'Anyone who thinks the journalist is redundant is a fool'

The Times will overtake The Guardian and move into profit next year, according to editor Robert Thomson.

Speaking at the Frontline Club in London on 7 November, Thomson also slammed Independent editor Simon Kelner’s ‘viewspaper’strategy as going against the principles of journalism.

Thomson, who has been at the helm of The Times for almost six years, also revealed his thoughts on seven-day newsroom integration, and Gordon Brown.

But he declined to be drawn on rumours he will be appointed publisher of the soon to be News Corporation-owned Wall Street Journal, but had comments on the following topics:

On quality journalism:

‘The Times has always been famous for its foreign correspondents, right back to the Crimea. But we have never had more foreign correspondents than now. If you talk about quality, then you have to, in the end, talk about investment in journalism. We now have 23 staff correspondents – five years ago we had 12.”

On viewspaper versus newspaper:

‘There’s a great temptation to be sensationalist – the idea of a viewspaper rather than a newspaper. I would argue that the viewspaper is a corruption of traditional journalistic principles. Professionally, I disagree with him [Independent editor Simon Kelner], fundamentally I disagree with him, because I think we have to have the objective of being objective.

‘There’s something about campaigning I’m a little uneasy about. You can campaign qualitatively and objectively when you put resources in your stories. I would worry if [the viewspaper] became the norm.”

On Rupert Murdoch’s influence:

‘He didn’t tell me what to do. He comes into the room and we will talk about Japan, about what’s going on in Georgia, Russia, the British economy, the housing market, and these are the conversations of a curious person. We have never talked about what’s in the next day’s paper. He has never instructed me on what to put in there. The presumption of course, is the opposite. The presumption is wrong.

‘His fascination with the craft of journalism is obvious. If he’s in London, you might have a conversation, for example, about why a photo was cropped that way. These are technical issues. And that’s because he knows where the line is. It’s very clear. There are technical issues: is the typeface too big or too small? A lot of the time, those are things to be discussed.”

On new media publishing:

‘Anybody who thinks they have scaled the mountain is hiking in the wrong range. We are all discovering new things virtually every day. That’s almost a naff thing to say, but it is a moment in journalism where it’s the truth.

‘Because of the inherent transparency of the web, you see what other people are doing all the time. The core of what we do is the content. And you can have gizmos and gadgets and pop ups. But in the end, unless you have a core of very good journalists, a range of correspondents, an extended expertise, you’ll inherently be limiting your audience.”

On digital competition:

‘The promiscuity of the users in the digital demographics is painfully obvious. But what I’m confident of is that over the next year we will overtake The Guardian and the gap between ourselves and the other papers will grow. That’s because we have been able to continue to invest in journalism. Anyone who thinks this is an age where certain technologies become redundant may be right. But anyone who thinks the journalist is redundant is a fool.”

On making money:

‘[The Times] will make money in 2007. As they say in America, if you do the math, we have shed some of the more trivial circulation. I think if you look in land reclamation projects in continental Europe you’d find a lot of copies of a lot of British newspapers which were never read but which were printed and counted.

‘We’ve had a lot of support during the difficult period, but we are now at that point in The Times’s history when we can quite genuinely say The Times is self-sustaining. On top of that, we have internet revenues from repurposing content.

On the future for journalists:

‘Is the role of the journalist as a navigator with nous being digitally diminished? I don’t think it is. I don’t think that sites like The Guardian, The Times and The Telegraph would have the traffic they do if people didn’t have faith in the professionalism of their judgement.

‘I was fortunate enough to grow up in a household where you read the newspaper over breakfast, where your parents put content in context, you knew where things came from. One of the issues we have as a society is there are younger people who aren’t socialised in the same way.

‘The question you have is: do they understand the provenance of the information? Have they been educated in a way to be digitally discerning? It puts extra pressure on journalists to be very good at what they do.”

On daily/Sunday integration:

There’s a distinction between integration in the paper and online – which The Times and The Sunday Times do each in their own way and quite extensively – and between the daily and the Sunday papers. I don’t think that trend [for seven-day integration] is a given at all.

‘You have to make the distinction between what are the exigencies of contemporary cost control and what is a meaningful trend. What we are seeing in other papers is, from a distance, more the former than the latter.

‘I think the Sunday papers are a law unto themselves, have a life of their own and should go on having a life of their own. You can use the digital age as an excuse, but this is an old battle.’

On Gordon Brown:

‘I personally thought the Labour conference was an exercise in hubris. For me, there was a turning point there. That speech was an abomination. British jobs for British people – that was a moment where you thought something is going on here that isn’t quite right.

‘The concern that I have at the moment certainly influences our leader writing. I would argue that the other thing that people need to look at, which would influence political judgement, is the growing size of the State. Because the State is a self-funding, self-generating organism, it’s very difficult to curb it unless you set out to do so.

For me now, the defining issue is whether Brown or Cameron recognise that the long-term danger to Britain as a vibrant society is of the State growing to a point where it is stifling that society.”

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