Mark Thompson, CEO of the company that President Donald Trump has called the “failing” New York Times, doesn’t sound too bothered by presidential criticism.
“I’ve been in journalism for more than 30 years,” said Thompson, who appeared this morning at TechCrunch’s Disrupt New York conference. “Politicians attacking media is not a new thing. It’s unusual for it to be this feisty, this early in the cycle.”
Thompson recalled a moment after the election when “the president-elect started tweeting not about our coverage, but about our business.” There was a Sunday morning conference call, and ultimately The Times decided to rebut Trump’s claims.
“In a weird way, what’s happened to us is, the broader narrative about the president saying either things which are reckless, or said without evidence, or are known to be untrue, applies to us as well,” he said.
While The Times has sometimes called out Trump for making false statements, it’s also aimed for some degree of balance by hiring conservative columnist Bret Stephens and with stories expressly designed to “say something nice about President Trump.” Is there business pressure to avoid alienating Trump voters?
“I don’t think that’s what’s going on at all,” Thompson said. He argued that if you look at The Times, you wouldn’t think it was a paper that was “created to make the president happy.”
Instead, he said, Editorial Page Editor James Bennet “is on a mission to broaden the range of opinions that are available to users of The Times.” That includes conservative voices, but also “voices to the left of the mainstream” as well.
Thompson was also asked about efforts to grow The Times’ online business. (The newspaper added a record number of digital subscribers in the first three months of this year.) He said the print paper will continue “a decade or longer” into the future, but it’s clear that the emphasis is increasingly on digital.
“We love our print product … We want to produce it as long as it makes economic sense,” he said. Still, he said his goal is to build “a business which will be a successful business without selling a single physical copy of The New York Times .”
Thompson said The Times has made “very good progress” towards that goal — but will other newspapers, particularly metro and local newspapers, be able to follow its lead?
It’s possible, but he said there’s a big challenge: “Essentially, high quality content involves paying great journalists.” While The Times maintained a newsroom of 1,400 people, many other papers have had to make big cuts. As a result, “There’s not much journalistic strength there.”
And yes, Thompson knows that it’s possible for people to get around The Times’ paywall, but he said it was a deliberate decision to make it more porous. That’s because this helps The Times’ journalism have a broader impact, and because the readers who go around the paywall could still turn into subscribers.
“We’re in no hurry,” Thompson said. “We think … the geometry of our model, the porosity, is more efficient at generating digital revenue than any other model we know about.”