Times Of London Takes On New York Times

Posted on July 22, 2006 
Filed Under Uncategorized

Robert Thomson, editor of Times of London, tells Patrick Phillips of IWantMedia.com why the US edition is viable.

Highlights:

1. We already have a large and growing Web audience in the U.S. and it makes sense to build a physical presence that complements that profile. The opening for the Times is in international news coverage, which has been reduced by many U.S. newspapers; business coverage, given that London is a global financial center; and the arts, in which I would argue that we have the world’s classiest and cleverest writers.

2. Britain is cauldron of media competition, which tends to bring out the best in journalists and journalism. Having worked in the U.S. rolling out the Financial Times, it was clear to me that there is a larger degree of energy and inventiveness among British newspapers, and a certain smugness and self-defeating self-satisfaction among too many U.S. newspapers.

3. IWM: Who is the audience for the Times in the United States? Thomson: We are starting in the penthouse and working our way down the building, and starting in downtown Manhattan — Wall Street — and working our way to the Upper East and Upper West. In other words, we are aiming at Americans who have global interests and “aliens” who are resident in the larger U.S. cities, particularly in the Northeast.

4. Our greatest enemy is time. I’m sure there are many people who would like to find the time to read the Times, but who are already swamped by information and obligation. There is no one paper or Web site that is our natural foe, but there is the aggregated competition of all Web sites and of all the newspapers, free and otherwise, already carpeting the streets of U.S. cities.

5. The New York Times has virtues and some very good journalists, but it also has all the weaknesses of a monopoly newspaper. There are more factions in the New York Times than in the Chinese Communist Party, and their journalistic meetings seem to be a cross between Cultural Revolution-style struggle sessions and charismatic night at the evangelical hall.

6. The New York Times’s foreign coverage is much like a roving spotlight — a country becomes important because one of its esteemed writers happens to be in town. We have more regular, more textured coverage.

7. Competition is the defining difference. In London, we have 13 papers which pass themselves off as national, plus three free newspapers and the promise of several more giveaway papers before year’s end. The newsstand determines your fate, unlike in the U.S., where most purchases are by subscription. The virtue of the latter is that you have a regular flow of subscription revenue, but the cost is that you are slightly shielded from competition and become risk averse. Being risk averse is not an option in the contemporary content environment.

8. British papers generally have remained interested in international news, meaning that they have more content on their Web sites for a global audience. For example, there is little doubt that India will eventually become our largest audience. Obviously, we provide better cricket coverage than the Houston Chronicle, but our world news coverage is also far more comprehensive.

9. Times Online TV is our first foray into contracted video content. Of course we have done podcasts and vodcasts and, some would argue, oddcasts, but we now have a news agency-style video feed which is a starting point for the broader introduction of video services. We will be generating more of our own content and want to become a village square for video, in that we will be inviting our readers to send their video footage of breaking news to the site.

10. IWM: Times media editor Dan Sabbagh wrote in an analysis that “paper products are gradually becoming a shop window for Web sites, which is partly why the Times is on sale in New York.” Is the paper edition of newspapers becoming secondary to online?

Thomson: An important concept for newspapers to contemplate is that of “complementary content,” as each medium has its strength and weaknesses. One of the strengths of the printed paper is that it has an obvious presence on the streets, a presence that is advantageous for profile. And profile is advantageous in a crowded, cacophonous world.

11. Integration is more a cultural than a technological issue. Traditional journalistic skills are urgently required on the Web, but the transfer of those skills requires personal flexibility and sensible newsroom geography. Journalists are narrators and navigators, and given that that the Web is a vast reservoir of information of varying quality, “navigational-nous” — editing skills, judgment, etc. — is crucial. There is also a challenge for the Internet pioneers at news organizations. The funkiness of being on the fringe has disappeared. The Web is now mainstream, so the sense of identity that came from the splendid isolation of the Internet has dissipated. We are now in the age of e-egalitarianism.

12. IWM: Will newspapers disappear?
Thomson: Not in my lifetime. Newspapers will have to justify their existence, with energy, creativity and integrity, but ink on paper is a pleasure to read and is a convenient format. Each newspaper is customized by each of its readers — there has been much drivel talked about the Daily Me for the past decade or so. … Each reader reads the Times in a different way, and adjusts the time spent according to her or his taste in subjects.

Pages can be randomly accessed and a newspaper has no issues with battery life — no copy of the Times has ever needed recharging. On average, we have close to 2 million print readers each day and an online monthly audience of over 8 million unique users. These are enormous communities with great realizable value.

13. Too many journalists are too pessimistic about the future. I am basically an old hack who started as a copy boy at an afternoon newspaper, making tea and ensuring that the pile of carbon paper was constantly replenished, and yet I have never experienced a time of greater opportunity for good journalism.

The Times has never had more readers at any time in its 221-year history, and we should have many, many more readers in coming years. The negative navel-gazing in journalistic circles is unhealthy for the industry and for individuals. Fatalism tends to be fatal.

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