Chief executive of the New York Times steps down after boosting the paper financially but wrecking it journalistically

Mark Thompson, former director general of the BBC, has resigned his position as chief executive of the New York Times, which he’s held since 2012. This doesn’t appear to be a case of firing or of internal trouble at the paper. As the Guardian reports below (click on screenshot), Thompson had considerable success in expanding the digital platform of the paper:

The former BBC director general helped turn the outlet into a digital success story thanks to a successful paywall strategy which has helped it attract more than 5 million paying subscribers and hire hundreds of journalists at a time when much of the rest of the industry has faced deep cuts.

And Wikipedia adds this:

In 2015, he pledged to transform the Times into an “international institution”, the same way “we once successfully turned a metro paper into a national one”.  The Times now has more international digital subscribers than it had total digital subscribers when Thompson took over as CEO. Under Thompson’s leadership, The New York Times became the first news organization in the world to pass the one million digital-only subscription mark. As of May 2020, the company surpassed 5 million digital-only subscriptions, and 6 million total subscriptions, accounting for nearly sixty percent of the company’s revenue.  In 2015, Thompson set the goal of doubling the company’s digital revenue by 2020. The goal was met ahead of schedule in 2019. The company’s new goal is to have 10 million subscriptions by 2025.  He has also predicted that the print paper will last for at least 15 more years.

I suspect Thompson just wanted to move on after accomplishing what he wanted, but that also included, to my mind, wrecking the New York Times as a bastion of reliable and objective journalism. In fact, Thompson’s strategy, described below, almost guaranteed that the paper, despite becoming more financially secure, would degenerate:

In an exit interview, Thompson told the Guardian that news outlets need to change their internal cultures if they want to build a secure financial future: “The process of digital transformation can’t be done on a cost-cutting basis, it requires investment. It means being brave,” he said. “You can’t do it with the old tools and the old body of expertise. In terms of trying to find winners, it’s going to be around boldness, around younger audiences and truly embracing digital. The risk is if you think you can just eke it out. That’s not going to work. The economics slowly deteriorate.”

Thompson said he was warned against taking the job in 2012 because the Times was seen as a conservative institution that would resist change. He said his success there was built by fully embracing the internet, hiring younger employees and adopting the attitudes of Silicon Valley tech companies: “Letting very young, junior people play with big dangerous things. It’s a long way from the way things are done in many newsrooms.”

And this is exactly what is wrecking the paper for many of us, despite any financial success. Those “younger audiences” who have “Silicon Valley tech attitudes” and can “play with big dangerous things” is simply a restatement of this: “We’re going to hire woke youngsters and let them say whatever they want—so long as their ideology is consistent.”  As far as the Times being a “conservative institution,” I don’t think that’s the way most of us perceived it. Rather, it was a classically liberal paper which tried to maintain objectivity in its news column.  No more. The youngsters have a big, expensive toy to play with.

h/t: Jeremy

27 Comments

  1. Filippo
    Posted July 23, 2020 at 8:36 am | Permalink

    sub

  2. GBJames
    Posted July 23, 2020 at 8:41 am | Permalink

    He came on board in 2012 and at that time the NYTimes was more conservative. One must not erase the days of Judith Miller from our memories.

  3. rickflick
    Posted July 23, 2020 at 8:44 am | Permalink

    “Thompson’s strategy, described below, almost guaranteed that the paper, despite becoming more financially secure,”

    When companies struggle, they often seem to hire someone with a cutthroat mentality to boost the bottom line. It’s a desperation move which can end in disaster. Often it just means big layoffs. Downsizing disguised as “right-sizing”.

  4. eric
    Posted July 23, 2020 at 9:09 am | Permalink

    I refuse to believe that “youngster” and “woke liberal” are so correlated that the paper had no choice but to hire the latter.

    No. I fully understand and support the paper hiring younger journalists. But hiring all of them from woke subculture was a separate choice the paper made, and IMO a bad one.

