[AMCHAM Journal] Special Interview with Stephen Dunbar-Johnson - President, International of The New…
is the President, International of The New York Times Company. He is
responsible for the oversight and strategic development of the Times Company’s
international businesses. He was appointed President, International for the New
York Times Company in October 2013 to lead the global expansion of The Company.
He sat down with AMCHAM for the 2021 2Q Journal Special CEO Interview to
discuss The Company’s key initiatives, its new future in Seoul, and the
changing landscape of news media. Can
you tell us a little about yourself and your journey to your current position?
am a British/French citizen and have been in the media business for essentially
my entire career. I worked for the Financial Times for 12 years before moving
to the International Herald Tribune, owned by The New York Times, where I
became Publisher, and then of course with The New York Times. All of the
positions I have held over the years have involved international growth or
expansion, initially in the analogue world and, over the past several years,
increasingly in the digital space, as we look to grow our digital subscription
base around the world. I have been fortunate enough during my career to travel
extensively and have had two long-term stints in New York and Paris, as well as
time in London, where I am now based.
of all the high-tech, global cities in Asia, why did The New York Times choose
to establish a presence in Seoul?
Korea is an important region for international coverage, and we’ve had a
presence in Seoul for many years. Our current bureau chief Choe Sang-hun has
won numerous journalism awards for his reports, including a Pulitzer Prize.
He’s supported by a team in Seoul, who, this year alone, have examined a
breadth of topics like the commercial impact of Chinese patriotism in the K-pop
industry, the disappearance of North Korean diplomat Jo Song-gil and the online
harassment and privacy implications of COVID-19 linked to the country’s test
and trace system and quarantine app. We’ve examined how sectors of the
community have grappled with the virus, including families and schools, fitness
classes, religion and politics and the impact of COVID-19 on the Chuseok festival.
of the reasons we’re expanding our presence in Seoul is that we know South
Korea will continue to be an important geopolitical region, offering us a base
from which to cover the Asia-Pacific region with proximity to China, Hong Kong,
Taiwan, Japan, and North Korea. Crucially, we’ll be relocating our digital news
operation from Hong Kong, which is an integral part of our 24/7 digital
operation. Our plan is to move that digital team of journalists, roughly
one-third of our current Hong Kong staff, to Seoul over the coming year, as
well as using this opportunity to recruit talent locally.
choosing Seoul as our base for expansion, we considered a broad range of
lifestyle and economic factors for our move, but ultimately, the culture,
schooling, technological advances and quality of life, alongside the courteous
and friendly welcome offered by new colleagues and business partners in Korea
made for a compelling case. Mr. Dunbar-Johnson meets with AMCHAM
is your vision for The Times in the Korean market? Can you tell us about your
target audiences in Korea?
ambition at The New York Times is to be the news outlet of choice for curious,
English speakers worldwide. To reflect that ambition and confidence, we’ve set
a goal of 10 million global subscribers by 2025, with 20 percent of that total
coming from subscribers outside the United States. To help us get there, we’re
expanding our footprint on the most important issues, in the most important
regions for international readers. This includes crucial coverage from and
readers will be aware of our editorial partnership with the JoongAngDaily, so
are already familiar with our particular brand of in-depth, deeply reported
journalism, respected by opinion-formers and business leaders across Korea.
We’re looking forward to welcoming more Korean organizations into our group
subscriptions program, which helps leaders and their employees stay informed,
strengthening their decision-making with in-depth global context, visual
investigations and data analysis from our team of more than 1,700 reporters
hope to expand our readership in Korea to showcase not only our signature
investigative reports, the brilliant minds of our opinion writers, or
analytical coverage in areas like politics, business and finance, but also
encourage a broader base of readers to explore other areas of our report,
including our lifestyle, immigration or climate coverage, or to experience our
audio and film offerings, such as The Daily podcast.
Host of “The Daily” Michael Barbaro
joins Times journalists in London for a week-long series on Europe in 2019
think it’s also imperative to build a relationship with our younger audience.
We know around 60,000 students from Korea go each year to study in the United
States and hope to strengthen relationships with this cohort and foster
lifelong readers and subscribers among this audience.
do you view the media landscape in Korea? How does it compare to other
countries around the world?
has changed in the past 20 years and the need for independent, courageous,
trustworthy journalism has never been greater. South Korea, in some reports,
now rises above countries like Australia on the issue of freedom of expression,
with significant advances in press freedom over the past decade.
indicative metrics, such as the World Press Freedom Index, sees Korea outshine
many other regions in Asia including Taiwan, Japan, Hong Kong, India and
Singapore with respect to the level of freedom available to journalists. The
global confluence of protests, political control of information, internet
shutdowns and increased attacks against journalists and human rights defenders
means it’s more important, now than ever, for our reporters to seek truth and
hold power to account, and support our colleagues through this challenging time
for democracy and the pursuit of truth.
terms of the business challenges, I believe that legacy media organizations in
South Korea face exactly the same issues as is confronting media companies
across the globe, that is to say how to manage print decline and find a model
whereby they can monetize online audiences. The paradox for all is that media
now by and large reach bigger audiences than ever before, but monetizing that
extended reach is not obvious, especially with the social media platforms
hoovering up much of the digital advertising pie. At the very least, legacy
media organizations in this market should insist that readers wishing to access
their content register. It is vital to have an addressable audience that you
can communicate with and help understand how you can best serve them. I don’t
believe there is one model that works for all, and different titles need to
find the best route for them, whether it be a premium model, a metered model, a
membership model or a combination of these. However, that is far more difficult
to figure out if there is no relationship with your reader base, which is why I
think asking readers to register to have access to content is table stakes.
