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September 25, 2019updated 30 Sep 2022 8:22am

New York Times chief and ex-BBC boss warns of ‘crisis threatening to engulf British journalism’

By Charlotte Tobitt

New York Times chief executive Mark Thompson has warned UK newspapers are still too “print-centric” and face mass closures without drastic changes in policy.

Despite saying Facebook and Google should be doing more to help publishers, the former BBC director general said it was a myth to claim they were to blame for the news industry’s difficulties.

Thompson (pictured) made the comments as he gave the third annual Steve Hewlett memorial lecture in central London last night, held in memory of the BBC Media Show presenter who died of cancer in 2017.

He reflected on the future of the global media industry, saying it is “dividing into potential global winners, probable survivors, and the rest”.

“The UK certainly has possible survivors – among national newspapers, the Daily Mail and Guardian for instance,” he said.

“But with due respect – and notwithstanding the sizeable international audiences which several UK newspapers have built up – none looks like a potential global winner.”

This, he said, is partly because UK titles have yet to change their “print-centric ways of working”.

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‘I don’t see how all the current national titles survive’

Thompson added: “I don’t see how all the current national titles survive. At regional and local level, it looks like something close to a wipeout without dramatic intervention.”

He also doubted that any of the UK’s established broadcasters are “strong enough to be a true contender in the coming global contest,” despite still having “deep roots in the national consciousness”.

“…all are seeing adverse trends which are familiar from other digital disruptions – trends that can quickly turn from disquieting to terminal,” he said.

Free national newspapers from ‘regulatory distractions’

To tackle this, the UK’s media policy “needs a fundamental change in direction,” Thompson said – adding that it has not evolved in the seven years since he left the BBC for the New York Times.

He added: “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.

“No western country has cracked this yet.

“Mixed private and public provision, scalable tech solutions, community involvement, higher education, philanthropy, the support of the BBC – the solution will probably have many elements and certainly shouldn’t solely consist of a large public cheque.

“But without a policy impetus and careful coordination, the present downward spin will continue.”

In the meantime, “questions of standards and ethics” at national titles “should sort themselves out, at least among the survivors,” Thompson said.

In July the Government announced plans to establish a £2m innovation fund to support public interest journalism, with a focus on local and regional news providers.

Touching on the BBC-funded Local Democracy Reporter Service, which pays for 150 journalists to staff local newsrooms across the UK and cover public authorities, Thompson said: “By all means require that the BBC does what it can to help local commercial media, but give it the means and the regulatory room to do more.”

He added that the BBC should be given “greater freedom to accelerate its own pivot to digital” as well as the opportunity to build digital products and platforms which can be shared with the rest of the industry.

Internet ‘true culprit’ of media ‘tribulations’

The UK’s Competition and Markets Authority is currently investigating Facebook and Google’s dominance of the digital advertising market, leading to Mail and Metro publisher DMG Media to warn the news industry will “not be able to survive much longer” if action is not taken.

But Thompson said it was a “convenient” myth to put all the blame on the Duopoly.

“Yes, Google and Facebook should do more to help news publishers and other providers of civically and culturally valuable content,” he said.

“Google has taken some modest but promising steps, Facebook is talking seriously about doing the same.”

It was announced last week that Archant will receive millions of pounds in funding from Google to search for a way to make local news pay online, while Facebook is paying £4.5m to fund 80 community news reporters at local newspapers around the UK.

“But let’s be realistic,” Thompson added. “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.”

Another myth, Thompson said, was that digital advertising alone can support quality journalism.

The New York Times has tackled this by building partnerships with huge global brands, a technique which Thompson said was showing “real promise” but would not work for every news organisation.

Any media company that does not find its own digital funding solution and “can no longer replenish its audience” does not have a long-term future, he added.

“The effects won’t be immediate – older audiences are typically very loyal – but it’s ultimately non-survivable. It’s as simple as that.”

Thompson’s “fundamental conditions for success” now are scale of audience, engagement and subscriptions.

‘You can’t degrade your journalism and keep your audience’

The New York Times, which introduced an online paywall in 2011, now has digital revenue growth which “comfortably outstrips” print losses, Thompson said.

The newsbrand has reached about 5m total subscriptions, with a plan to double that by 2025.

It has also invested in journalism including in specialist areas like technology and climate, Thompson said. The title now has about 1,750 journalists now – 300 more than when he joined in 2012.

“By contrast, instead of investing, most of the world’s news organisations have either chosen or been forced to try to cut themselves to a digital future,” Thompson said.

“That may drive higher short-term profitability, but it’s a strategy that leads off a cliff. You can’t degrade your journalism and keep your audience, let alone sell them subscriptions.”

Picture: Jake Chessum/Supervision for The New York Times

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