FEATURE 

On Legacy – the only thing that will last is quality

On 10 June, John Witherow, editor of The Times, gave this year’s Society of Editors Bob Satchwell Lecture at Stationers’ Hall in London. This is an abridged version of his talk.

By John Witherow

On Legacy – the only thing that will last is quality
John Witherow giving the Bob Satchwell Lecture: “Our purpose is good journalism, on every platform.”

The past twenty years, we have seen more change in our industry than at any time in the 235-year history of The Times.

Our business has been turned upside down by the internet. Stories have proliferated and exclusives last as long as it takes for someone to copy them.

Against the advice of the competition, ten years ago, The Times pursued its own course. We became one of only a handful of general interest papers in the world to introduce subscriptions.

Back then, the word ‘paywall’ was frowned on and we tried to find euphemisms to describe our new business model. We failed and the word ‘paywall’ has stuck. I guess journalists prefer straight-talking anyway.

But actually, the paywall succeeded because we established a price for digital journalism. We recruited subscribers. We turned a profit. And we continued to invest in the highest quality journalism.

This might seem obvious now but it is only with hindsight that we see that we were years ahead of our rivals.

It was far from obvious at the time. A certain national newspaper editor predicted that The Times and The Sunday Times would fall into a “vault of darkness” with just 60,000 subscribers.

Well Alan Rusbridger, it is a pleasure to say that your prediction was wrong.

Together, The Times and The Sunday Times have more than 500,000 subscribers, some 300,000 of them digital and we have nearly five million registered users reading us regularly.

We have achieved this while protecting our print newspapers, both of which are the number one titles in their market, which is no mean feat when you’ve been chasing after The Telegraph for as long as The Times has.

But I’m not here to talk about the past decade, which in some ways is best forgotten as other titles, especially vital regional ones, struggle to survive.

I want to focus on the decade ahead. In particular, I want to try to answer the question at the forefront of my mind as I near the fortieth anniversary of joining The Times as a reporter: how do you protect the future of one of the most famous newspapers in the world and ensure it can be around 200 years from now?

The breath-taking pace of digital disruption is familiar to newsrooms everywhere.

As is the sheer might of the tech giants who have swallowed our digital advertising revenues and have as yet failed to pay publishers adequately for the “content” we provide them.

Nor have they acknowledged that they are indeed publishers, who should be responsible for what they publish.

This is the most challenging environment we have ever faced and yet we should find this prospect invigorating.

When information is ubiquitous, there is a huge thirst for well written, original articles that can make sense of the world in a clear and entertaining way.

Our research told us that Times readers don’t come to us for breaking news; they can get that on Twitter or from free sites like the BBC.

That’s why we abandoned rolling news three years ago and instead follow an edition strategy where we publish full updates at set intervals during the day.

Comment, analysis, exclusives and investigations. These are the four main ingredients that we believe subscribers want.

We have pretty well perfected our print recipe, but digitally, we need to be more creative and ambitious if we are to serve new readers, not just loyal customers.

So far, we have already attracted subscribers in more than 150 countries, and we have registered users in every country in the world, including North Korea.

The task is to redefine ourselves as a media company in which print is just one product.

To create a product that can appeal to both a 19 and a 90 year old.

Print has served us well. But younger people are often coming to us with no knowledge of our print edition, finding us through search.

In this context, the language of a splash or a quirky page 3 story have no meaning.

They must still be good stories, but they must survive on their own, untethered from their position in the print edition.

When information is ubiquitous, there is a huge thirst for well written, original articles that can make sense of the world in a clear and entertaining way.

Artificial intelligence

Technology is one of the answers. We are experimenting with artificial intelligence and have developed James, a “digital butler” who will recommend articles and serve them up when and how you like.

James, like Jeeves, has been doing fine work. We have successfully reduced digital subscriber churn by 49 per cent in a trial. By churn, I mean readers cancelling subscriptions.

Then there is the rise of the robot reporter. Roughly a third of the stories published by Bloomberg are using some form of this automated technology.

Developments in production mean that sub editors will have facts checked automatically. A title’s style book can be automated, again removing much of the drudge work.

