The media boss on Trump, Brexit and end of print

“The last newspaper has just gone into the wood stove,” says Mark Thompson, self-described news junkie, erstwhile BBC director-general and up until recently the president and chief executive of the New York Times, one of the world’s most famous newspapers.

Newsprint has special uses when you’re in northern Maine, near the Canadian border, and there are 10 inches of snow on the ground. “We were making a fire before you called and the last newspaper went under the kindling and it is now burning away.”

His answer to the question of how he personally prefers to consume news was an instant “digital, mainly smartphone”. Although he “might have a newspaper once a week”, they don’t tend to be lying around the place – at least, not for long.

London-born Thompson (63), whose mother was from Donegal, is usually in Manhattan, where he has lived for the past eight years, but even before he left the Times, the virtual culture of the pandemic was yielding a certain locational flexibility. He is “probably still on 20 Zoom meetings a week” as he plots his next moves from the cold of Maine.

He thinks it is harder to instigate organisational change remotely, but overall he is struck by “just how well journalism has functioned in this very weird year” and impressed by how much innovation has been possible.

“In my last month at the Times, I was taking part in meetings where the team leaders – the machine-learning people – had been hired after Covid and never met each other or anyone else. They had never stepped foot in the New York Times, and yet they were leading really important work for the company from their homes. It is kind of amazing.”

As for when the presses might permanently stop rolling on The New York Times, which has a cohort of “very loyal print customers, well over a million on a Sunday”, he declines to plump for a date but envisages how the unfavourable logistics might force the decision.

The Times is printed under contract at dozens of plants across the world, then it “catches a ride” on trucks that distribute other papers too – “it’s somebody else’s truck, somebody else’s printing press”. So no matter how loyal its own print readers are, the viability of the physical edition depends on the wider newspaper ecosystem. In the US, this has been torrid.

“If other newspapers stop printing and pay off their drivers, which is inevitable as their economics aren’t as good, the cost of that entire exercise of delivering hundreds of thousands or even more than a million copies of a newspaper across continental US by 7am becomes an epic task.”

Cover prices go up, trying the patience of the last print readers. “Eventually, the model will be at a point when it is no longer possible to make money out of it. That is when you should switch it off.”

‘Out of the blue’ call

For the New York Times this shouldn’t be a disaster. In August, as Thompson was about to depart the company, its digital revenue exceeded print for the first time. And with his successor as chief executive, Meredith Kopit Levien, inheriting a digital-only subscriber tally of six million, the title has become a polestar for other newspaper groups seeking the path to digital-led profit.

Such a convincing performance was far from guaranteed in 2012, when the British broadcasting boss, having signalled his intention to step down from the BBC, received an “out of the blue” call from a headhunter acting on behalf of Arthur Sulzberger jnr, then publisher and chairman. At the time of Thompson’s transatlantic move, the company was posting losses, selling assets and wrestling with the conundrum of how it would pay for its journalism.

It had, however, just launched its third attempt at a digital pay model, a “much smarter” one that “borrowed some ideas” from the Financial Times and was learning from its previous failures. The time was right: people were “beginning to warm up” to the idea of paying for online subscriptions. The suspicion that legacy media outlets would be “just straightforwardly replaced” by new digital players like BuzzFeed and Vice began to wane. By the time Donald Trump got going on his “failing New York Times” attacks – inadvertently generating a “Trump bump” in subscriptions – it could no longer be said to be failing at all.

“The scale and the aggression with which the Times’ digital subscription business has grown is, I think, unique, and we have been fortunate with that. But actually there is a broader story of legacy media outlets beginning to crack the code,” he says. Equally, digital champions dependent upon the scraps of the advertising market not swept up by Google and Facebook now “look much less like success stories than they did 10 years ago”.

He repeats his use of “legacy” to refer to media companies that weren’t born on the internet. It’s a word that not everybody in the industry likes.

“It is what it is. It has disadvantages, but it also has advantages, and I definitely think people inside legacy media often just see the disadvantages,” he says. Trust, tradition and familiarity are “all good things in my head, not bad things”, and journalistic reputations are priceless. “The idea that these brands aren’t worth anything is said by people who haven’t got the imagination to imagine how they could evolve and change.”