    • Posted July 23, 2020 at 9:58 am | Permalink

      I would speculate that came about by the goals of a focal group of persons who were handling the hiring.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted July 23, 2020 at 10:45 am | Permalink

        Yeah it may even have been just something that happened when one woke person got in and could hire others. Like hires like. It’s why you quickly see company cultures implode when one asshole gets hired.

  5. Ken Kukec
    Posted July 23, 2020 at 9:10 am | Permalink

    Pretty sure when Thompson refers to The Times as “conservative,” he means that in the institutional rather than political sense. It’s its institutional conservatism that earned The Times the moniker “the old gray lady.”

    • phoffman56
      Posted July 23, 2020 at 7:43 pm | Permalink

      Assuming Thompson is British (?), the

      ‘..As far as the Times being a “conservative institution,” I don’t think that’s the way most of us perceived it. Rather, it was a classically liberal paper ‘

      might be reworded as the NYT having been conservative by Brit standards, but liberal by USian standards.

  6. Posted July 23, 2020 at 9:55 am | Permalink

    I don’t understand this obsession with “new younger audiences”. The demographic of the UK and presumably the USA is getting older. Also, the old people have got more disposable income.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted July 23, 2020 at 10:46 am | Permalink

      There are lots of Millenials and younger and they have a lot of purchasing power. I suspect they wanted to focus that purchasing power on buying journals….I highly doubt that happened.

    • GBJames
      Posted July 23, 2020 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

      It is pretty simple, Jeremy. Older folk are on their way out. There’s little future appealing to their desires. Younger folk represent a bigger pot of gold to be mined. Not that you can do mining in a pot. 😉

      • Posted July 23, 2020 at 1:45 pm | Permalink

        You CAN do it if you just take the bull by the horns of a dilemma while the iron is hot or get OFF the pot.

        • GBJames
          Posted July 23, 2020 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

          LOL

  7. Michael G. Sternberg
    Posted July 23, 2020 at 9:56 am | Permalink

    The “attitudes of Silicon Valley tech companies”, in my understanding, are those espoused on the “Hacker News” site,
    described by the New Yorker thusly:

    The proprietor of N-gate [MS: an acerbic digest of “Hacker News”, says:] “Almost
    every post deals with the same topics: these are people who spend their lives
    trying to identify all the ways they can extract money from others without
    quite going to jail,” he wrote. “They’re people who are convinced that they
    are too special for rules, and too smart for education. They don’t regard
    themselves as inhabiting the world the way other people do; they’re secret
    royalty, detached from society’s expectations and unfailingly outraged when
    faced with normal consequences for bad decisions. Society, and especially
    economics, is a logic puzzle where you just have to find the right set of
    loopholes to win the game. Rules are made to be slipped past, never stopping
    to consider why someone might have made those rules to start with. Silicon
    Valley has an ethics problem, and ‘Hacker’ ‘News’ is where it’s easiest to
    see.”

    If Mr. Thompson means that indeed, the country is in trouble.

    • Posted July 23, 2020 at 10:26 am | Permalink

      I think it is ridiculous to tar all of Silicon Valley with a Hacker News brush. For one thing, “hacker” is a negative term to most of these folks. A hacker is someone who gains unauthorized access to computer systems, something that most people working in Silicon Valley spend a huge amount of time and money preventing. I’m not a Hacker News reader but I suspect at best it reflects the rebellious edge of Silicon Valley and not that of its mainstream.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted July 23, 2020 at 10:44 am | Permalink

        A hacker is also someone who doesn’t usually know what they are doing so they just try stuff. I’d often here, “do you know or are you hacking?”

        • Posted July 23, 2020 at 11:02 am | Permalink

          Yes. When I started my first real job in software back in 1974, we used the term “hacker” to refer to a bad software engineer who virtually beat on the software until it passed some test. They took poorly designed shortcuts that, even if they worked, made the software fragile with respect to the inevitable future enhancement. One little touch, and the whole thing would come tumbling down and require a rewrite.

          I remember it bugging me that our well-defined “hacker” got borrowed when phone hacking started being a thing. After that point, a “hacker” was someone who got free long distance calls by using a tone generator that tricked the phone tech of the time. From that point forward, “hacker” became someone who breaks electronic or digital security.

