View from the top: Robert Thompson

The man who took The Times tabloid believes the PR industry needs to embrace the new ‘non-linear’ media, as Adam Hill reports

Robert Thomson shakes hands warmly, laughs frequently and has a softish Australian accent. With his black suit and white, open-necked shirt he could be taken for any modern media professional in his mid-forties. Except, of course, Thomson is the editor of one of the most venerated newspapers in the world –  The Times.

Since taking the role four years ago, the man who describes himself as 'tall, slightly stooped, wearing small glasses' has been as much in the press as behind it. In 2004 he ended 216 years of tradition by shrinking the famous old broadsheet to a compact size.

It caused predictable uproar. The PR campaign to back up the relaunch, handled in-house by Times head of comms Anoushka Healey, maintained that while the format was changing, the content was not. However, many readers felt let down, believing the paper would continue to be printed as a broadsheet alongside the new-fangled compact. Thomson bore the brunt of their ire, replying to every person who wrote to him about it. Healey says the editor understands the value of PR, even if Thomson himself says: 'The most profound piece of PR each day is the paper itself,' which sounds a bit like a press release.

Despite readers' misgivings over the redesign, circulation has risen. 'For readers to feel concerned about their paper is a good thing,' he muses. 'If they were emotion-neutral you'd worry more.' He smiles now. It probably didn't feel so wonderful when the 'Judas' letters were arriving.

Thomson's unslaked thirst for innovation has been evident in the increased number of bite-size information 'digests' on the pages.

'They are not just quick information hits, they are prompts,' he argues. 'Number of words is not, in itself, a measure of relevance.'

In his keynote speech at the AMEC Communication Effectiveness Awards last November, Thomson gave a frank appraisal of the role of newspapers in our changing digital age. 'Existential questions are being asked of newspapers,' he now reiterates. He is adamant, for example, that a man in Mumbai checking The Times Online once a day is no less a 'Times person' than the woman in Wimbledon agonising over its su doku. 

Fragmented media
Using items in print as a prompt to visit the Times website – where there might be more in-depth, or in some cases more offbeat, information – is just one aspect of a changing market. He believes journalists and PROs must grasp the fact that people now consume media in a variety of ways. 'News is not linear,' explains Thomson. 'Our readers are extraordinarily eclectic and we have to reflect that. We can't be binary about it. You're trying to convey complex issues in engaging, accessible ways.'

The primary problem for all newspapers, The Times included, is that people now go to bed far better informed than they were 30 years – or even ten years – ago.

'Everyday announcements are an important part of the newsflow,' Thomson concedes. 'But now, with 24-hour news, approaches from PROs with access to, or insight into, a given market area are very welcome.' He says The Times has invested in specialists across
areas such as news, sport and business, and PROs can get onto their radar by 'being knowing' – grasping the issues, knowing the writers and developing an 'editorial empathy'. Woe betide timewasters, however. 'We know the difference between puffery and profundity,' he asserts.

For the casual Times reader, big stories such as last year's London bombs are still the ones which shift most units, but day to day there are many other places to pick up news – and not just from established competitors either. The rise of blogs obviously interests Thomson, but he is still cautious about their impact. 'Citizen reporting is a very democratic idea but is it just a person on a sofa with an opinion, or a specialist reporter adding to the sum of human knowledge?'

This response reminds us that for all his cerebral reputation, Thomson remains a hack through and through. He began his
career in his late teens on The Herald in Melbourne, and still likes to rewrite leaders when the subject is close to his heart – business and China, essentially.

Yet Thomson seems cut from a different cloth to some of his more visible News International colleagues. Despite an upcoming brush with the law (Thomson is to face libel charges from the Barclay brothers, owners of the Telegraph stable, in the Paris Palais de Justice over a Times article), it is hard to imagine police being called to sort out a domestic incident at his home, as they were at Sun editor Rebekah Wade's last year. But this is not to say he lacks steel: as Financial Times Beijing correspondent he filed copy from Tiananmen Square at the height of the 1989 massacre.

Colleagues paint Thomson as man of profound notions, but with an enigmatic side. 'Sometimes he'll say something and only three days later will you see it as a fantastic idea,' recalls Richard Lambert, ex-editor of the FT. 'He's a subtle thinker.' Too subtle for some, complains one former Times employee: 'People spend half their lives trying to second-guess what he wants.'

Times Online, as a complement to the paper or a discrete information source, clearly exercises a great deal of Thomson's grey matter. It has seven million monthly users, three million in the US. 'I would be disappointed if we didn't have several million regular users in India within a couple of years,' he adds.

This international perspective comes as no surprise. Thomson is, after all, an Australian who speaks Chinese and Japanese, who managed the FT's US edition and now runs a UK newspaper. 'He's as international as they come, and that definitely informs his thinking,' says John Bussey, a friend and editor of The Wall Street Journal Asia. 'It's a strength.'

But it was also a question mark when he took the helm at The Times. Lambert says: 'He had no substantial experience of UK politics, all his core experience was international. When he was appointed I thought that was going to be the hard part – understanding how Westminster and Whitehall work.'

Thomson may now know his way round the lobbies but, despite the sudden prominence of David Cameron, there are no plans for any realignment of the Blair-supporting paper yet. 'We're quite centrist,' he says. 'I'd like to think we're where the majority of people are.
We're not ideological fringe dwellers.'

Less for lunch
Editorship of The Times remains a passport for access to virtually anyone in UK public life. But overworked, sandwich-grabbing PROs will recognise Thomson's description of changes in the luncheon landscape. 'Not many editors have the time these days for non-stop corner tables at The Ivy,' he laughs. 'Neither do most men and women of influence in British society.'

'I am out for lunch maybe two or three times a week,' Thomson continues. 'But there are a lot of functions in the evening. There's almost a Davos [site of the World Economic Forum] a day in the evening in Britain, with a lot of senior people. It's like speed power-broking, as opposed to speed dating.'

With latest ABC figures showing The Times selling a healthy 661,400 copies a day, Thomson looks an unlikely candidate for any editorial musical chairs. But after a year of contact book amendment as three editors – Dominic Lawson (Sunday Telegraph), Martin Newland (Daily Telegraph) and Andrew Gowers (FT) – departed, no one can feel really safe.

On his arrival much was made in medialand of Thomson's relationship with Rupert Murdoch. So how often does the editor speak to the proprietor? For the first time, Thomson seems unsure of his answer. 'It is not the relationship that people expect,' he eventually says. 'He's never asked about something that's going into the paper. We talk about issues in which we have a common interest – Asia, the internet, US politics. It is unrelated to the UK news agenda and more to do with his own curiosity and enthusiasms.'

Perhaps Murdoch is the perfect proprietor. What is certain is that, in Thomson, he has an editor prepared to think seriously about the evolution of print journalism in a digital world. And Thomson's continuing observations on the shifting relationships between media provider and consumer – the world over – give PROs valuable food for thought.

Robert Thomson will be a keynote speaker at PRWeek's PR and the Media 2006 conference on 22 February at the Dorchester Hotel, London. To book your place go to www.prweekconference.com

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