“The fate of journalism and the fate of democracy are bound up in each other,” says the president and CEO of The New York Times, Mark Thompson, who is in the Greek capital for the Athens Democracy Forum, running through Sunday.
Former director-general of the BBC (2004-2012), visiting professor in rhetoric and the art of public persuasion at the University of Oxford (2012), and author of “Enough Said: What’s Gone Wrong with the Language of Politics?” (2016), Thompson talks about the relationship of the emblematic American newspaper with its readers, the future of journalism and its civic role, the quality of public language and the research for truth.
Before you became president and CEO of The New York Times, what did it represent for you as a European reader and media person?
In the 1970s, when I was a teenager, I was becoming incredibly interested in the Watergate hearings, and heard about the role of The New York Times and The Washington Post when I was 14 or 15. And, later in the 1980s, when I read The New York Times for the first time, I was just blown away by the seriousness of its journalism, the professionalism, the ethics to get things right, the quality of the writing and the sheer range of subjects. It was so different from the journalism I was reading in the UK; it was more serious, more thoughtful, it was less hysterical. And when the NYT launched a digital subscription model in 2011, I became one of its first subscribers. A few months later, I got a phone call saying, “Would you like to become chief executive of the newspaper?”
The NYT is the most important news institution in the US. Is it easy to innovate within an organization with such a history and prestige?
People sometimes think that maybe the way to save journalism is not to change, but to try and just hang onto everything. I take the opposite view. It’s only by radical change that we can save journalism. Innovation and risk-taking is essential. The future of journalism is going to be more visual – it’s going to involve videos, still photography, infographics, virtual reality, sound, podcasting. And we need all of these skills and much better skills around understanding our audience. So I very much believe that to preserve everything, we need to change everything. It’s like Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa says in “The Leopard”: “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.” So now we kind of have a revolution in the company and what’s been great about it is that there’s a lot of energy and real confidence that what we’re doing is working. Our digital revenue and our audience are growing very rapidly and we’re very confident that we can do it.
What’s your approach on the relationship between readers and content?
Many of our competitors have felt the need to add very popular, almost tabloid content to drive digital advertising. We don’t believe that’s the right strategy. We believe we’re a high-quality product, that what we do is intended to be done to a very high level. Our thesis is that the main form of funding in the future is going to be digital subscription. So everything we do, every piece of journalism we do, has to be worth paying for.
We believe in investing in journalism and we want quality to speak for itself – and quality journalism needs to be paid for. You can’t just give it away in the hope that advertising will pay for it. Most of the digital advertising money is going to go to the big digital platforms. It’s going to go to Google and Facebook, it’s not going to go to publishers. So we take a very different view than most of the rest of the industry who think that you can somehow do great journalism without charging customers.
All high-quality newspapers have always had a cover price. That’s our thesis. But we think that our view is delivering more money than other publishers are making. We live in a very disruptive and in some ways very frightening world, so having institutions that are really focused on high-quality and truthful journalism is very important.
You endorsed Hillary Clinton, as other newspapers did, in the US elections and are openly opposed to President Donald Trump. How do you ensure a balance between the subjectivity of an ideological position of a newspaper and the objectivity of the information you offer?
The tradition of the NYT, which is the tradition for other American newspapers also, is the idea that there are opinion pages, the editorial comments by the newspaper itself and the so-called Op-eds (Opposite the Editorial), which express a range of other opinions. The Times has supported Democrats for many decades – the last Republican the NYT endorsed was President Eisenhower in the 1950s – and in the last elections it supported Hillary Clinton for president in its editorials. But the newspaper, in its news pages – the front page and the other news pages – aims at impartiality. What is definitely true is that many people now confuse news and opinion, and claim, as the president does, that because the opinion department of the NYT decided to support Hillary Clinton, its news coverage must be biased as well. I would say that isn’t true. I think it’s very healthy for a country to have impartial sources of news. The news, in my view, should be delivered with as much objectivity and impartiality as possible so the public can make up their own minds.
What is a newspaper’s biggest challenge today?
To me the big thing is that the public are finding it very hard to understand and get information about government policy and political policy. We discovered a few months ago that something like 20 percent of Americans citizens thought that it was possible to abolish Obamacare but keep the Affordable Care Act. They didn’t realize that the one thing they wanted to abolish and the second thing they wanted to preserve were in fact the same thing!
