Select Committee on Communications Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 280 - 299)


Mr Robert Thomson

  Q280  Baroness Howe of Idlicote: In terms of the Internet, what are you estimating there as far as its affect on your printed newspaper? Obviously, in the case of the Times there is perhaps a benefit to another part of the ownership.

  Mr Thomson: I think that is exactly the point and, for us, the issue is not the straight cannibalisation of the Times—you can buy Times online—I think that is a rather primitive journalistic response to the Internet. The Times competes with all aggregated content on line and that be the New York Times or it might be Google News. I think that the role of Google is something, if I may be so bold, that the Committee should look at both in terms of privacy issues and in terms of content issues. They aggregate a lot of our content, generate a large amount of revenue from our content and that of the Telegraph, the Guardian, the Mail and other newspapers but do not contribute in any way to the cost of obtaining the content and there is a slight contradiction there which may become a very large contradiction over time. For us, because the nature of our emphases in content particularly business news which is the most lucrative online channel for us, as they call it, and international news ... We have a very rapidly growing international audience. We have several million users each month from India, for example, and I would imagine that our US audience which is now of the order of 3.2/3.3 million unique users each month in five years' time to be in the order of five million and I would think that again, given the nature of the content and all other things being equal, we would be by some way the largest newspaper Internet site in Britain. How does that affect the paper? Habits are changing and it is not only the Internet that will affect reading habit but also digital delivery through mobile devices which for some young people is already part of their daily lives. The interesting thing is that because the British newspaper market is such a cauldron of competition and the papers are so aggressive in their marketing and so efficient in the way that they reach out to readers, even though there this is this extraordinarily intensive battle going on each day, newspaper readership in Britain has stayed high and our circulation has stayed very high given our historical level while, in various other countries, there has been a dramatic decline and I think that because of that very competition, newspapers have been forced to adapt and evolve not only in the last three or four years but over the last 30 years.

  Q281  Baroness Howe of Idlicote: From what you have described, it sounds as if the Times and particularly the business side can see a growth ahead of it on the Internet but of course allied to that you have Sky and the rest of the ownership there which do not exactly put your paper in any real jeopardy but, comparing it to the other British papers or papers generally, we have certainly picked up that is not quite their view and do you really think that they are going to survive too with the kind of competition that you have been describing?

  Mr Thomson: It depends on the quality of the content and how much readers trust that content, and readers meaning print or online readers. The idea that content is king is right but there is what you might call a commodity content which is almost rewriting of PA or replicating words or duplicating journalists. Newspapers or news organisations that produce a lot of that kind of content which is not distinctive in any way are definitely an endangered species.

  Q282  Chairman: May we go back and refresh ourselves. You said that the Times is on the verge of becoming profitable.

  Mr Thomson: That is a fair comment.

  Q283  Chairman: When do you expect it to be profitable? Will that be in the next financial year?

  Mr Thomson: By our forecast, it should turn into profit in the third or fourth quarter of the next financial year.

  Q284  Chairman: How long has the period of unprofitability continued?

  Mr Thomson: Certainly for most of my lifetime. It said that we accidentally made a profit!

  Q285  Chairman: When you talk about your lifetime, is that as the Times editor?

  Mr Thomson: I think that the recent loss-making history of the Times is well known. I cannot speak for the 1920s and 1930s but, in the modern history of the Times, we have been habitually loss making. When I became editor, it was a priority for me to make sure that we were in a position of being able to sustain Times journalism for hopefully another 200 years and, frankly, with the investment that Rupert Murdoch was authorising at the time, we are now in a position where Times journalism will extend far beyond that.

  Q286  Chairman: Perhaps I should declare an interest: in the 1960s I worked at the Times. I hope that does not make me sound too prehistoric! At that stage, I think that we actually made a profit.

  Mr Thomson: I am sure that you probably had a personal impact.

  Q287  Lord Maxton: Let me turn to the Times Online in a little more detail. You said that there were, if I can use the computer terminology, 10 million hits a day but that is not really necessarily all of it because that is just a hit, just somebody going in and looking at something. How much of that is from this country and how much is from abroad?

  Mr Thomson: It is generally noted by month and that is 10 million different people coming in. Hits actually would be the number of people multiplied by the number of pages they look at. About one third UK, a third US and a third the rest of the world.

  Q288  Lord Maxton: So, when Rupert Murdoch reads it in the US, he is probably reading the Times Online rather than reading the actual newspaper.

  Mr Thomson: He may be reading the global edition of Times Online. We actually print in New York as well.

  Q289  Lord Maxton: Quite rightly, you have said that one of the reasons that the Times the time has held out is trust but there is another organisation that is another bigger than you online and that of course is the BBC which equally has that reputation of trust, but it also has the ability of course that you can go online to the BBC, to listen to the news, to watch it increasingly. Are you moving into this sort of area as well online? In other words, are your journalists also becoming camera men so that, when they do an interview which appears in print, one can actually watch it as well?

