Nieman Foundation at Harvard
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Sept. 25, 2019, 3 p.m.

Americans don’t like it when British folks tell them what they’re doing wrong. And British folks don’t like it when Americans tell them what they’re doing wrong. But what a British man who now runs an American company telling British folks what they’re doing wrong?

These are the questions we wrestle with in the ivied towers, and we have a datapoint courtesy of Mark Thompson, the New York Times Co. CEO who, before that, served as director-general of the BBC. Thompson returned to London to give a speech Tuesday night, and the Press Gazette’s Charlotte Tobitt wrote it up.

Thompson, it’s clear, is not an optimist when it comes to British media. “The U.K. certainly has possible survivors — among national newspapers, the Daily Mail and Guardian for instance. But with due respect — and notwithstanding the sizeable international audiences which several U.K. newspapers have built up — none looks like a potential global winner…I don’t see how all the current national titles survive.”

How about local papers? “At regional and local level, it looks like something close to a wipeout without dramatic intervention.”

How about British broadcasters? He doubts any are “strong enough to be a true contender in the coming global contest…all are seeing adverse trends which are familiar from other digital disruptions — trends that can quickly turn from disquieting to terminal.”

Strong medicine! I’d quibble with some of it. The Times has shown me enough success with its hard paywall (300,000 digital subscribers currently, more than it has in print) to make me optimistic about its future. Certainly the Financial Times, with more than three-quarters of its subscribers now digital, has a path forward. I won’t claim sufficient expertise to argue with Thompson on British TV, but the BBC certainly seems like a “true contender in the coming global contest” to me. But he’s no doubt right on the broad strokes.

For a corrective, Thompson looks to government media policy:

“Policy-makers have largely concentrated on tightening the funding pressure and other constraints on the BBC further, refining technocratic regulatory theory, and pondering such weighty matters as whether the Times and Sunday Times of London should be allowed to share some editorial resources, the answer — after much deliberation — being a cautious yes.

“One can be forgiven for wondering if that is a complete solution to the crisis threatening to engulf British journalism.”

National newspapers should be freed from “regulatory distractions” while a “comprehensive rescue plan” for local and regional titles is found, Thompson said.

Thompson also called blaming Google and Facebook for all the media’s problems a “convenient” myth: “The true source of legacy media’s tribulations is not these two companies — and wouldn’t be solved if they were regulated more tightly, or even replaced by other search and social providers. The true culprit is the internet itself.” He’s dead-on there.

I do wonder, though, about the brand of nihilistic triumphalism that we sometimes hear from the Times about how everyone else is screwed. (Remember in May, when Times executive editor Dean Baquet said flat out: “I think most local newspapers in America are going to die in the next five years, except for the ones that have been bought by a local billionaire.”) It’s not so much that it’s wrong as that it’s not particularly helpful. Executive at The New York Times are leaders of their company, yes, but they’re also leaders in the industry. And even the best manager will find it hard to inspire the troops by handing out death notices.

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