COMMENT

Achilles Tsaltas: Democracy in crisis and the internet age

YANNIS PALAIOLOGOS

TAGS: Interview

Achilles Tsaltas personifies the notion of globalization. An Australian citizen of Greek descent, he is vice president of International Conferences at The New York Times, resides in London and travels tirelessly around the world in pursuit of sponsors for the development of NYT Conferences and talking to local officials.

Our meeting took place on a recent mid-September afternoon in Athens, a few hours before Tsaltas was due to fly to Doha, Qatar, where the US newspaper was a organizing another conference. It was also the day after the end of the 4th Athens Democracy Forum (where the focus was on the growing threats to liberal democracies), whose first part in Athens was followed by a second part at the Costa Navarino resort in Messinia.

Following our introductions – he told me he prefers to arrive at airports at the very last minute, otherwise he’d spend half his time waiting for flights, given his frequent travels – the discussion turned to the Democracy Forum.

“My instinct always told me that this would turn into something big,” said Tsaltas, who was the instigator and is the driving force behind the conference. “What surprised us, however, was the speed at which it developed from a two-hour event at the Stoa of Attalos into a six-day conference.” How does he account for the event’s success?

“I remember that, already in 2013, as I observed the audience at the Stoa of Attalos, I saw about four or five of our [NYT] journalists. We usually have to go to great lengths to persuade them to attend our conferences because the perception is that they belong to the company’s more commercial side. Or at least that was the case back then, because perceptions have since changed. But they had come to Athens on their own, almost without being invited. So I met with Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, board chairman at The NYT Company, in New York and told him that if our journalists felt they had to be there, then we had to do something, there was potential. Being the visionary that he is, he suggested meeting for lunch to see how we could make the forum grow, for it to become something like the Davos of Democracy – in Athens, but without the straitjacket and elitist elements of Davos.”

Personal motive

Tsaltas, who was born in Sydney in 1966, also revealed a personal motive behind the addition of the Athens Democracy Forum to the international conference map. In 2013, “it was only two years after I had lost my parents and I felt my father’s spirit very intensely. They were both very well-read. In Sydney, where they emigrated after leaving Patra, they started a family business. My father, especially, was always concerned about developments in Greece. Shortly before he died, he said, ‘Son, you have to do something about the crisis.’ I replied that I was not a politician, but simply working for The New York Times. And he said: ‘Exactly! You will achieve so much more through The New York Times than you would ever achieve as a politician.’ Five years on, I feel their presence every day.”

For Tsaltas, the forum is something more than just another commercial initiative. “As a venture it is based on altruism and idealism. The challenge in the future is for the event to strike a balance between the idealistic and the practical.” As for the next edition, plans are still vague.

“We’re thinking of putting an emphasis on the role of cities, as opposed to those played by states, in the democratic process and, in particular, the notion of the city-state, which is where democracy initially blossomed.”

As a regular visitor to the Greek capital and someone who has been working with the City of Athens in the last four years, does he feel the city resisting or are there signs that the ongoing crisis is being felt in increasingly painful ways?

“For sure the city is resistant – Greeks, Athenians have unflagging energy. They don’t give up. But I do sense a certain fatigue, people seem more inward-looking compared to 10 years ago.” 

A well-informed electorate is a prerequisite for a well-functioning democracy. One of the key issues discussed at the recent Athens Forum was the notion of the broad misinformation of voters, including in democracies, through social media, for instance. How concerned is The New York Times by the increasing indifference shown by readers with regard to verifying what they read as well as the shrinking influence of traditional media over public opinion?

“It raises major concern,” noted Tsaltas.

“We have to admit that at the very beginning, traditional media ‘missed’ the social media revolution. Journalists resisted the idea of embracing social media. But as mentioned at an event at Impact Hub Athens on the subject of media in the crisis age, anything that goes viral these days starts from a story in The New York Times or the BBC and so on. So traditional, major media are now playing the game – although it took them a while. The same is true of governments. This is the crisis that democracy is experiencing: The speed of change in technology is far greater than the adjustment speed of our institutions.”