          • Filippo
            Posted July 23, 2020 at 12:02 pm | Permalink

            ” . . . someone who got free long distance calls by using a tone generator that tricked the phone tech of the time.”

            Steve Wozniak ebulliently tells of his adventures in this regard.

          • GBJames
            Posted July 23, 2020 at 12:59 pm | Permalink

            I started my software development career not long after you, Paul, just post post-phone-hacking. With the rise of microcomputers it became a term of respect simultaneous with becoming one of sinister intent. It is a complicated word.

            • Diana MacPherson
              Posted July 23, 2020 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

              Imagine the level of complexity now that wokeism is here. Black Hat Hacker vs. White Hat Hacker, oh my!

            • Posted July 23, 2020 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

              Yes, it is ambiguous along at least two dimensions: (1) a hacker is someone with good/bad software skills and (2) a hacker violates/respects security.

      • Michael Sternberg
        Posted July 23, 2020 at 1:02 pm | Permalink

        Paul,

        The primary issue I meant to highlight is the often corrosive effect of startups from their privatizing of the commons while socializing risks, e.g. Uber vs. public transport, Airbnb and scooter companies vs. municipalities. The meaning and history of “Hacker” is indeed varied but is secondary to the content and culture of HN.

        Mr. Thompson may not have had this specific meaning of “Silicon Valley” attitude in mind, but he knows that dangers are lurking there.

        • Posted July 23, 2020 at 1:57 pm | Permalink

          My objection was to how broadly it is used. I am tired of reading things about how Silicon Valley thinks this or thinks that. It’s a huge industry embracing both hardware and software, consumer and industrial products with a huge number of supporting companies and professions. To portray it as having a single mind or opinion on anything is usually wrong. It’s a bit like when a politician starts a sentence with, “The American people believe …”. You know they are trying to claim that everyone shares their opinion and, if it was even close to being true, there would be no need to say it.

  8. Diana MacPherson
    Posted July 23, 2020 at 10:43 am | Permalink

    It’s funny that people seem to misapply the so-called “Silicon Valley” attitude. In tech, risk taking is encouraged and failure celebrated IF you don’t blow up the works. There are certain things you just don’t risk and leaders, if they are good ones, ensure that is understood.

    • Posted July 23, 2020 at 10:57 am | Permalink

      Yes, perhaps people don’t understand what Zuckerberg meant when he said, “Move fast and break things.” It is still considered bad if you break certain things, such as security and people’s trust. It is just encouragement to engineers to try new things even if one thinks they might not work. It’s a more rebellious sounding version of “Think outside the box.”

  9. Roo
    Posted July 23, 2020 at 10:52 pm | Permalink

    I think this was a bad move for the NYT, although I don’t know if they had a good alternative with the old model of newspapers drying up so rapidly. The obvious problem with going from being all around solid in your field to being the latest trendy thing is that trends change rapidly.

    It seems to me that journalism will have to restructure in the next decade or so, because the old models aren’t financially viable anymore and the new models are basically “pay for the news you want to read and we’ll write it!”, which is clearly very problematic. I wonder if we’ll eventually end up in a situation where the news is government subsidized with laws in place to prevent that resulting in ‘state media’. Given the enormous costs of running a media outlet; the utility-like need for news as a resource that everyone can access; and the difficulties in longterm funding models, it seems like this might be a possibility.

  10. Mae
    Posted July 24, 2020 at 8:11 am | Permalink

    “…his success… Letting very young, junior people play with big dangerous things. It’s a long way from the way things are done in many newsrooms.”

    Absolutely!
    Young people with potential/unproven talent can be hired cheaply, and retained by allowing their religious like zeal to attempt to change the world….
    By Any Means necessary. BAM!

    If truth gets rolled over on occasions, that is a learning step for the “woke” young to correct in future editions.
    Keep them off T.V., as it is a competing medium, and a loss of deniability of inept staff reporters.

    Honest, Reliable, Reputation? Means nothing if the publication goes belly up.

    Providing more investigative journalism allowed the reputation not to be soiled too heavily.


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