Speaking at a Walkley’s event in Sydney last Friday morning, New York Times CEO Mark Thompson shared his overwhelmingly positive outlook on the future of journalism.
Thompson, ex-director general of the BBC, joined The New York Times as chief executive in August 2012.
Under his leadership, The New York Times became the first publication to generate over one million online subscriptions, with share prices rising from $5 to over $30.
Following a keynote speech from the NY Times boss, Media Watch host Paul Barry sat down with Thompson to interrogate his positivity about the state and future of Australian journalism and media.
According to Thompson, there are two reasons why it’s the best time it has ever been to be a journalist, despite often feeling like it’s the worst time.
He said: “The first [reason] is that technology has enabled journalists to reach more people than ever before.
“And the second is that we’re living in an amazing time for stories. The world is going through an astonishingly disruptive, transitional phase.
“After a decade of relative stability, many countries, particularly Western countries, are wrestling with a whole set of difficult choices.
“We’re seeing massive political disruption, globalisation, automation, mass human migration, the challenge of climate change, questions inside our societies around inequalities and social justice.
“This is producing the most incredible stories. And stories that are often interconnected.”
However, Thompson admitted that sometimes it doesn’t feel like a great time to be a journalist.
“Straightforwardly, this is probably the most dangerous time in history to be a journalist.
He said that around the world, more journalists are being “prevented from doing their work”, and are being harassed, arrested, sent to jail, tortured, injured and murdered more than any time in history.
Thompson added that the climate for free expression and the free, open access to news you can trust is darkening due to a deliberate set of policies by different political factions and governments.
When it comes to the central challenge to modern journalism, Thompson said it’s an economic one.
He said: “The old business models, particularly the role of advertising in supporting journalism, has been under acute stress. Business models have gotten tougher.
“The response from most news organisations has been to try and do something on the digital side, but they find it hard to scale something in digital that is big enough to make up for the lost ground in print.
“[The response] doesn’t really succeed. And we see the total economics of the company, therefore, degrading.”
He said the response is to go for defensive consolidation, the concentration of ownership, media groupings coming together, adding that these are “defensive actions”.
New digital publishers are struggling too, such as Huffington Post, VICE, Buzzfeed. Thompson said even the big publishers are talking about consolidation.
“We’re trying to do something different at The Times. Our theory is a different one. And it’s super simple,” Thompson said.
“We think if we can make great journalism, and we market it effectively and package it in digital assets, and get good at presenting those assets to the people in America and around the world, we can persuade people to subscribe to The Times and make that into a great business.
“The theory being: you make something good, you put it in the shop window, people come in and buy it and you get revenue that you can invest in making more good things.
“And that’s how we have gotten into that virtual circle of building our newsroom.
He added: “We believe that there are people all over the planet who really want to understand what’s going on and who want access to reliable information, trustworthy information that they can use to make up their own minds on what’s happening.
“We think they will pay for that. We think it’s a valuable service and once word of that gets around, it will grow.”
“We’re living in a moment where several stories of the year are breaking in a single month. And the need for outstanding journalism is not going to diminish, it’s going to grow.
Thompson also discussed the issues publishing and media currently face, such as relating to Google and Facebook, how to think about traditional advertising. maintaining profitability and maintaining this as the business model changes.
He said: “We face plenty of issues. Of course you can look at all of this and say it’s complicated, it’s a stressful time to be in media, I didn’t come into journalism signing up for all of this and I wish it wasn’t happening.
“All of us feel that on some occasions. But there are plenty of days when I look at all of this and say, we’ve never had a better opportunity to grow journalism in the world. We have to trust the public and we have to trust ourselves but potentially journalism can have a better future than it’s past.”
When challenged by Media Watch’s Paul Barry on whether local Australian news outlets could be as optimistic, given The Times’ unique position as a truly global news brand, Thompson remained resolute.
He said: “For me, the biggest single problem at the top of media organisations is defeatism and a lack of self-belief.
“I was told back in 2012 by a number of people, “Don’t take the job. It’s over. It is a wonderful brand but it’s stuck in the past, it’s incredibly conservative, they’ve lost their way, they nearly went bust a few years ago. The stock price is in the toilet and that’s for a very good reason. You’re wasting your time.”
“I went into the building and started talking to those that worked there and actually found that there was a demand for change.
Thompson said the challenge for leaders, editors and CEOs is that in an organisation you’ll find people, often the youngest, who are hungry for a challenge and change.
He advised getting “out of the way of the change makers and let them do their thing.”
Thompson also said when it comes to journalism, you need to “do it as if you mean it.”
“Of course having a big home market and having a global brand are advantages. But there are some basic concepts to follow.
He said: “Do not obsess about things like the number of clicks. Clicks do not produce value in themselves. The whole idea that you can cynically try and get people to click on as many pages as possible and make a fortune through digital advertising doesn’t work. It hasn’t made money.
“Subscription is the way that we monetise at the moment principally. We do well from advertising, and our content is good, and advertisers want to be associated with the content.”
Thompson believes the heart of journalism is establishing a relationship with users where “they trust you, find you indispensable and they think what you are doing is different”, adding “I don’t see why any publication in the world can’t do that.”
Paul Barry remained skeptical. He said: “If you imagine the Sydney Morning Herald, for example, trying to follow your strategy, that is, creating wonderful journalism to sell around the world – how much money is that going to cost them before they’re going to see any sort of return? It’s like a Silicon Valley start-up model that you’re proposing, it’s incredibly risky.”
Thompson, smiling at Barry’s comment about risk, confirmed that was exactly what he was proposing.
“You’re worried it’s risky? Look out the window. The safe option which is trying to keep your profitability as long as possible by cutting all your costs and sprinkling your newsroom, the traditional safe way of managing your business, is a certain path to the grave.
“That idea of winding it down so eventually the last journalist can switch off the light in the newsroom. That’s certain death.
“Live a little. Try and figure out ways in which you can differentiate yourself. In many markets, media is getting more like each other. It’s becoming less distinctive. The different news sources look more and more like each other. It seems to me that we should be trying to do precisely the opposite of that.
Thompson said newsrooms and newspapers need to be different and “do something exceptional that people can’t find anywhere else.” He said they need to figure out how to connect with people and offer them something that is worth paying for.
He conceded: “I’m not saying it’s easy. You might have to invest.”
Thompson added: “Global brands are not set up to provide local journalism for a local audience. There’s going to be an immense gap. News is, for most citizens, what’s happening in my city, my state, my country. Part of this is a bet about demand.”
Thompson concluded by saying there are countless opportunities for journalists today, especially for the ones who are open-minded.
He said: “There are so many opportunities. People have got this kind of tram-lined thinking about the way the world was and the way we knew it was, and in particular, the fact that it’s kind of impossible to make up the lost revenue streams in digital.”
“I think it’s nonsense. Be more open-minded about what you could do.”