The digital challenges facing the broader media nowadays are not confined to the possible restrictions on the influence of traditional news media outlets. The transition to the digital age is also a particularly complex financial equation, one which very few media companies have managed to solve. How is this particular process developing at the NYT?

“Very well,” said Tsaltas, apparently taking the glass half-full approach. “The number of online readers has been rising exponentially in the last five years. Following the installation of a paywall, we went from zero to over a million digital subscribers. Revenues from the digital edition are now 400 million dollars, while the target is to reach 800 million by 2020. Given that the US market is finite and saturated, we hope to achieve this through expanding in other markets,” noted Tsaltas. Online Chinese and Spanish editions of the NYT were launched a few months ago.

The crucial challenge of recovering lost revenues from the print edition, however, remains. According to Tsaltas, increased revenues from the digital edition represent about 25 percent of total revenues and “are not even close to making up for the loss of advertising revenues” from the print edition.

The negative financial situation in the media sector led the newspaper to reduce spending. Nevertheless, “we have hardly touched our journalist staff,” noted Tsaltas. “Journalists are treasured at the Times and we are making a conscious effort to cut down in other areas, so that, for instance, we don’t have to shut down correspondents’ bureaus overseas. Our international expansion cannot be achieved without the contribution of our 36 correspondents’ offices around the globe.”

Meanwhile, there are still major challenges within the US. As the principal voice of the American establishment, the newspaper has often been targeted by Donald Trump with regard to his campaign’s coverage. But the NYT has also been criticized by leftists – including its own columnists, such as economist Paul Krugman – for not adequately exposing Trump’s lies and about-faces.

The day before our meeting, in yet another explosive tweet – which ended up earning over 26,000 likes in two days – the Republican presidential candidate had once again threatened to sue the Times. Could a possible Trump presidency pose a threat to the freedom of the press in the US?

“I don’t think there could ever be any serious consequences, because institutions in the US are more powerful than whoever happens to be elected president,” noted Tsaltas. Nevertheless, “even if he loses, he’s still a winner. It’s the first time that a populist has risen so high in the US political scene, and this shows that something has gone wrong within society, something which went unnoticed by establishment parties.”

A global Greek

How did a second-generation Australian immigrant, who grew up without many privileges or access to power, rise to the position he now occupies at one of the world’s most important newspapers? “My parents left Patra and headed to Sydney in 1959. This was after the civil war, at a time when the country was in a really tough situation.”

The young Achilles studied economics and earned a master’s degree in sociology, while his involvement in the media began “possibly by accident.”

“When I was a student I worked in the furniture section of a department store for pocket money. One day an executive from The Australian [a Rupert Murdoch newspaper] walked in. I sold him a living room suite and he asked me what was my real job was, besides selling furniture. I answered, cheekily, that it depended on what he had to offer.” A few days later, Tsaltas met him at the newspaper for an appointment that turned into a job interview. Three months later he started working in the paper’s sales department.

“But that’s just one part of the story,” he added. “Obviously, I was attracted to the media world. When I was 11, instead of playing football outdoors, I stayed in my room working on the single copy of my own newspaper featuring Aldo Moro’s murder on the front page! I was already working on personalized marketing,” he added.

How important were Greece and the country’s traditions in his upbringing? “They played a very important role. It was a very Greek household and, of course, even though my parents were not religious, we celebrated Orthodox Easter, we went to church and so on,” he said. The family returned to Greece in 1972, a move which allowed Tsaltas to familiarize himself with his country of origin. “We had a basic rule in our family,” he recalled. “When we spoke Greek we never used English words and vice versa. This ‘policy’ was of vital importance in order to maintain my connection to the language.”

His Greek roots are still very important. As he puts it: “When I met with Giorgos Kaminis and persuaded him to take part in the Athens Democracy Forum, I told him I was approaching him wearing two hats. The first was that of a New York Times executive. The other was that of a diaspora Greek whose values were instilled by his parents.”

Online