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Aug. 11, 2020, 1:46 p.m.
Business Models

Outgoing New York Times CEO Mark Thompson thinks there won’t be a print edition in 20 years

Also, the Times now reaches about half of American millennials.

Mark Thompson has been chief executive officer at The New York Times since 2012 and, last month, he announced he’s stepping down after eight years steering the company toward a subscription-first future. (It seems to have gone rather well.)

Thompson, who will be replaced by Meredith Kopit Levien, has been doing a round of exit interviews on his way out. He spoke with CNBC’s Alex Sherman; in the extremely unlikely event that you’re not already a CNBC Pro subscriber ($300/year or $30/month), we’ve read through the Q&A and pulled out a few insights, along with some bits from Thompson’s interview with McKinsey’s Yael Taqqu and Raju Narisetti.

Thompson thinks The New York Times will stop printing a paper edition within 20 years

More than 900,000 people receive a physical Times and the print edition, right now, is “profitable seven days a week and across the United States without a single dollar of print advertising in it,” Thompson told CNBC. But how much longer will that be the case?

“I believe the Times will definitely be printed for another 10 years and quite possibly another 15 years — maybe even slightly more than that. I would be very surprised if it’s printed in 20 years time.”

It’s a huge change from 2012, the year that the Times introduced its paywall. Thompson told McKinsey:

The biggest flashing red light when I got to the Times was that the rate at which we were gaining digital subscribers was slowing down — and slowing down very abruptly. It was something like 74,000 in my very first quarter, the last quarter of 2012. By the second quarter of 2013, it was 22,000 or 23,000.

It looked like the model was plateauing. For a company with four main revenue streams, with print subscriptions essentially stagnant, print advertising in real decline, digital advertising had just turned into decline, to be told that your one hope, digital subscriptions, is plateauing — that’s really bad news. So the most urgent thing to do was to figure out how to get the digital-subscription model to work.

The Times has very few real competitors

“The relative sense of calm and stability at the Times is held at approximately zero local newspapers,” Nieman Lab’s Josh Benton wrote recently. Thompson appears to agree, telling McKinsey:

[There’s an assumption] that what’s going to happen is replacement. That conventional news sources, newspapers and TV companies, are going to be replaced by new insurgents.

It’s clear that replacement, the superseding of old media and news, is really difficult. And it’s not obvious that the digital insurgents have got, as it were, operating leverage or other cost advantages that really help them once traditional media wakes up. Now most of traditional media is not waking up — and probably will never wake up. But organizations like the Times have eventually responded aggressively and have caught up.

So what’s interesting to me is the competitive context for the Times weirdly feels remarkably thin. We’ve got 1,750 journalists working their hearts out, trying to produce the best journalism in the world. Not many other people are doing that. And honestly, if you look at the next decade, it may be there’s fewer [competitors] in ten years’ time.

The Times has “an immense amount of intellectual property to exploit”

Thompson praised the expansion of recipes into a paid Cooking product, the Modern Love column into an Amazon series, and 1619 Project into “a national event” that includes a film, books, school curriculum, and more.

And in the McKinsey interview, he pointed to podcasts and audio:

“Podcasting and audio point to a future where the consumption of news and journalism may be more interactive, may happen very fluidly between moments when users can read and moments when they’re commuting or they’ve got their earphones in and they’re exercising. And ultimately, it may become interrogatory, where the way you get news is by asking questions and getting answers to questions, as opposed to listening to something that is being read out as if it was a speaking book or an audio novel.”

He doesn’t see the Times expanding into products that are completely unrelated to journalism. He told CNBC:

“My own view about The New York Times Company is it will probably choose to stick centrally of this notion of really serious journalism but with some opportunities around the edges. I think within what seems like quite a narrow definition of The New York Times, there’s an immense amount of intellectual property to exploit. Which, in business terms, is a lot of new product lines and new revenue sources.”

The Times now reaches “about half” of American millennials

The Times’ audience is getting younger. Thompson told McKinsey:

“We moved from reaching one in five millennials a few years ago to reaching more than one in two per month — about half of American millennials.

With that availability to younger users comes all sorts of interesting questions about how you modernize, about how you cover things like culture, how you cover race and diversity. Which I think the Times is rising to the challenge of.

Also, the Times used to be male skewed. It’s now somewhat female skewed. And you can see, all over the news report, examples of more pieces that are commissioned by editors who are themselves wanting to be available to perspectives, to stories, that are more likely to appeal to both genders.

These are fundamental changes. You once had the idea, which had a grain of truth in it, that the 50-plus white, college-educated, dyed-in-the-wool Democrat Upper West Siders who’d grown up with the Times were the ones who loved it. We have those people. We love them. I live in a building on the Upper West Side. They are my neighbors. But we’re much broader than that. You can’t reach 160 million Americans entirely on the basis of the population of the Upper West Side [of Manhattan].”

Parting ways with The New York Times opinion section editor James Bennet was the right decision

Thompson told CNBC that Bennet’s “broadening” of the paper’s opinion section to include more conservative voices was a success. Still…

“I think what is also true is you have to have strict, proper, editorial process and controls. The famous op-ed piece by Senator Tom Cotton hadn’t really been through its paces and should have been. I think in the end, in the circumstance, in this particular case, I think the right decision was made.

Those mid-morning editorial meetings weren’t cutting it

“The peak time for digital consumption on a smartphone is 7:00 in the morning. Very early on, I went down to the newsroom of The New York Times at 7:00 in the morning, and it’s half a dozen guys with hoovers [Ed. note: Vacuums!] The night shift has gone home, the day shift hasn’t arrived. Nothing is happening.”

Thompson said he realized — quickly — that the editorial cadence had to change.

“There was the massive explosion recently in Beirut. You want to hear about that quickly. That was simply not in the DNA and the practice of the company, which had been wholly focused on putting, what remains to this day, a wonderful print product to bed in the evening and figuring out the next lifecycle of the paper in mid-morning of the following day.”

Thompson rode his bicycle around the empty newsroom — and thinks the “classic office model” should be reevaluated

Thompson said he returned to the office to do an earnings call in April and wound up ruminating about remote work on a ride through the empty newsroom.

“The place was deserted — completely deserted. I was the only person on the floor. I brought my bike in and rode around on my bike on this floor with my phone and filmed the endless empty tables of workstations. And you think, that’s a pretty strange way to pack human beings. It’s like packing human beings into a milking parlor. If the point of getting together is social space, how come everyone’s got their own workstation and barriers to the next person?”

A Biden win in November doesn’t mean the “Trump bump” in subscriptions will go away

“I think a more lively news cycle helps the news business. It always has. In my view, our societies have been torn apart by fundamental disruptive forces around social division, globalization, automation, climate change, mass immigration and so on. If you think one election result is going to solve those problems and the news is going to go back to a placid few months in 1958, I don’t believe it. I just don’t believe it.”

“I think these are immensely difficult times. And my prediction would be there’s going to be a lot of news in the next decade — probably more news in the next decade than the last decade.”

CNBC Pro’s full, paywalled interview is here. McKinsey’s is here. You can also browse conversations between Thompson and Nieman Lab’s own Ken Doctor.

Photo of Mark Thompson by NYT/Jake Chessum.

POSTED     Aug. 11, 2020, 1:46 p.m.
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