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Interview

New York Times was ready for Trump frenzy: ex-CEO

Mark Thompson reveals how the 'Gray Lady' transformed into a digital success

The New York Times saw a surge in subscriptions under the Donald Trump presidency, even as the former president kept attacking the publication. Can the Times continue to grow in the post-Trump era?   © Reuters

NEW YORK -- In the eight years that he led The New York Times as CEO, British executive Mark Thompson lifted paid digital subscriptions to 5 million, an unprecedented figure among American news publications.

The "Gray Lady" saw a surge in subscriptions under the Donald Trump presidency, even as the former president kept attacking the publication. Can the Times continue to grow in the post-Trump era?

Nikkei asked Thompson, who was at the Times from 2012 until last year, how he pursued digital transformation at the 170-year-old paper and the seeds he planted for future growth.

Q: Were you confident that the NYT could flourish in the digital age when you became CEO?

A: When they asked me to think about joining the Times, I did some research and thought about it quite carefully like an investor. Becoming a CEO of a company is very much like becoming an investor. You're investing your time and your reputation.

Former New York Times CEO Mark Thompson

So what's the return? How much growth can we see? How much risk is there?

At the Times it was quite risky because they had truly tried very hard to grow and found that quite difficult in digital. Print numbers were looking troubling. But I also thought the potential was immense. When I was a subscriber in England, I thought it was the world's best newspaper.

There are hundreds of millions of people in the world with English as a first or second language and a college degree. That number is going to grow rapidly. People are getting more used to paying for digital content, it's getting much easier on the phone.

And we are, as an industry, getting smarter. We are getting better at retention, better at marketing.

The digital subscription businesses are kind of a machine. It's a relatively simple machine and as long as your acquisition and retention of subscribers and your pricing power is strong, as the machine grows, it becomes more profitable.

Q: Where did you start?

A: The challenge for legacy media organizations is to establish a momentum, whereby the kind of new audiences, the new digital products, the new things the company is going to do, are reliably growing faster than the legacy business is declining.

Now, in the end, you can't be sure that will continue until the legacy business has gone, which is probably 20 years from now, 15 years from now.

It's like a big ship sailing toward some rocks. You need to turn the wheel and have enough power that you're going to miss the rocks and go back out into the open sea and success.

We started experimenting with fun projects. It's very easy for news organizations to make the digital thing like a trip to the dentist. "It's going to be difficult, it's going to be painful, it's going to be scary. You're all going to hate it."

We started trying to make it more positive and we added projects like NYT cooking. We said we're going to get everyone in the room, journalists, editors, designers, and we're going to make a beautiful thing.

We started hiring people, new people. This was not taking away from the newsroom. We were basically saying to the newsroom: "What do you need? We know you've got very big existing operations. If you need data scientists, engineers and product people will give it to you. We won't ask you to fire people. We're just going to invest extra money."

Most of the people in the newsroom are more focused on getting tomorrow's print newspaper out than they are about the digital future.

The idea of a chief executive coming down and saying, "Can I give you more money?" that was quite new. They were expecting the chief executive to come down and say, "We're going have to cut costs." And so that helped.

You've got to be realistic. If you try and win a battle for digital transformation where the first thing you do is fire people, it's hard.

Q: Wasn't it difficult to increase costs while print revenue was shrinking?

A: The mistake a lot of newspapers and broadcast leaders make is to think that you can do this on the cheap.

Here's a close-to-parallel example, the auto industry. What's happening is essentially, electric vehicles are being built in new factories with new workforces. Even legacy auto companies are discovering you pretty much want to start from scratch with a new factory, new workers, new skills and new ways of making vehicles. You need people who understand battery technology. 

You can't have a factory where you're making electric vehicles and internal combustion vehicles on the same assembly line.

It's taken Elon Musk billions of dollars to create a successful company. I don't think for newspapers it's billions of dollars, but it's hundreds of millions. You can't just do it on the side while churning out your newspaper.

People have assumed that this can be done while you're maintaining profitability at its current level. But the job of the company is to maintain its profitability, and completely transform itself at the same time.

Q: How did the workplace change?

A: By 2015, the leadership was genuinely working well together and started to get some momentum.

We wanted a sports team, a great sports team, that's got engineers, that's got journalists and off they go, rather than using the kind of print-era structures, where all the different departments sort of think they have the right to say no. You can get very bureaucratic in these types of organization.

In 2015, we spent about eight months meeting for half a day, every week, and just battling out toward what is the strategic direction we're going in? What's important to us? What are we trying to do? What can we agree on? It took months and months of arguing about it. We finally got there and we announced it to the rest of the staff.

Former U.S. President Donald Trump speaks to reporters in a press conference in September 2020. "An incredibly divisive, lively, domestic news story which the whole world is interested in is a great thing for the Times to have," Thompson said.

But even then it was another couple of years before it actually happened. In 2016, 2017, literally every employee in the staff survey was asked, do you understand the strategy, do you support the strategy? They'd say, "Yeah, we do. We understand what we're doing and we agree with it."

We started going to this new structure and that unlocked something and suddenly, organizations move very quickly. Suddenly, we had teams led by people 25 and 30 years old. They're testing stuff on their own, and then come and tell us about what they were doing. They weren't asking for permission. They were just doing. Before, even quite small decisions were having to come right up the organization. These guys, these kids, were making decisions without asking people.

By 2020, we demonstrated a lot of momentum in the business and the ability to grow audiences -- in particular grow digital subscribers -- which gave me a lot of confidence that the company could have a great future.

We were growing the digital business and the digital subscribers, but actually slightly reducing costs on marketing. Often a subscription business which is running into difficulty, one of the signs of that is you're having to spend more and more and more to get the next marginal new subscribers. 

Q: President Trump was a big reason for your success. Can the NYT continue to grow in the post-Trump era?

A: If you stop the clock in October 2016, the Times was already becoming digital before he arrived. Trump was roughly four years after I started.

I would be the first person to say that an incredibly divisive, lively, domestic news story which the whole world is interested in is a great thing for the Times to have.

What I would say is that we were more ready for Trump than anyone else. In terms of the business side, we got the digital thing more or less in order. We've made a much better digital product. And we've already got more journalists in the newsroom. And we've invested in politics, specifically in 2016. So we were kind of ready.

I also want to say there is a hope, that at least some of what we did -- investing in journalism, trying to think more about the audience, trying to think hard about the smartphone, trying to come up with parallel products like crosswords, cooking, Wirecutter and all that stuff -- I think there may be some lessons for other people.

Some people say, "Well, it can't be done." And they look at us and say, at least, "it can be done. Maybe we can do it as well."

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