  Mr Thomson: Quite a few of them have a face for print journalism!

  Q290  Lord Maxton: That is what my wife says about mine!

  Mr Thomson: All websites are being privatised. If you look at TV sites, they are developing more texts and, if you look at text sites, they are developing more, as you describe, video and audio components. We do quite a lot of podcasting of one kind and another, but I think that news organisations have to see themselves as social platforms and it is not just Phil Webster writing a political story and then doing an short audio Q and A which a certain number of people would be interested in but it is also understanding the reach you have with this enormous audience of ten million. For example, earlier this year, we gave out a CD on a Saturday to learn Mandarin and put the Mandarin lessons on Times Online and there are still people going to those Mandarin lessons from all around the world and this is the first experience they have of Chinese. We have obviously tried to make it as accessible as possible and have a lot of content around those lessons, but there is no doubt that in the conventional sense, yes, there will be more video but there will also be more audio but there is also an ability for large news organisations to have an educational role which is far beyond that which they have been traditionally able to do but should be the part of their social charter and character.

  Q291  Lord Maxton: At the other end of that is the way in which now a member of the public can contribute straight into your ... What marginally affected me was the bomb car at Glasgow Airport. That photograph of it must have been from a member of the public taken on a mobile phone and then selling it, giving it or whatever around the world. You used it; everybody used it.

  Mr Thomson: It was selling, unfortunately! That amount of what they call user generated content is increasing rapidly. Also, the ability for readers to interact with a columnist. You see that Danny Finkelstein runs a political blog where he is encouraging readers to come in and not only comment on his thoughts but also on those of all the other columnists, so you are creating a community of content which is far deeper and far richer precisely because your readers are able to interact more spontaneously and at greater length than historically has been the case.

  Q292  Lord Maxton: Obviously your own front page is very important to you in terms of attracting readers on the newsstand, but equally of course now on the net is a matter of the front page—I use Yahoo, others use Google. How do other webs like yourselves get onto the front page so that, when I go into Yahoo, there is either a news story from the Times there or there is an advert for the Times there?. Do you work at getting into that?

  Mr Thomson: We do. We use of lot of what they call search optimisation tactics where through the use of certain words in headlines, the web crawler that is used by Yahoo or Google to pick up Times stories. The problem with a lot of search, particularly Google search, is that it is quantitative rather than qualitative. So, where we may have invested in keeping a correspondent in Baghdad for this period, what you can get from a Google news search about, say, some incident, some explosion or whatever, in Baghdad tends to be a slightly rewritten version or 239 slightly rewritten versions of a Reuters story and I know that Google are looking at trying to evolve the algorithm to make a distinction, but at the moment what it highlights and makes pre-eminent on its search is determined by links to other sites rather than by the actual value of that content.

  Lord Maxton: Does your website link to other parts of the Murdoch organisation? In other words, can someone link to Sky News?

  Q293  Baroness Thornton: My Space.

  Mr Thomson: You can but not directly. It would be easier to type in

  Q294  Bishop of Manchester: I would like to look a little further at the general picture in the newspaper industry ten years from now. You have already spoken about the influence of technological advances and the difference that that is already making, so let me explore it in a different kind of way. I gather that the Society of Editors Conference is being held in Manchester this year and that, during the course of that, there is to be a protest mounted by the National Union of Journalists on 5 November. The NUJ has issued this statement, "Our members will make it clear that they will no longer accept the cuts, the poor pay and the worsening working conditions to maintain the excessive profits of ever more greedy media companies". If we just take the media company side of it, whatever the NUJ view may be, the fact is that the media companies and the way in which across-media control is happening is becoming a factor which surely must influence in some way or other how the scene is going to be ten years from now. Looking at it in that kind of ownership side, what do you predict?

  Mr Thomson: I think we have established that excessive profits are not something that is generally associated with The Times.

  Q295  Bishop of Manchester: Well, you are going in that direction.

  Mr Thomson: It is a question for editors but it is also a question for the journalists. The profession of journalism is changing fundamentally and it is a lot easier for ordinary people to be citizen journalists and that is a challenge to the profession and it is incumbent on all journalists, let alone media companies, to understand the contents of the profession now and the contemporary context. At the Times we try to encourage culture journalists and renaissance reporters where they will do some digital works, some audio visual work or they might write a blog and they will interact with readers more directly as well as writing a piece for the newspaper, and that is how what is almost mockingly referred to by the digital generation mainstream media, which is what the Times and the News Corporation are, is able to respond. So, I think the idea that mainstream media is somehow digitally dominant by decree is a complete misreading of how the content landscape is changing. What I am worried about as a journalist is, how can we create an environment where we are able to employ specialists to look at politics and to look at religion, to cover America properly and to cover China and India properly because, yes, you can get citizen journalism from these places but it will not be of a professional standard of different time journalists and that is the element of journalism that is most threatened in the digital age.