This is not to undermine journalism but to enhance it. The Bloomberg reports are financial facts and figures that no journalist wants to do. It frees up writers and sub editors to be more creative.

And we are a very long way, if ever, from a computer being able to produce the language and original thoughts of a Giles Coren, a Matthew Parris, a Philip Collins, an Ann Treneman, a Danny Finkelstein, a Janice Turner or a Caitlin Moran.

The information and the understanding we provide is how we will endure into a new era.

To some extent, things are today as they ever were.

In 1785, the publisher John Walter I created the Daily Universal Register “to record the principal occurrences of the times” for the service of the public.

The Register quickly rebranded as The Times.

In that first edition, John Walter I explained that, “like a well-covered table, it should contain something suited to every palate” including politics, foreign affairs, matters of trade, legal trials, advertisements and “amusements”.

More than 200 years later, that remains a good description of what we are trying to do at The Times.

The content and the purpose are unchanged.

What has changed are the format and the distribution.

There was a time, not long ago, when the only format was the published newspaper, rolling off the expensive presses.

And the only distribution means was a costly fleet of vans making their way through the towns and cities and up the rural lanes by dawn.

Digital technology has merged the format and the distribution. It arrives on your iPad and your phone as if by magic.

This revolution in production has tempted new digital players into journalism and I welcome them.

But I do not fear them because I think The Times has a great advantage in its 200 years of brand value.

Look at the titles that are thriving in the digital age. The Times, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Guardian.

They all show that if you marry the sharpest technology with high quality journalism, it is the secret of success.

We are not, as the tech giants are, digital businesses as such. Our purpose is good journalism, on every platform.

In that way, we will be able to reach the people we are not reaching in sufficient number yet.

That means, for example, audio and video.

The Economist and New York Times are leading the way and we too are looking at ways of delivering our news and features by audio.

It’s not just podcasts either. It could be by radio too.

It’s a logical development for people on the move, walking, cycling, in the gym, on trains and in cars. Soon, automatic technology will be able to read articles out loud.

We need to do this because we need to cater to both our ageing existing readers and appeal to new ones.

Our new readers have come of age with Netflix, Spotify and Amazon Prime.

They understand that if you want a good service, you pay for it, and our challenge is to make that service good enough.

I think we can learn something here from the tech companies.

Like them, we need to innovate faster. To experiment ruthlessly, to invest in tech development.

At the same time, we are also looking for new ideas to change attitudes to the media, which is generally held in low regard. One of the more interesting ones is constructive journalism.

If we can master the art of constructive news, we can improve the image of the media because readers will begin to feel we can help them improve their lives.

Constructive journalism

This can be misunderstood as reporting “good news”, an idea most journalists turn their noses up at. But let me explain how I understand it. For this, I thank the Danish journalist Ulrik Haagerup who has visited The Times to show us his research findings.

We are all familiar with Kipling’s six honest serving men – the What, Where, When, Who, Why and How.

And we are all familiar with the fact that our trade has come under pressure from fake news and from an American president who derides the lying “mainstream media” as untrustworthy.

Constructive journalism is one way in which trust in the mainstream press can be restored. How? By adding one more element to the mix. What Now?

Many of us have become immune to the relentlessly negative slant of much of our news coverage.

Taking the old adage that news should be “something that someone, somewhere wants to suppress”, we can easily commission stories digging up dirt and crime and exposing evils.

And of course, we should do this. But constructive news aims to empower the reader by spending more time on the What Now.

So, when we report the London knife crime epidemic, we spend more time explaining how Glasgow combated the equally bad problem they once had.

When we cover climate change, we seek to explain which green solutions work. If we have a teen suicide problem, we look at how other countries deal with the problem, and where there are hopeful remedies.

We can also use our data team to enhance the journalism.

In our recent Clean Air campaign, readers can check on our website the precise pollution levels at their children’s school.

Already, this is fuelling demands from parents for clean air zones round these schools and other measures to combat what is a genuine threat.

A story on child obesity enabled readers to understand how parenting classes in Leeds helped tackle the problem.

