From a production trainee at BBC to the global CEO and president of The New York Times, Mark Thompson has worn many hats in his career spanning almost three decades. Having just completed seven years as CEO of the media giant this month, Thompson spoke to CNBC-TV18 in a candid free-wheeling interview on his maiden visit to India.
While his formative career is eventful, what stands out in Mark's NYT tenure is the transformation story. In 2012, when Thompson was appointed CEO of a legacy print business, he turned it around from the ground up and created a digital behemoth. This meant that at a time when the print industry in the US was in near collapse, Mark in just 3 years of taking over oversaw NYT making profits and building capital.
Digital news subscription The gamechanger here was shifting the business to a subscription-based revenue model. “When we started, the idea was that people won't pay for news. That’s what I hear here too. But we realised that the public is hungry for high-quality journalism. It’s a misconception that people don’t pay for accessing news," he said. Thompson said pricing does play a role here. “Introductory prices are a part of subscription models which are doing well,” he added. The other element is strengthening the digital foundation. “We thought we needed 90 people on digital. We have 900 people working on our digital product. We need to be honest to understand if you have the digital expertise. Need to dig deep to think digital content,” he said. In 2012, NYT had earned 90 percent of its revenue from advertising. Today, 70 percent revenues come from subscriptions and 30 percent from advertising. “We have significantly reduced reliance on advertising. In the developed market, print advertising will continue to decline across the board
In developing markets, including India, there are signs that advertising is plateauing. Digital advertising is a bit more complicated. There are ways of producing distinctive innovative forms of sponsorship or advertising on digital. The only kind of digital advertising that can be grown is "high-end specialized advertisements”.
Where does India fit in?
“India is a big and exciting market for us and The New York Times is a fast-growing company with increasing global interest. We are currently at 5 million subscribers globally; expect to double that by 2025," said Thompson.
"When I joined, subscribers from outside the US were at 50,000. Today that number has grown 20 times, touching half a million. Our ambition is to add 4 times to the international subscriber base of half a million," he added.
In India, the NYT has about 30,000 subscribers and the newspaper hopes to treble or quadruple that, said Thompson.
Looking ahead, Thompson said the company is working on new products to add to the portfolio. He is betting big on NYT’s podcast offering ‘The Daily’ as well as its TV venture ‘The Weekly’.
With TV in initial stages, Thompson expects to produce a lot more TV content. The company has also tied up with Verizon to set up a lab that explores new ways of storytelling by bringing journalism to life.
“We are trying to experiment more than we have ever experimented. Of course, we make a lot of mistakes but that’s how you figure out the next step” Journalism under the Trump administration
How has NYT not only survived but thrived under the Trump administration, especially in the backdrop of constant direct criticism? Not one to mince his words, Thompson agreed that the overall climate for freedom of speech was deteriorating across the world.
”The debate about fake news is being used by governments to introduce legislation which gives them greater control. It’s a dark period for freedom of the press around the world," he said.
"We are clear about our values at NYT. Done some work in getting the co to think about innovation & team working and doubled down on independent journalism and are often attacked for our style of independent journalism,” he added.
”Personal bullying and harassing of individual journalists do affect morale. Using language like ‘enemies of the people’ and ‘traitors' by President Trump frightens journalists. Journalists are often frightened they will be injured or killed," he noted.
"But you ask any NYT employee, even the doorman, they will say a sense of 'mission' and 'value of what we are doing ‘is still strong;” he said. Interestingly, NYT shares have grown 200 percent since President Trump was elected, far outperforming the market.In his early days, Mark remembers being fascinated by watching the Watergate scandal. He truly believes and has a glint in his eye when he talks about being able to embody good journalism, standing for NYT's principles of sticking to the truth and holding its ground created by values and a vision. There may be hurdles but Mark is positive, even bullish about what lies ahead for him and the company.