100m online readers and counting: The New York Times CEO on why quality content and uncompromising coverage matters

If you fancy a quiet life, 2016 is not the right time to join the media, warns Mark Thompson in a recent podcast with Media Masters host Paul Blanchard. The former director-general of the BBC has been chief executive of the New York Times since November 2012. As a Brit leading an iconic American newspaper, he authored a book about the language of politics in the age of the 24-hour news cycle published this September entitled ‘Enough Said: What’s Gone Wrong with the Language of Politics?’

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Thompson explains that against a backdrop of increased dependence on impactful language created by social media such as sharing complex ideas in 140 characters – the 24/7 news cycle has been accelerated to such an extent that it has a detrimental influence on how the media tell stories.

He first experienced this in the 1980s, specifically while being in charge of the BBC news operation in Tiananmen Square during the crisis in 1989. “Suddenly we were finding this quite big news operation, covering one of the biggest stories of the year and the decade, filing not one story a day or even 10 stories a day, but we were doing nearly between 25 and 30 cut television and radio stories. That’s a lot of content.

“So suddenly… 24/7 literally, 24 hours a day, somebody’s cutting something, somebody’s feeding something. And I remember thinking very clearly, and again in the first Gulf War a couple of years later, ‘This is what the future looks like’.”

Much like cable television and satellite television changed visual news coverage, digital publishing is disrupting the language of publishing. “Media organisations come under immense competitive pressure, and that’s when the temptation to try and find the strongest opinion, the shortest most punchy headline, the thing that’s going to work well on Twitter, all comes to the fore. And so you get this kind of intensification and acceleration of the news, and meanwhile something else is going on.”

In this environment Thompson believes the future of content is experiencing real practical problems and certain questions arise, like: ‘Do you want journalists to go out and find out what is really going on or do you want them to merely say what seems to be going on?’ It also creates pressures to get exposure and gain readers in a click-baity world where you are competing against pictures of cats on BuzzFeed or where Facebook is prioritising commercial interests on its news feed.

At the New York Times, says Thompson, they resisted the obvious temptations.  “We know what we stand for. I think one of the great things about the New York Times is…we want to be influential and we want our audience to be very broad, but we are aiming to provide serious news, features and opinion. That’s our job, that’s our brand. And if you don’t want serious news, features and opinion, we’re not the right place to come.

“…We now have an audience of about 125 million people a month who come to us and we have a deeply engaged audience in the tens of millions. I am not claiming that everyone who comes to us is deeply engaged, but we do have a big, deeply engaged audience as well.”

Thompson continues: “We have… a very successful digital subscription model. For me that’s because we’re doubling down on seriousness and on trying to produce quality.”

He is worried about “colleagues”, which he describes as “legacy publishers and some of the new entrants” who decided to “go down the middle and try to be all things to all men”. Their plan was to try and build “vast, relatively thin audiences with clickbait”. An approach centred around going after “a sort of jolly, cheerful mainstream”. But as Thompson rightly points out  there’s an awful lot of that available for nothing on the Internet. He adds that the kind of advertising which goes with this means these players are competing with the likes of Facebook, Twitter and Google. “Those are tough guys to compete head to head with,” he warns.

Thompson finds it unsurprising that the New York Times is by far the most successful digital business in the serious news space. “We’re going to make half a billion dollars of revenue out of digital this year (2016). We’ve done that not by compromising, but by actually doubling down on investigations, great international news coverage… really thoughtful commentary, as well as quality culture and lifestyle coverage.”

That said, not everything about the Internet and digital publishing is bad, he insists. When he thinks about social media and the Internet, he also sees a very big set of pluses. “It is genuinely democratising. Far more information is available to the public than ever before…if you want to find out about issues, there’s never been a better moment in human history to do just that. Secondly, if you’ve got opinions you can share them. You can make your own content and you can distribute it to the entire planet at virtually nil personal additional cost. So incredible democratisation, both of knowledge and of opinion.”

Listen to the podcast.

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