The downside of legacy status is that “you kind of can’t get out of your own way”. Patterns of behaviour “you ought to break” remain fixed in a dusty, institutional way. Digital transition is not a DIY affair. “You need to hire a lot of new people with new skills and it means gut-wrenching change. There were some departments in the New York Times where we were changing literally 80 per cent of the staff. One business was finishing and another business was starting and they didn’t have much in common with each other.”

Wood-panelled boardrooms

A tendency to be hierarchical doesn’t spur rapid digital change either. “There is still a bit of a tradition of wood-panelled boardrooms and cigars and the idea of senior leaders as power brokers,” he says.

Would he say there has been a touch of arrogance, perhaps, within legacy media?

“I’m certainly not casting aspersions. In particular, I want to say I’m not casting aspersions on The Irish Times,” he says, laughing. But from his early journalistic roles at the BBC onwards, he became “very familiar” with the peccadillos of Fleet Street and “the great British newspapers”, where there was “lots of great journalism, lots of energy, lots of creativity, and amazing amounts of arrogance, actually, yeah”.

He attributes it to their decades of seeing “very high margin, very easy money” pouring in from print advertisers. “I often think it’s not your failures that kill you, it’s your successes.”

The problem is not every newspaper is, or can be, the New York Times. Mid-market and downmarket newspapers – “casual reads” – face the uninviting prospect of competing for advert dollars with “the biggest advertising companies in history” while also being at the mercy of their algorithms. “It is just really hard to win that war if you are a small publisher, and bluntly even the world’s biggest publishers are tiny. Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp is a tiny company compared to Google or Facebook.”

But although he thinks they could do more to help “serious journalism”, Thompson is “not one of those people who spends all my time complaining” about Big Tech. “The New York Times used to be a newspaper that was hard to buy a copy of outside the island of Manhattan . . . Now it has a quarter of a billion users around the world. A lot of that is to do with the marketing support and distribution provided by platforms like Google and Facebook.”

His high-paid tenure at the New York Times coincided with the acceleration of their advert power. It was also marked by the rise of a one-off. Though Silvio Berlusconi “had much the same playbook”, he regards Trump’s willingness “simply to never countenance the conventional response” as unique.

“When you hear that he’s talking about not turning up at the inauguration, possibly announcing his candidacy for 2024 on inauguration day, something like that has never been seen in the history of the American Republic.”

His daughter Emilie interjects from the background to compare Trump to a high-schooler who declares they’re not coming to Prom because they haven’t been chosen as Prom Queen.

“With him, by now, that doesn’t seem surprising,” he says. Trump is predictably unpredictable. But the underlying story of polarised politics in the US isn’t exactly new, nor is 2020 the first presidential election to be declared illegitimate by the losers.

‘Not the spirit’

When I allude to the wave of “democracy in crisis” headlines, he expands on the “slightly different view of democracy” in the US. “There is more arms-folding. You fold your arms and say ‘I’ll see whether the election is legitimate or not’. You don’t have a strong presumption of ‘my side lost, the other side won, oh well’. That’s not the spirit of it.”

He links this to the US constitutional right to bear arms and America’s un-European insistence that the state does not have a monopoly on violence. Indeed, Trump’s ability to key into this mentality while using his rallies to demonise the press as enemies of the people was a toxic combination. “I think in a country with hundreds of millions of firearms and a history of political violence it was really irresponsible and dangerous and I don’t think anyone in the New York Times enjoyed that stuff.”

In his 2016 book on political rhetoric, Enough Said, there is a chapter encompassing two BBC flashpoints – the go-aheads he gave to the 2005 televising of Jerry Springer: The Opera and a 2009 Question Time appearance by BNP leader Nick Griffin – in which he concludes that “we are living through a long war for the freedom of expression and it is going badly”.

The idea that some things you might disagree with are so illegitimate and damaging, nobody should hear them, has taken further hold since then, he says, while the value of intentionally setting out to publish a broad range of opinions is “very disputed now”.

For sure, getting it wrong can have swift consequences, as evidenced in June when editorial page editor James Bennet exited the Times after admitting he hadn’t read an inflammatory piece calling for military force to quell the Black Lives Matters protests.

“Although we have had our moments, and some this year, at the New York Times, I think the Times since 2016 has actually done a very good job at broadening the range of opinions it has,” Thompson contends, citing a “passionate” defence of the death penalty by a deputy attorney general. “Full-throated conservative opinions” like these are “frankly inimical to many, many readers of the New York Times”, he says. “I think some publications make a point of not offending their core audience with views that they wouldn’t like.”

