Conversation with Mark Thompson

Conversation with Mark Thompson, CEO and President, The New York Times Company

Fake news and misinformation are not new, but the current sophistication and scale is unprecedented. The formation of troll farms, the emergence of editing technology like ‘deepfake videos’, and the regular use of the term in the political sphere have all altered our notion of truth and helped feed the perception held by three in four people globally that their countries are divided.i  

In the social arena, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has demonstrated false stories spread six times faster than true stories when released on social platforms.ii According to Gallup, American’s trust in news organisations has fallen by 40% in 40 years.iii  

The New York Times, one of the most iconic and respected publications in the world, is currently ranked the #7 most trusted media in the U.S.iv Mark Thompson shares his views on the rise of fake news, technology, and our common responsibility as industry players. 

In March 2018, MIT released the most comprehensive study on fake news ever done. How do you explain the rise of fake news, and what is your greatest concern about it?  

Fake news has some attractive qualities: you’re not limited to what’s happened, you can cater to the most compelling kinds of stories, and then, at very low cost, you can craft your stories in a way that ensures they are the most popular ones. It’s not surprising, in a way, since fantasy seems to be more popular than reality! People are allowed to fabricate stories, use satire, and exaggerate political opinions.  

Then there are times when valid editorial content is misinterpreted to be news because traditional news markers and labels have been stripped out. I saw on my Google feed a picture of the U.S. President with the headline “this snake can’t shed his skin” and it was attributed to The New York Times. It was actually an opinion column, but without the word ‘opinion’ in the feed, it appeared as if The New York Times was launching a personal attack on the President. It’s very important for people to know when they’re looking at news and when they’re looking at perspectives and opinions.  

In the wake of ‘Me too’, data privacy, fake news, and the polarising political climate, what is the role of The New York Times?  

We’re here to report what actually happened, dispassionately, and then to be a platform for, in the words of Adolph Ochs who bought the newspaper in 1895, “intelligent and civil debate, including views from every perspective.” Until recently, people knew what The Times stood for and they either liked it or didn’t like it. In the immediate aftermath of the 2016 U.S. election, there was a wave of moral panic around fake news, and very quickly the President actually used fake news as a description for the establishment media, including The Times.  

It became clear to me we have to tell our story in our own words. We hadn’t done brand marketing for probably a decade. Our team came up with the Truth Is Hard campaign. In this noisy disrupted world, it seemed to make sense to state what we stand for. We don’t claim to be the purveyors of truth, but we do take the time to get to the bottom of things.  

Truth is Hard by The New York Times 


In the light of new data regulations, as a public company with many people working for you to deliver responsibly to your customers, how do you weigh the data risks?  

We’re going to have to evaluate every pixel on the site, every kind of transaction. If you think about data as being the public’s currency, there is this sense of responsibility. My first look at the list of third-party sites we had allowed access to users of The Times was a pretty sobering and frightening read, and in the end, we removed a lot of pixels.  

Data regulations are intended to protect consumers, and while we might want to argue about some of the details of implementation, the mandate to maintain tight control on individual users’ data is very hard to argue against. Having said that, I also believe that consumers want high quality services and they do not want subscriptions to everything. As long as there is clear control of data, I still believe there can be transactions where users give us data and we give them something in return for that data. It’s a bit like the Wild West being replaced at the end of the 19th century by the rule of law in the American West. There comes a time when Dodge City has to clean up its act.  

Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence have had mixed results on marketing and media. Many advertisers famously cut millions of dollars from digital spend raising doubts about the future use of machine-based trading. What is the impact of Artificial Intelligence on news?  

Anything that can be done by machines is going to be done by machines sooner or later, and I’m betting on sooner. Sometimes, though, we exaggerate of how fast change will come. In the early ‘60s there was an assumption that by 1970 we’d have sentient robots.  

There are certain tasks for which Machine Learning is going to become very applicable in journalism. We use a Machine Learning application to presort reader comments, so the first level editor is a machine which has learned from millions of comments on The Times and determines whether a comment is likely to be acceptable to a human curator. It reduces a hundred thousand comments down to ten thousand, which then go to the humans for selection.  

“We have to tell our story, in our own words.” 

You are the CEO of a premium publisher. How do you see programmatic advertising today as compared to five years ago?  

We’re a quality brand, and our subscribers who pay a lot of money are seeing our advertising. We want the advertising to be valuable, attractive and consistent with our content. For us, generic programmatic advertising doesn’t really make a lot of commercial sense. The world’s leading brands went through a slightly mad phase of thinking that as long as you can reach the right person, it doesn’t matter how or where you do. Now, they’re beginning to realise that seeing their brand on an extremist site and or next to cheesy quality can hurt their credibility. Some of the big platforms are trying really hard to work on quality, but there can be a price which is you are going to end up with some horrific adjacencies if you’re not careful. There is plenty of work to do on programmatic.  

Watch the full session for unique insights into truth in an era of deception. 


This article is excerpted from Future Focus 2019: Searching for Trust. Download Future Focus 2019 for key insights and success stories on navigating truth and authenticity in 2019. 


[i.] Ipsos and BBC, A world divided?, April 2018

[ii.] MIT, The Spread of True and False News Online, March 2018

[iii.] Gallup, Americans’ Trust in Mass Media Sinks to New Low, September 2016

[iv.] Simmons Essential Consumer Intelligence, Rise of the Doubters: Consumers Weigh-in on Fake News and Media Trustworthiness, October 2018