Mark Thompson has led the publication through difficult times
Mark Thompson, the former BBC head, has had success transitioning the New York Times into a digital business (Photo: Getty)
When Mark Thompson stood aside as director-general of the BBC to take on a new challenge as president and chief executive of the New York Times Company in November 2012, the future of the world’s most famous newspaper was deeply uncertain.
A legacy brand in an industry pulled apart by technological disruption, its business was badly exposed to the chill of the economic downturn. In the years before Thompson’s arrival, it lost hundreds of millions of dollars in print advertising and had to sell, then lease back, its Manhattan headquarters.
Today, The New York Times appears a symbol of hope for sustainable quality journalism. At a “town hall” meeting of the paper’s staff last week, Thompson announced that it had hit its ambitious target of generating $800m (£613m) in annual digital revenues – a year ahead of schedule.
In November, the paper reported its plans to buy back its building in Eighth Avenue. After Thompson broke his news, the paper’s publisher, AG Sulzberger, reflected that one of the most important things written by The New York Times in 2019 was not a story but a cheque, for $246m, to pay off the last debt taken on to weather the financial crisis, “our most perilous moment”.
It's a proud time for Mark Thompson (Photo: Larry Busacca/Getty Images for The New York Times)
It’s a proud time for Thompson, who set the $800m-a-year target in 2015 and has driven the organisation’s relentless focus on serving readers on mobile devices and giving them news in fresh digital formats, especially video and audio.
The New York Times has more than five million paying subscribers, of whom just 900,000 receive the broadsheet newspaper.
With its global brand recognition, it sees potential for international growth and Thompson has set a new objective of 10 million subscriptions by 2025. The UK, where it is offering new subs at a knockdown £1 a week, is its biggest overseas market. Last year, it enjoyed a viral hit with an interactive British-Irish dialect quiz.
Its audio product, The Daily, is the gold standard in news podcasts, with five million daily users. Its visual investigations team uses compelling multimedia storytelling techniques.
While 3.4 million subscribers have signed up for its news output, 600,000 more are registered for the NYT’s apparently addictive crossword app, with 300,000 foodies paying for NYT Cooking. Another growing offshoot is NYT Parenting.
The golden touch
The paper is “becoming a world-class consumer brand”, its revenues chief Meredith Kopit Levien (hired by Thompson) told me in 2017.
This deep engagement – and the fact that millennials have become its largest audience demographic – attracts advertisers. Sebastian Tomich, the NYT’s advertising chief, told me last year that he was celebrating the first annual increase in ad revenues since 2006, as rising digital income more than compensates for lost print business.
Thompson has a golden touch. He had eight good years running the BBC (narrowly avoiding the Jimmy Savile scandal) and two heading Channel 4 (just escaping the Big Brother racism meltdown). Now, he is leading The New York Times to record growth (he inherited a fledgling digital subscription strategy from his predecessor Janet Robinson and has adapted it deftly).
But is The New York Times pointing the UK news industry towards the promised land? This is a unique brand to which many thousands of liberal-minded Americans have turned as an antidote to a US President whose accusations that it is a “failing” outlet for “fake news” prompted it to launch a subscription drive under the slogan: “The truth is hard to find”.
Millions of people are subscribed to The New York Times's digital products (Photo: ANGELA WEISS/AFP via Getty Images)
According to Nic Newman, senior research associate at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, the subscription lifeboat for news has finite capacity. “The majority of people will only pay out of their own money for one subscription and the people who subscribe tend to be richer and more interested in news – that’s a pretty limited pool of people.”
He doubts that subscription is the solution for regional titles. “It’s going to be very hard to make it work because people don’t value local news in the same way.”
Most millennials would rather pay for Netflix or Spotify than a news sub, the institute found. Subscription is the answer only for elite brands that lead a national market, such as Finland’s Helsingin Sanomat, or offer critical value to business. The Financial Times, a pioneer of digital subscriptions, hit one million customers in April. The Times and Sunday Times announced in August that they had passed 300,000 digital-only subscribers, among a 539,000 subscriber base.
Ultimately, it’s a matter of content. Last year, The New York Times’s 1,600-strong newsroom produced 59,995 articles, 193,929 photos, 3,900 videos, 445 podcast episodes and 39 pieces of television.
Sulzberger told colleagues they faced “economic headwinds” and stiff competition, including from the BBC on international affairs. “But,” he claimed, “there isn’t another news organisation doing as much, as well, as The New York Times.”