In a world of misinformation, faux news, and divisive polarity, the CEO of the New York Times Mark Thompson is not shy about promoting truth as the only currency that matters.

This was evident in February this year when the 166 year old news organisation launched a marketing campaign dubbed “The Truth is Hard”, using print, video and billboards to strike back at the newly minted Trump presidency, in a memorable campaign created by ad agency Droga5.

Thompson’s New York Times is the only news organisation in the world with more than one million digital news subscribers, and its online unit rakes in US$300 million in revenue a year. He said that digital revenue will be more than 51 per cent of overall revenue within the next few years.

He took the stage last week at the digital marketing conference, dmexco, in Cologne, and opened up about his plans to transform the most influential media institution in the world, taking questions from OMD CEO Mainardo de Nardis.

Thompson, the former head of the UK’s Channel 4 and BBC, is in no mood to backdown from a fight, whether it be with the leader of the free world, the proliferation of fake news peddlers, and especially in combating the existential threat to digital journalism business models.

He began by noting that Trump had said shortly after being elected that the New York Times business model was failing. “(Trump said) that subscriptions are collapsing, that audiences are collapsing, and they are finished. So we responded.”

Since November last year, the NYT’s paid subscriptions have surged, and along with Jeff Bezos’s Washington Post, is the world’s top newsmaker, outflanking new digital native media players such as the Huffington Post, Buzzfeed, and Politico, he said. 

That’s not to say the NY Times hasn’t faced enormous challenges. In the past six years, there has been an 85 per cent swap out of staff in the advertising department, 65 per cent in consumer marketing, and the newsroom has seen a 35-40 per cent staff churn in the past three to four years. There are also now more staff working in creating branded content than in the traditional direct advertising sales team.

Furthermore, brands want to be seen as content partners working in tandem with the NY Times, rather than mere advertisers. That means the NY Times is competing with the likes of OMD and other ad agencies in seeking to become digital storytellers.

The pressure remains to find and hire people with “straightforward digital expertise”, especially data scientists and product development people.

Technology and digital has transformed the company. “We have probably now got one engineer for every two people in the newsroom, and we have more than 200 journalists who can code now. We have seen colossal change,” Thompson said. The Times is now competing with Google and Facebook for digital marketing and engineering talent, and also with the global advertising agency holding groups, he said.

Thompson has already had a crack at the low-rent part of the digital advertising world, noting in Cannes in June that the ad-tech market was “a mess”. Thompson believes that many people thought the advent of digital meant an industrial shift to a large volume game, but that it has simply resulted in online advertising that is intrusive and ugly, and the emergence of digital news players who simply can’t make a profit.

“I think many of the world’s publishers took a really dangerous step that the way forward was to build a vast audience. But you end up in a place where you are competing with the world, and with little differentiation, and it turns out you can’t really monetise it,” he said. “”[The new digital news players] are getting incredible headline numbers, but look at their digital revenue per user. We are $4 per user and no one else is above $1.50.”

The other issue that Thompson is tackling is legacy media bureaucracy in his own company, a problem that is a killer in attracting young talented engineers, he said. Thompson noted the launch of The Daily podcast took six weeks from first discussion to launch, and is already the most popular podcast in the world.

“We have to move as quickly as the platforms on which which we sit, and at the same pace as Amazon and Facebook,” Thompson said.

Thompson finished with a parting shot at Google and Facebook, and hinted they must be more responsible with the type of content they distribute on their platforms.

“These very big companies, in particular Facebook and Google, want to be thought of as forces for good in the world, and many people are sceptical about whether that is true or not,” Thompson said. “It’s about getting the truth out to the world rather than lies and hate. They have a window of opportunity with us. I hope, together, we can do something better.”

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