The public need for access to impartial information is more important than ever because the forces of ignorance and the forces who are against free speech are growing in many countries. And we see, with Donald Trump in the White House, an attempt to blur the lines between truth and falsehood, between fake news and truthful information. So, responsible media and journalists have to stand up for the truth. And I think that kind of civic role of journalism is probably more important today than it has ever been.
Would you say that standing up for truth is standing up for democracy?
Yes, I do. I think that democracy depends on the people having access to the truth. The Greeks of the Classical period had the concept of phronesis, of a kind of practical wisdom, of prudence, that human beings are able to discriminate and to make a judgment. That’s why in Britain and in America, we have trials by a jury. We believe that ordinary people, if they are presented with the evidence and the facts, can decide between guilt and innocence. But also in democracy we believe that the public at large, when they go to vote, can discriminate and can make sensible choices between different political parties and different politicians because of their innate sense of an ability to reach judgment. But that depends on their understanding of facts and having access to truthful information. And that access is a part of a newspaper’s mission.
Does the public language need to be reinvented?
The public language is a very complex cultural object which has been built over thousands of years. It can’t just be reinvented. But I think we do need to re-evaluate the way in which political debate happens and the way the media report things. The very compressed, very intense, often very exaggerated extreme language that has come to the fore and has been transmitted around the world on platforms like Twitter and Facebook has made it harder for calmer, more sophisticated, more sensible language to be heard. And I do think that trying to work out what to make of that and helping in particular young people to learn how to understand and analyze public language is very important.
Another thing which I think is very good for public language is satire. And I think that in America, now, we are seeing an amazing renaissance of satire. The arrival of Donald Trump at the White House has been a field day for satirists like John Oliver on “Last Week Tonight.” Satirists can make fun of and reveal contradictions and false claims in what politicians say. That’s something which essentially began in Greece in Athenian times: Aristophanes and others used humor and satire to reveal such absurdities. I think that’s quite a healthy way of getting people to think about public language.
The NYT chose Athens for the Democracy Forum. What role can such a conference play in propagating democratic ideals?
From quite a young age I was a classicist at school and did some classics at university as well. So I think that there couldn’t be a better place to hold such a forum as the home of democracy. The ancient Greek idea that the common citizen could actually take a decisive role in running a society is a Greek idea that is timeless and has become the most important physical force on the planet in many ways. The ideas that were first experimented with in Athens and elsewhere in Greece 2,500 years ago are incredibly important ideas. And I believe that in Athens we will have the chance to have a proper, thoughtful and intelligent discussion about what’s going on in the world and try to get to the bottom of things. I think that people taking the time to talk, and probably more important than talk, to listen to others, is a really important thing. So this forum can be a time that we can really talk and listen to each other, and I think that Athens is the perfect place to have the conference, because it is the symbol of democracy.
Do you think we need symbols now more than before?
We do need symbols. They help us to remember our shared heritage, particularly in the West, the deep roots of the Western civilization, the idea of every citizen’s rights in a society being heard, the idea that debate is a good thing. In his famous funeral oration, the great Athenian leader Pericles said that other countries may think debate is a waste of time, but to Athenians it is very important. Because when we debate things thoroughly, we reach better conclusions and jointly get to solutions. That’s the best way for human societies to operate.
Unfortunately, we can see both in Europe and countries like Turkey and Russia, but even – I’m afraid to say – in America today, many citizens don’t believe that’s possible any more. They think that there is a greedy, dishonest political class, and that the whole system is corrupted. I think one of our tasks – and I think the media plays a role in this as well – is to try to get to a point where politicians, media and the public can regain somewhat more trust in each other. Because the levels of cynicism, vituperation and insults among them are dangerous for the Western world and dangerous for democracy. So I think that one of the questions I hope we will have the chance to discuss in Athens is whether there is a way to start trying to restore elements of trust. Not because I think we should be naive about these things or that we should try to tell people to be nice, because that’s not going to work, but simply because conventions, political conventions, including politeness and courtesy, actually make democracy work better.
* This interview was first published in K, Kathimerini’s Sunday supplement.