Newsonomics: The New York Times’ Mark Thompson on regulating Facebook, global ambition, and when to stop the presses (forever)

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Five years is a long time, especially in the media business. It was five years ago this week that Mark Thompson took on the top job at The New York Times Company. It was an enterprise still wobbling from the effects of the Great Recession, its new paywall only a year old. The Huffington Post was trumpeting that it had surpassed the Times in digital traffic — a recognition of Google’s market power and of Facebook’s emergence. The Times was a shrinking enterprise. It had shed revenues, profits, staff, and share price. It had also shed its previous CEO, Janet Robinson. Publisher Arthur Sulzberger’s pick of Thompson to replace her surprised many; despite having led the BBC’s ongoing transition to the increasingly digital world, Thompson had no publishing management experience. And he was a Brit, plucked out of London to head America’s flagship newspaper company.

Half a decade later, the Times is on surer footing, thanks in large part to its execution of Thompson’s mantra: subscriber-first. Most newspaper companies have now embraced revenue from readers (rather than advertisers) as a priority, but the Times is the global leader in that quest, with more than 2 million digital news subscribers. Still, the finish line for that transition is still some distance away.

Heading into 2018, Thompson can at least take a deep breath or two. After years of turning the Times’ business on its advertising/circulation head, he can now point to two words that have eluded its industry for a decade: revenue growth.

Year-to-date through September, the Times has managed to grow revenues 6.8 percent. Each of its three quarters has seen growth, at 5.1 percent, 9.2 percent and 6.1 percent. Repeating that feat in the fourth quarter may be more problematic, the company says, but even so, the Times will look back on 2017 as a turning point. It may not have built out a new business model for the 21st-century press, but it, along with the Financial Times, has served as the leading engineers. Consider these data points:

  • Print advertising — which used to make up 75 to 80 percent of all Times revenue — now accounts for only 17 percent of its total. Within the next year or two, he told me, it will likely be the Times’ fourth-largest revenue contributor, behind print subscription, digital subscription, and digital advertising.
  • The Times counts 2.1 million digital-only news subscribers, still growing post-Trump-bump at about 100,000 a quarter. Compare that to the Times’ still-strong (though declining at about 3 percent a year) Sunday print sales of 1.1 million, and we see a curious ratio. Digital payers now outnumber print payers about 2 to 1.
  • Reader revenue — both print and digital — now makes up 62 percent of all Times revenue, as compared to about 44 percent when Thompson took the job in 2012. That crossover number serves as its most important one. As print advertising continues its epochal decline — even the Times was down 20 percent in print ad revenue in the third quarter, in the general neighborhood of many other newspaper chains — nearly everyone in the news publishing business is turning back to readers as their likeliest source of future funding. But the Times (along with other advanced nationals like the FT, The Wall Street Journal, and probably the privately held Washington Post) is among the few publishers who now see more revenue from readers than advertisers. Meanwhile, much of the daily press can’t imagine achieving overall revenue growth, because its reliance on print advertising counterbalances whatever success it may have in the digital transition.

Thompson and other Times executives don’t want to disclose much about their own future modeling. But one thing we know: The company can envision a future without print.

As Thompson told me last week, the Times “may well be facing a future where you should set printed revenue at zero, because it will not be a profitable exercise to make it.”

In five years, Thompson has reshaped the Times’ executive leadership. In early 2017, he elevated Meredith Levien to COO, with both revenue and product responsibilities now centralized. Early next year, Thompson will replace the Times’ retiring longtime CFO, Jim Follo. That will offer Thompson another opportunity to reshape a top job, perhaps looking for both dealmaking and digital business skills.

Of course, all that the Times has accomplished financially owes enormously to its newsroom. That journalistic bedrock — its value unexpectedly enhanced in this weirdest of modern American times — has served as the foundation for all the digital smarts of marketing, messaging, presentation, and distribution that now build upon it.

As Thompson told me last week in an interview in his Times office, he believes that overall press economics may soon grow even more unkind. “I think over the next five years it’s possible the competitive landscape will actually get in some ways more attractive for The New York Times, because I’m afraid I see a lot of casualties over the next few years because of the economics of the industry,” he says. “And, actually, I think for a period we could enjoy — well, we won’t be alone in this — but the survivors could enjoy a kind of last-men-and-women-standing sort of benefit for a bit.”

Thompson and I covered a wide range of topics in our conversation. Is 10 million subscribers a real goal? What about the Times’ global expansion? In a time of legacy bundles, skinny bundles, and no bundles at all, what’s he thinking about how the Times might rebundle itself for fun and profit?

Our conversation is condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

But the idea that you need a new generation of media for younger generations of consumers, I’m not even sure that’s true. And what’s intriguing is we literally — I’m pointing at a place that’s literally about 50 feet away, The Daily [the podcast which draws a strong audience of millennials] is a room two doors down. It’s kind of a dungeon.

That was the room for a period where the Snowden laptop was. That’s sacred ground.

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