transformation hinges on a dynamic digital platform, ensuring that content is delivered in a timely manner in ways that consumers can digest. Effective discovery platforms and consumption platforms both matter. News providers have to get in front of consumers when and where they are looking for news, and they have to deliver it through their preferred method of consumption. It has never been easier to get content to them, but it requires thoughtfully and analytically restructuring the way we package the news. In this transformation, we have a responsibility to raise media literacy by providing products that guide consumption in a way that allows users to process the news as a whole and not just as a series of individual articles.  

When it comes to innovation, in the last 18 months I’ve learned that being different is not a strategy in itself. When reinventing the user experience, making a change has to have a reason. When we beta test, we have to think about creating solutions for problems that we have in mind. Changing the advertiser or user behavior for the sake of it won’t be good in the long run.

Now that we’ve set the stage, we need to understand that to be digital first, we must unanchor from the traditional. To do that, we created a dedicated print team. Prior to this, the online version was low quality and treated as the first draft with subsequent drafts until the end of the day, when the best version was sent to print. Setting apart the print team let everyone think with a digital-first mindset. For example, the business editor is now thinking about online content for what it is without being weighed down by the race against time for the best possible print version. The editorial team, which has grown to 350+ journalists, is focused on digital first, and the print team can take from that and put it into print.

Our digital readership grew when our paywall was removed in 2016. Between January 2017 and September 2018, our overall digital traffic grew by about 4X. And the ex-Hong Kong traffic has grown by nearly 6X.

At the end of the day, as a news organization, we have to remember that we trade in truth and the intelligent discourse around truth.

What words of wisdom do you have for your younger self who’s just starting out in this career?

Patience. We are given the opportunity as a generation to marry changing user behaviors and familiarity with incredible story telling devices. Combine that with wisdom and traditional news telling, and you have a very powerful platform.

This is the Golden Age of news storytelling — if we take the time to learn it and to do it well.

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