WCSFP ’17: NYT’s Mark Thompson on platforms and “proper journalism”

Hours before Mark Thompson, president and CEO of The New York Times Company, took the stage at the World Congress of Science and Factual Producers in San Francisco, his newspaper broke ...
December 1, 2017

Hours before Mark Thompson, president and CEO of The New York Times Company, took the stage at the World Congress of Science and Factual Producers in San Francisco, his newspaper broke the story about a new wave of sexual misconduct allegations against renowned American playwright Israel Horovitz.

Shortly after his keynote interview with Love Productions’ Sara Ramsden, the paper broke a story about President Donald Trump reportedly urging senior Republicans to end the Senate Intelligence Committee’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.

All in a day’s work for the venerable news institution, which has seemingly been firing on all cylinders as of late, breaking huge stories, such as the Harvey Weinstein sexual harassment scandal, with increasing regularity.

Citing “obstinacy and a belief in mission,” Thompson said the Times‘ strength is rooted in its dedication to keeping its news room intact, despite economic pressures fuelled by print journalism’s increasing revenue woes.

During the keynote interview, the former chief executive of Channel 4 and director-general of the BBC tackled questions on Trump (who, for the record, has a “perfectly normal handshake”), the impact of the growing FAANG empire on the global mainstream media (“The fate of all of us is likely to be determined by the major digital platforms,” he maintained), attacks on the free press from both ends of the political spectrum, and the future of public service broadcasters.

Of the latter, Thompson said that “many kinds of content,” including local news, “are going to see an acute market failure.” That will make the need for strong PSBs even greater, but there needs to be the political will to ensure that stability.

“I think the case for PSBs is very strong but I am pessimistic about it being heard in several countries,” he said.

While with the BBC, Thompson weathered controversy regarding his decision to allow then- British National Party leader Nick Griffin on Question Time – a decision based on Thompson’s belief that, as he wrote for the Guardian the case for keeping the BNP off the program would be “a case for censorship.” It’s a sentiment he echoed when the conversation turned to the backlash from readers over a recent New York Times profile of an American white nationalist. Following its publication, readers and other media outlets criticized the Times for seemingly “normalizing” the movement and its followers.

“We need an open debate in our society,” Thompson said. “You only turn against that if you don’t trust the public themselves to make reasonable decisions.

“You can’t understand anyone including your political opponents unless you listen,” he added.

Regarding the Weinstein scandal and the subsequent torrent of high profile men accused of sexual misconduct, Thompson said, “We knew it was quite a big story obviously, but the scale of it took everyone by surprise.” With each new day bringing a new, sordid story to light, Thompson said society is experiencing “a moment of massive release of something that has been pent up in many people’s lives.”

For those media critics who have accused traditional media of lapsing into irrelevancy, the Times‘ recent investigative coups illustrate that the Old Gray Lady still packs a mighty punch. Its digital product has seen subscriptions increase, and Thompson is looking at a move to TV for the brand. But while the long term viability of its print product remains shrouded in uncertainty, Thompson said the need for “even-handed” investigative journalism is stronger than ever. When asked if he had a strategy to combat the swelling tide of fake news, Thompson’s reply was swift.

“Yes, it’s called trying to do proper journalism.”

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