We have tapped into a demand among readers. They want to know what they can do with information. Who the experts are. Where they can learn more.

All these should have the same aim: to empower readers to improve their lives. News you can use, if you like.

We can enlighten them on the problems of the day and we can point to potential solutions too.

Why? Because it’s helpful, it’s valuable and it isn’t negative.

In all of this, we are lucky at The Times to have the resources to maintain world-class foreign reporters, some 36 in all.

To be able to send journalists into the refugee camps of Syria or Libya. To tell the story of what becomes of a fifteen year old pregnant Isis recruit.

To surface the deep divisions in this country about how to deal with the repercussions of the story about Shamima Begum and her baby.

Reporting from war zones is increasingly dangerous and increasingly expensive.

99 journalists were killed last year – and another 348 were locked up by governments. We know the dangers through the loss of Marie Colvin and the constant threats that Anthony Loyd and others face.

These reporters believe in bearing witness to atrocities and I believe that The Times in the future must never compromise on its coverage of the world.

And funnily enough, Facebook doesn’t fund war correspondents.

They are unregulated, unchecked and unedifying in their disregard for the fractured society that is a by-product of their commercial success.

Facebook & Google

Neither have we made any secret of who we blame for threatening our very existence.

Facebook and Google have taken the digital advertising revenue we hoped to rely on and refused to pay a fair price for the copy that fortifies their platforms.

They are unregulated, unchecked and unedifying in their disregard for the fractured society that is a by-product of their commercial success.

As we wait for the real change that is needed, all we can do is to keep pushing forward.

And the good news for The Times is that, in the quest for new audiences, we do not have to fundamentally change who and what we are.

We just need to remember that the only thing that will survive the revolution will be quality.

I was always told not to try to predict the future. But if you ever did, predict events so far in the future that you won’t be caught out.

In other words, don’t predict who will be the next pope, predict the one after the next one.

Despite that wisdom, I will rashly make a few predictions.

James, like Jeeves, has been doing fine work. We have successfully reduced digital subscriber churn by 49 per cent in a trial.

Predictions

The first is that print will be around for a very long time. It’s true our sales in print are declining but only by a few per cent a year, which means that with a circulation of roughly 400,000, there’s still a lot of years to come.

That is obviously a good thing because a newspaper is a tangible product that is read around the house, the pub, the club, the JCR and the train by more than one person, and often that person is young. Start the habit young I say!

The second is that the reach of serious, general interest newspapers that invest in quality will only grow in the decades ahead.

That is especially true for English language papers with a long history of credibility and trust. The key is finding the right digital content and getting the price right. Just look at Netflix and Amazon Prime.

And if we can master the art of constructive news, we can improve the image of the media because readers will begin to feel we can help them improve their lives.

I would predict too that, in due course, the internet giants will be regulated and deemed to be publishers, bound by the same restraints that we have to accept. I hope too that they will be broken up.

And that the BBC will ultimately move from having a compulsory licence fee to a voluntary subscription.

All that means a more level playing field in which competition can thrive, fairly.

And finally, breaking the short-term prediction code. That Boris Johnson will be the next prime minister, that we will achieve Brexit and that Donald Trump will be re-elected as president of the United States next year. And whether you like it or not, that will be good for journalism.

Whatever happens, it is going to be interesting.

One of the most invigorating things about journalism is that no two days are ever the same.

There is a clue in the word “news”.

We have a privileged vantage point as stories unfold. It is the prospect of change that keeps us interested, keeps us honest.

I feel the same about the way the industry is changing as I do about the daily news cycle.

It’s still an exciting place to be. It always will be.

The task is to adapt to the new technology, to make it our friend, to put it at the service of our journalism.

And if we do that, we will reach more people quicker than ever before.

We will have taken our own industry into a new era but, more important than that, we will have secured the future of reliable, high-class journalism and, in a liberal democracy which rests on the truth of claims made in public life, that is the same noble purpose it was when John Walter first had his idea back in 1785.

The task is to adapt to the new technology, to make it our friend, to put it at the service of our journalism.

This article was published in the July/August issue of InPublishing magazine. If you would like to be added to the free mailing list for future issues, please register here.