“Quality journalism is in rude health”: The Times editor-in-chief John Witherow envisions bright future at Web Summit 2021

John Witherow, editor-in-chief of The Times of London, has delivered a resoundingly positive message about the future of quality journalism on the first full day of Web Summit in Lisbon. Witherow spoke on the Fourth Estate stage to discuss news media’s long history and the opportunities that lie ahead, as the editor of a newspaper which is now 236 years old (founded in 1785). 

In a 20-minute speech delivered under the banner of Saving High-Quality Journalism, Witherow wryly nodded to this title. “I have been asked to speak about saving high-quality journalism,” he said. “But that implies that it needs to be saved.

“For the gloomsters,” he continued, “that is indeed the story – they’re lamenting the rise of increasingly powerful tech giants and the decline of traditional media. Once upon a time, it was moving pictures that were the menace. Now it is clickbait, the race to the bottom, the assumption that consumers won’t pay. But good journalism is thriving – it’s in rude health.”

“A golden age for serious journalism”

Witherow went on to describe “a golden age for serious journalism”, in which established, quality media outlets are attracting subscribers as well as expanding into audio and visual. “If anything, it’s tabloid journalism that is failing.”

He does acknowledge that there has been a shift from the beginning of the 21st century, however. “What recently seemed cataclysmic has actually become a success story,” he said, referring to the challenges represented by the tech giants and the shift to digital news consumption. “But the future looked bleak at the start of this century.

“Over a decade ago, in response to this, The Times made the decision to put all its content behind a paywall. And the gamble has paid off: The Sunday Times and The Times now have 375,000 digital-only subscribers, and they’re loyal – they read for 20 minutes on average with every visit to the site.”

The Times was one of the first newspapers to implement a paywall. “A year after we did it, The New York Times followed. Now, nearly all newspapers offer some kind of paywall. Even The Guardian has inched towards it.”

The Times is in effect converting itself into a multimedia publisher and broadcaster.

Journalism as D2C

Witherow spoke about the enormous benefits that this model has for a news organisation, especially with regards to data capture. “Successful journalism brands have effectively become D2C (direct-to-consumer) brands,” he said. 

This has resulted in “invaluable data” becoming available, explained Witherow. “Data that informs our decisions – we know our readers better than ever. What they like, how long they read for. 

“We also encourage our writers to engage with readers, to develop the relationship. We’re looking at moving towards making commenting a privilege of full subscribers only and using their real names to inform quality debate. 

“We’ve also noted the importance of newsletters. Subscriber churn rates plunge by half if you can get them to subscribe to a newsletter.”

In other words, “The digital shift is actually making us better journalists,” said Witherow, “forcing us to think laterally.” And trust is everything: “We have to be reliable and right, but also distinctive. For the future, our goal is simple: we make fewer but better stories. We’ll be defined as much by what we don’t cover as what we do. Editors are encouraged to reflect more deeply about what makes each story distinctive, whether that’s a graphic, an interactive element, or a unique quote.”

We have to be reliable and right, but also distinctive.

Resisting the tech giants 

One of the driving forces behind these innovations at The Times is that of “combating the drift towards the commodification of media” instigated by tech companies and platforms, principally Google and Facebook, said Witherow. “The big tech behemoths have ripped out brand identity with flattened search results. Facebook is the biggest news distributor in the world, yet less than 50 per cent of users can recall the name of the news brand that produced the story they read.”

For Witherow, the way many media companies behaved in response to this was the wrong approach. “Most media companies prostrated themselves in the face of the tech companies – they bankrolled the success of these platforms by giving out content for free. Tech platforms owned the revenues, we owned all the costs. But [The Times’ parent company] News Corp and The Times have stood firm against the tech companies and it has paid off.”

Experimenting to reach new audiences

Most recently, The Times has been experimenting with different formats in order to reach different kinds of audiences. “The Times is in effect converting itself into a multimedia publisher and broadcaster,” explained Witherow. 

For example, as well as podcasts like Stories of Our Times, the company launched Times Radio at the start of the pandemic – the first of its kind to be affiliated with an established media brand. It features experienced radio journalists broadcasting 24 hours a day, with The Times writers acting as hosts or interviewees. 

“The audience here is considerably younger and more female. Times Radio attracts 637,000 listeners per week just over one year after its launch,” said Witherow. “Plus, we’re further experimenting with arts programmes and video formats to reach new audiences. All of this with one aim: to encourage them to subscribe.”

What recently seemed cataclysmic has actually become a success story.

A positive future for quality journalism

Reiterating his message about the rude health of quality journalism, Witherow ended by adding that The Times is in “robust financial health” to boot. “We have a steady flow of funds from digital and print subscriptions. Digital revenues grew by 30 per cent in 2020. Overall circulation, at three-quarters of a million, is the highest this century. And we’ve challenged the [UK] government and had a significant win by removing VAT from digital products, like our news. This has brought millions more into our pockets.”

All of this, concluded Witherow, is about enhancing The Times’ offering to make it more attractive to new and current subscribers. “Established brands that have existed for centuries or decades – purveyors of serious journalism around the world – we have a bright future ahead of us. It could be the best time in our entire history. I tell young people today that now is the best time to get into journalism: we can be read by more people internationally than ever, we can be faster and better, we can make better products like photos and podcasts, and we can be greener – using less ink and paper – by being entirely digital.”


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