Publishers who think they can build a business on cutting newsrooms are ‘deluding themselves’: NYT CEO

New York Times CEO Mark Thompson has slammed publishers which believe they can create a profitable business by slashing numbers in newsrooms.

Speaking to Google Australia managing director Mel Silva, Thompson said he doesn’t understand how that can lead to a viable business model. His comments come as several publishers have slashed newsrooms in recent months, including Buzzfeed and Vice.

Thompson speaking with Silva on Friday

“We’ve [the NYT] managed to build an engaged audience and convinced them to pay, which they like doing, subscriptions are very hot on Wall Street and elsewhere,” said Thompson.

“Smaller publishers may not have those advantages, but you have to believe in the value of your content. Anyone who thinks they can cut their way to success, that cutting their newsroom is a way of building a great digital news business, is deluding themselves. That is simply going to lead to disaster.

“If you’re making content which in the end is easy to get from other people on the internet for nothing, if it’s generic celebrity news and clickbait, how do you get that to work as a business? Crap is always going to be available for free on the internet.”

Thompson and Silva discussed the NYT’s move to digital, its subscription strategy and the relationship between publishers and tech companies like Google.

Thompson said one of the biggest concerns the business had about Google and other large platforms is their ability to decide to ‘capture’ audiences.

“We are very anxious that Google should continue to be a place that people go to to find content and then leave. The thing that makes us most nervous is when we see Google attempt to capture people.”

In particular, Thompson voiced concerns about the world of product reviews, in which he said he saw Amazon trying to become Google and vice versa, which he found ‘worrying’. Thompson also listed Apple News+ as a concern, something he spoke out about before the subscription platform was announced.

“If all the major platforms try and capture attention completely, they are very very powerful competitors and it affects the viability of strong independent journalistic houses,” said Thompson.

Digital advertising was also in the firing line, especially the abuse of user data. Thompson said the New York Times is currently undergoing a ‘reform’ about how it captures and uses data from readers. He said the publisher had taken down ‘tracking pixels’ from some of its pages as a test to see if the ‘world falls in’ when they’re removed.

“Digital advertising is a very problematic activity and the use and abuse of people’s data in the advertising ecosystem is somewhere between deeply troubling and scandalous. We have a massive job of reform, and we have to begin thinking about what the minimum amount of data we can take from people to give them a good service is, rather than an assumption of sign here, here and here and we’ll take everything.”

Thompson also said he was making a move to reduce the open market programmatic advertising used by the business, with the plan being a significant reduction, possibly to zero if possible.

As his final takeaway from the session, Thompson took the chance to hit out at Google’s lack of ‘church’ in the ‘church and state’ analogy. He argued that publishers such as the NYT have the ‘church’ of journalists and editors to keep advertising in line, something Google and other large platforms don’t have.

Thompson said he worried most about Google when advertising comes into play, claiming that the word ‘ad’ on Google sponsored products has become paler, something Silva denied. Whether the word was paler or not, Thompson said there needs to be someone in the business fighting for the rights and needs of the user, not just the business.


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