Chinese e-commerce titan Alibaba Group Holding Ltd has approached the publisher of Hong Kong's South China Morning Post newspaper to discuss buying its media assets, a source familiar with the matter said on Thursday.
Earlier, publisher SCMP Group Ltd said it had received a preliminary approach by an unidentified third party interested in its media properties, which include the century-old newspaper.
The South China Morning Post occupies an important position among the English-speaking elite that still dominates the former British colony. Chinese-language dailies may be more influential than the Post, but changes in its editorial direction are seen as a barometer for press freedom under Chinese rule.
On Monday, Bloomberg News reported that Alibaba Executive Chairman Jack Ma was in advanced talks to take a stake in SCMP.
The source said the talks involved Alibaba rather than a private investment by Ma. The Hangzhou-based company has been expanding into the media sector with deals in news and advertising.
Some journalists at the South China Morning Post welcomed the news, saying Ma had a reputation for treating staff well.
Others were cautious. "Be careful what you wish for," said an editor who spoke on condition of anonymity. He said some journalists were wary of perceived close ties between Ma, a mainland Chinese citizen, and the leadership in Beijing.
SCMP declined to comment.
Duncan Clark, Chairman of Beijing-based tech consultancy BDA China, said Jack Ma was unlikely to turn the SCMP into a propaganda tool either for Beijing or Alibaba.
"They are more sophisticated than that," he said.
Consideration of the investment proposal is at a very early stage and the terms are subject to further discussion and regulatory approval, SCMP Group said in its statement.
"There are reports out there that say a signing ceremony is imminent. We don't see that," said Michael Chu, Director of Group Marketing & Events at SCMP Group.
"As with any business discussion, I would say there is a degree of uncertainty. Things could change."
Alibaba spokeswoman Rachel Chan declined to comment.
Beyond the newspaper, SCMP Group also has a licence to several publications, including Cosmopolitan, Harper's Bazaar and The Peak magazine. In October, it ventured into e-commerce by investing in Hong Kong-based online retailer MyDress.com.
In 2013, a reporter for the Post quit after quoting Ma as having made remarks in support of Beijing's violent crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square in 1989. Ma denied at the time that he had made such an assertion.
Earlier this month, the South China Morning Post said the newspaper's Deputy Editor, Tammy Tam, would succeed Wang Xiangwei as Editor-in-Chief on 1 January.