  Q296  Bishop of Manchester: What I am taking from the NUJ comment is not only that but also a great fear about the power of the big media ownership which is quite seriously beginning to alter the pattern of these papers and the way that then connects up as in the case of the Times with BSkyB. Just pushing into that prognosis ahead, how many media owners are there going to be by then? Will there be just a very few in charge of all this or will some of them have disappeared?

  Mr Thomson: The number of proprietors who are passionate about newspapers these days is declining rapidly. If you look at the recent sales of various newspapers in the States, particularly the Chicago Tribune and other regional newspapers, there is a huge amount of wariness about beginning to invest in these papers. The more people who continue to invest in newspapers, the better it is for society because out of newspapers will flow original content and meaningful content both for digital consumption as well as print consumption. The idea of a monolith or two as mainstream media dominating all conscience and comment in a sense has never been more challenged than in our age where you have Google, you have Yahoo, you have the MSN Microsoft network, you have all sorts of providers, some of them creators of content and some of them merely aggregating content and, if you look at the failing of many large media organisations—and you will remember the time of an AOL merger a few years ago—there is no guarantee that these supposed monoliths are even going to be around in five or ten years' time let alone dominating the digital landscape.

  Q297  Lord Hastings of Scarisbrick: You talked about your fear of protecting journalism on specialist themes and subjects. Do you see that as a role of the Times as an organisation, to protect those people and those things and, if you do, how would you do that if it does not in any way relate necessarily to readership or even to profit?

  Mr Thomson: It is easier to protect if you are closer to profit in the longer term, so profit is a meaningful contributor to the debate about specialist journalism and not just trying to write good newspapers around the world. The first thing that newspapers do when they are in financial trouble is close foreign bureaux, so the global diversity of British newspaper coverage is immediately diminished. The specialist, whether it is political or business specialist, whether it is the lay reporter, whether it is the home affairs reporter, is an absolutely essential translator of issues in British society for a broader audience. The ideal specialist is very familiar with evolving debate, can point out to a reader who trusts that person when there is an issue that they should be concerned about and why that development is meaningful at this moment and for a dilettante regime that he or she can instinctively have that wisdom is to misunderstand not only the complexity of that information but the role of the professional journalist. So, the specialist journalists at the Times and other newspapers I would argue are national leading treasures.

  Q298  Lord Hastings of Scarisbrick: What is your reflection on how the user who is using news content online differentiates between specialist content that you might put online as compared to specialist content that you put in print? Is it easier to in a more relaxed read that in print and absorb and it is more dismissive online? What is the future in the light of your comments about development?

  Mr Thomson: That is a very interesting question and I think that patterns are still emerging. If you are interested in religion, obviously you should read Ruth Gledhill in the Times. What we find now is that there is a huge global audience which has identified the Times as a source of important information on religious affairs. Our problem is to generate revenue from that audience—revenue is not my responsibility, costs are my responsibility—is extremely difficult. What you hope is that in the longer term you would be able to sell more ads to international readers and that you will actually be able to expand that specialist coverage which will then hopefully enhance the range of specialist coverage that you can have in the paper itself. The difference in readership is that reading a newspaper is almost like a grazing experience. Each newspaper is customised by every reader and that is why a traditional reader of the Times who may be surprised to see a review of a film on page 5 or page 7 or wherever will still get a lot of international news, business news, political news, the register and so on, but you come across things in a somewhat more random way. So, someone who is not specifically interested in religious affairs may well read that story. With digital readership, what you find is that people are seeking specific subjects of interest to them and so they now have to seek out the religious story online but they will not necessarily read the political story or the story about India or whatever. There are two social consequences of that. One is that you are obviously broadening for people with a somewhat narrow interest—I am not saying that religion is the subject of narrow interest—or who have a subject specific interest, so they are creating a community but, at the same time, the sheer content experience of reading a newspaper is becoming less prominent in society, so people are gathering around specific ideas but you could argue—this is one point that would be taken over the long term for me—that this broader content community which itself defines shared values in society is being undermined by a digital specificity.

  Q299  Lord Hastings of Scarisbrick: I would like to press you briefly on that again. You did argue earlier on that there are online tools for linking advertising to certain contacts, so you are drawing people through the system. Can you see a way in which for the sake of protecting specialist journalism you can do that online? Is there any way that you can draw people in?

  Mr Thomson: To be honest, we are learning how to do that at the moment. You can use Google classifieds and so on, what they call adsets which, when you go on to a web page, you often see down the right-hand column a lot of little classifieds, some relevant, some completely irrelevant, but again that goes back to the power of Google rather than being something that is revenue generated by Times newspapers.

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