He wouldn’t quite frame this as a freedom of speech issue, however. “Part of freedom of speech is the right not to publish things, to state the obvious.”

British influence

Compared to the US’s red-blue hostilities, Brexit division in the UK – as “ugly” a point as the referendum was – doesn’t run as deep, he senses. “A lot of the animus and rage, I think, has dissipated somewhat.”

In Ireland, there is a view that the impact of Brexit is being vastly underestimated by many British people. Is this a function of the media?

“I think you bump into a fundamental problem of politics, which is that a lot of politics is about the future and it is very hard to prove the future,” he says. “I, purely personally, tend to think the same view that you’re describing as an Irish view, that this is actually going to be a big deal economically and in terms of the UK’s influence in the world.”

He voted for Remain, and “feels pretty strongly” about his joint English and Irish heritage, but he believes there is centuries-held British, and particularly English, instinct to assert sovereignty that “has got the smack to me of the Reformation about it” and is very real. “It’s not just something whipped up by politicians, it is there as part of the national political character for many people of otherwise unexceptional views.”

His mother, Sydney Corduff, was born in Co Mayo but grew up outside Donegal town, the ninth surviving child of a policeman. He feels “great affection” for Ireland and has been to Donegal “a few times over the years”. Two of his three grown-up children have also visited his grandfather’s grave.

“It’s not my home and I come as a visitor, but I do feel that my mother was an incredibly strong influence on my life.”

A life in the media was not Thompson’s long-standing ambition, but he had “slipped into student journalism” at Oxford and in the spring of 1979 he dropped off an application form to the BBC’s production trainee scheme because everybody he knew was applying.

“I’ve had a career that has always felt very serendipitous,” he says. “It has presented itself as surprising phone calls where initially you think ‘no, that’s a really bad idea’ and then you end up doing it anyway.”

The BBC, for which he worked for more than 30 years – broken up by a spell as Channel 4 chief executive from 2002 to 2004 – was good to him. He worked on flagship news and current affairs programmes like Newsnight and Nationwide, later becoming editor of BBC One’s Nine O’Clock News (at the age of 30) and Panorama. In 1983, he went to New York for the first time to produce news reports and features for the BBC’s new Breakfast Time programme. The eight-month stint changed his life because it was then he met his future wife, the American writer and academic Jane Blumberg.

About half of BBC director-generals have been dismissed or otherwise forced to leave, and though he avoided their fate, he wasn’t immune to the political pressures that come with being “editor-in-chief” of a national behemoth.

He attributes the ongoing squeeze on the BBC in part to sustained lobbying from commercially-owned media, going back to Fleet Street’s 1920s push to stop the BBC broadcasting radio news bulletins until after the evening papers were out. Governments across the West have also been “desperately slow” to think about what the ascent of global digital platforms mean for media.

‘Scary moment’

“The work hasn’t been done, and because of that most governments don’t really have coherent answers for what should happen to the public broadcasters. For most public broadcasters, it is a kind of scary moment.”

The concept of the licence fee will survive in the UK for the next while, he thinks, for the pragmatic reason that Boris Johnson has other fish to fry. “The political capital you need to spend on a fundamental reworking of the funding of the BBC, I just don’t see how you would spare the time for it, honestly. It would be a big battle and it’s not quite clear where that battle would end.”

Margaret Thatcher came to power wanting to do this and “never got round to it”, he notes.

It is “a sad fact” of his life that he has spent two decades in top jobs “trying to figure out the future of news and broadcasting”, despite always thinking his strengths were on the creative side. “Fewer people want to grapple with the nightmare of strategy,” he says. “In some ways, the fact that I could do it probably meant I should do it.”

Does he have a favourite period of his career where he felt energised by what he and the people around him were doing?

“The times I enjoyed most was when I was controller of BBC Two, which was a purely creative job. I enjoyed that immensely.”

This was from 1996-1998, when BBC Two was commissioning comedy hits like The Royle Family and Goodness Gracious Me and searing dramas like The Cops. “Yeah, yeah, yeah. We had lots of fun with it. Lots of comedy and drama,” he says. “I loved that period of my life.”