How Gary Liu Is Reinventing The South China Morning Post

By Lee Williamson

Here are 5 ways the CEO of Hong Kong's paper of record is spearheading a new digital age for the company

Tatler Asia

Generation T lister Gary Liu has had a busy year to say the least. He joined the South China Morning Post 15 months ago as its CEO, with the objective to transform Hong Kong’s paper of record into a modern global media company.

No easy task, considering the 115-year-old paper was, by Liu’s own admission, “still focused on [a] legacy format” and “relatively myopic to other ways of doing things”. In comparison, Liu is anything but. After cutting his teeth at Google, Liu moved to Spotify, where he led the Swedish streaming giant’s Spotify Labs. Before the SCMP, he served as CEO of news aggregator Digg for just over a year, tripling both its revenue and traffic in the process.

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Above  Photo: Courtesy of Gary Liu

Even at a cursory glance, it’s obvious the SCMP is reinventing every aspect of its identity. From the recent rebrand to its relocation to swish new headquarters, Liu is pushing innovation every stage of the way.

Like all effective leaders, Liu has a complex vision that he can communicate in the simplest of rhetoric. “Today, we are a Hong Kong newspaper,” says Liu. “If you ask most people in Hong Kong what the SCMP means to them, they’ll tell you ‘It’s a Hong Kong newspaper that tells me what’s going on in the world.’ In ten years, when you ask that question to anybody around the world who knows the brand, they should tell you ‘SCMP is a global media company that happens to have an expertise in Asia.’”

During a recent panel discussion at the Great Festival of Innovation, Liu outlined some of the things the SCMP has done to position itself to achieve this bold ambition. Here are five points we picked up from the talk that explain how Gary Liu is transforming the SCMP.

Creating a common language

We started off with language. We had to have common language that we could point to when making change. I think as a leader, your primary job in an organisation is to be a communicator. Not having shared language—whether it’s ‘purpose’, ‘values’ or whatever else, every company calls it something different—it’s very difficult to get 1,000 people with 500 different jobs to point in a singular direction. Especially when that direction is brand new.

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Above  Photo: Courtesy of Gary Liu

Developing technology

We are using a lot of tech for our transformation. On the technology side, the transformation is twofold. The first is the backend, where we focused heavily on building our data infrastructure and rebuilding all our tools so our people can get faster and more productive.

The second big part is consumer product. We’ve had to do a 180 on our understanding of what consumer product for news looks like. A news organisation going digital needs to stop trying to translate its printed products onto an ever-smaller screen. That’s the mistake the news industry has made in the course of the last 15-odd years. We have to start thinking about user experience and consumer product based on what consumers have already told us. They’ve said, “This is what we want. We’ve already made the decision of what discovery should look like, what consumption behaviour should look like, what sharing should look like. You as a news organisation need to play by our preferences.”  

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Above  One of the first issues of the South China Morning Post, published in November 1903

Hiring new talent

When you are trying to change overall infrastructure and how [the company] views consumer product, new talent is the first thing you need. For us it has meant going from a 40-person technology team that covered everything from consumer product to traditional IT, to two separate teams that have around 120 people in total. We’ve tripled the size of our technology team in just the last 12 months, and we hope to grow it even more. So that was first up for us: new talent.

Restructuring for speed

Second was to restructure our team so we can iterate and launch much faster. We used to operate in “waterfall development” like so many traditional companies do, where it takes months for us to decide what to build next, another six months after that to actually build it, and then another two months to QA it, so it’s perfect when it’s launched. [With that model], we’re nine months down the road, consumer behaviour has already changed, and once we launch it’s already somewhat irrelevant and we can’t change it very fast.

Now we do two-week sprints where we launch updates to our web-based and app-based products on a two-week cycle. It’s allowed us to test much faster and react much faster. We’re structuring our organisation to react faster to consumer change, because now there’s a new learned consumer behaviour that matters to us every few months, and we need to understand it and be building for it.

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Above  Photo: Courtesy of Gary Liu/Twitter

Incentivising innovation

Our goal is to change the environment so grassroots innovation can grow. There’s so many things that we’ve done to allow for that environment, from literally the [new] physical space to the cultural language, but also by changing the incentives structure.

One of the things we’ve done this year is change the way we set company-level goals. It always used to be that a company had an annual goal, and whether or not the company hit that goal determined bonuses. 

Now company-level goals are set on a quarterly basis. Every three months we set goals and we’re fully transparent every month about how we’re doing. The achievement of those company-level goals—and the department-level goals that feed into them—does not determine bonuses at the end of the year.

Our aim is to make sure that at the goal-setting process, people feel free to shoot higher than they can sometimes necessarily get to, and are willing—and afforded the space—to fail. In the five quarters we’ve done this, it’s already dramatically changed our people’s ability to think greater than that conservative “Oh, I need to get paid so this is what I’ll say I’m going to be able to achieve”. 

Remarks have been edited for clarity and concision.

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