Examination of Witnesses (Questions 280
WEDNESDAY 18 JULY 2007
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 Timesyou can buy Times onlineI
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
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.
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.
When do you expect it to be profitable? Will that be in the next
Mr Thomson: By our forecast, it should turn
into profit in the third or fourth quarter of the next financial
How long has the period of unprofitability continued?
Mr Thomson: Certainly for most of my lifetime.
It said that we accidentally made a profit!
When you talk about your lifetime, is that as the Times
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.
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
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
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 pageI 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:
Mr Thomson: You can but not directly. It would
be easier to type in BSkyB.com.
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 organisationsand you will
remember the time of an AOL merger a few years agothere
is no guarantee that these supposed monoliths are even going to
be around in five or ten years' time let alone dominating the
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
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 audiencerevenue is not my responsibility, costs are
my responsibilityis 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 interestI
am not saying that religion is the subject of narrow interestor
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 arguethis
is one point that would be taken over the long term for methat
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.