That is not necessarily a view that all would agree with, but it is my
do you work with local partners in Korea?
decades ago, as the International Herald Tribune, we sought a partner who would
help bring our global newspaper into the homes and offices of a curious,
English-speaking audience in Korea. We forged a strong publishing partnership
with the Korea JoongAng Daily, as both our publications evolved to remain a
critical read for Koreans during a challenging economic and political decade
for the world at large.
was one of the first global-local collaborations between newspapers in Asia. As
the Herald Tribune, and later, The New York Times, we provided readers our
signature international news while the Korea JoongAng Daily provided the best
local coverage from the region. We were confident that this would be a
compelling combination, and it continues to prove successful.
more recent years, we have expanded our news service provision to a variety of
publishers in South Korea, including RIDISelect, Ringle and the Seoul Economic
Daily. This year we will publish the ninth consecutive Korean language edition
of Turning Points magazine with News.
on your experience and expertise, is there anything that Korean media companies
should do differently?
no one-size-fits-all model to guarantee success and longevity in this industry.
But we’ve felt that the key to subscription success has been driven by a few
primary factors. The first is the sustained investment in our journalists,
enabling them to produce deeply compelling stories across the breadth of our
second is ensuring an engaging digital experience, which means investment in
product innovation. Engineering now is the second largest functional area at
The New York Times, only behind journalism. We’re always looking to bring new
readers to the Times, and another important part of our subscription success
has been converting our readers to registered users, in order to build an
ongoing relationship which sees readers return time and time again to The
Times, not just for news, but for inspiration from our At Home section (which
launched during the pandemic), for a different perspective from our Styles
desk, or advice from our Parenting newsletter or a dinner suggestion from our
cooking app. These are all ways in which we help our readers navigate their
previously shared the three pillars on which your strategy is built: investing
in journalism, understanding the customer, and investing in technology. In what
ways is The Times building on these pillars? Have you faced any significant
challenges or obstacles in pursuing these initiatives?
constantly evolving and learning, and a big part of that is understanding our
customers in different markets and how they choose to consume Times content.
For example, our website in Chinese launched in 2012 and was swiftly blocked in
China. However, the appetite for New York Times journalism in Chinese has never
been stronger. We launched a dedicated quarterly lifestyle magazine for our
Chinese audience. We experiment with local live journalism, and newsletters,
such as our Australia Letter.
I mentioned, we’re also very data-driven in the way we look at the customer
experience. It can be a challenge to understand the behaviors of anonymous
readers on our site, so by asking readers to register we’re able to offer
relevant news and features, not just based on geography, but drawing from the
breadth of our report, such as our sport analysis or film critiques. It’s
important readers feel a habituation with The Times if they are to subscribe.
2020 Report outlines a lot of the challenges we faced in transitioning to a
subscriber-led, digital business fit for the future. We needed to become more
comfortable with technology and digital media -- with our photographers,
videographers and graphics editors playing the primary role covering some stories,
rather than a secondary role, for example. We had to innovate to embrace a
digitally native mix of journalistic forms, such as live briefings. But we now
produce incredibly thoughtful, nimble live briefings, such as our coronavirus
live briefing which we’ve maintained continuously since January 23 and has
involved the contributions of more than 1,100 journalists out of 1,700. We’ve
made enormous strides in audio, visual and service journalism, pivoted our live
events business to embrace the opportunities offered by online events, and
grown our engineering team significantly. We’re a very different company now to
the one facing these evolutionary challenges just four years ago.
New York Times Op-Ed columnist
Thomas Friedman interviews author and historian Yuval Noah Harari on stage for
a live Times event
our age of growing polarization in society and politics, how does The Times
establish itself as a voice that speaks to everyone?
take great pride in being a truly independent news organization, with
journalists around the world reporting without fear or favor. Journalistically,
we’re focusing on what sets The Times apart: high-impact journalism,
investigative work, visual storytelling, and live breaking news.
reporters are truly fearless in holding power to account, and we bring this
independent brand of signature Times journalism to our global report. A great
example of this is our analysis of the Sewol Ferry disaster, which featured in
our “Promises Made” series. The hypothesis of this series was, when things go
wrong, those in power often promise to make it right. But do they? Our
reporters went back to the scene of major news events to see if those promises
were kept. It’s this sense of accountability, fearlessness and pursuit of truth
which underpins all of our reporting and creates a business model whereby our
readers are prepared to pay for high quality, independent journalism that
provides context and aids understanding. It also means we’re less reliant on
traditional revenue streams like advertising.
has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted the news business? How has it impacted the
efforts and operations of The Times?
not been immune to the effects of the pandemic. Our ad revenue declined across
both digital and print, but our last quarterly earnings report showed that, for
the first time, total digital-only subscription revenue exceeded print
subscription revenue. We now have more than 7 million total subscriptions, an
increase of two million digital-only subscriptions over the last year. This
reinforces our strategy that digital subscriptions will be absolutely pivotal
to our growth, and we foresee even more opportunity among our international
readers to grow this figure.
manage a diverse staff all over the world. What are some of the most
significant challenges you face in managing such a large and diverse
two words, “cultural nuance.” It is incredibly important to understand that
colleagues who work in different parts of the world often come to things with a
different perspective. Balancing that perspective within the overall mission of
the organization is a challenge, but most of all a tremendous opportunity. As
we strive to be a truly global media brand our team needs to reflect the
diversity of our audiences.
have led the international expansion of The Times since 2013. Can you tell us
about a particularly proud or memorable moment?
don’t really dwell on any particular moment or moments, but remembering always
that nostalgia is not a good business strategy, especially in the media
business, is something I have adhered to. I am extremely proud to work for The
New York Times and I feel I can best support its mission by confronting and
adapting to the constant change that has shifted the media landscape over these
past two decades.
interview is from the 2021 1Q Journal, published February 2021