What do you think the fundamentals of leadership are?
I think there are a few. The first is uniting people around an exciting, aspirational vision. That is actually not a tough task at The New York Times where there is a huge passion for the mission throughout the organization. The second is building a strategy to support the mission and being very focused on results in the context of the strategy. Developing and attracting talent to implement the strategy (process is always tougher than vision) is also a critical ingredient. It also helps to be agile, a good listener and a clear communicator with big dollops of humility.
What is your leadership style?
I think a blend of Participative and Transformational. I don’t think you can be a leader in today’s media environment without having a transformational leadership style. We have been blessed at The New York Times to have had very strong transformational leadership from the likes of former CEO Mark Thompson, his successor Meredith Kopit Levien and other members of the Executive team. I have been fortunate to have some excellent mentors.
How did you first become involved in media?
When I left university, like many people I did not have a specific vocation but I did know that I wanted to work in an organization that had a clear, purposeful mission beyond profit. I found that at the Financial Times and my passion for high-quality, independent journalism, and finding models to support it, has become my North Star ever since, in my time at the International Herald Tribune and here at The New York Times
How passionate about are you about the media and related products? And what motivates you?
I have a strong belief that high quality, independent journalism is essential for a functional democracy. It is not just a business, it’s a societal need. There is no doubt that journalism is in distress at the moment and that should be a real concern for anybody that believes it is essential to hold governments, business leaders and those in power to account. The demise of local and regional publications is a particular concern. Local news organizations have been the lifeblood of their communities. The New York Times is fortunate to be thriving but we need a plurality of media organizations to be doing well. All to say, what motivates me is our mission and how we can best find ways to continue to invest in our journalism and the platforms on which we deliver it.
Would you describe yourself as a creative person?
I think that creativity and artistic endeavor or ability are often conflated in people’s minds. Alas, God wasn’t too generous to me when handing out the artistic attributes. But, creativity also requires risk-taking, being prepared to fail and a willingness to challenge the conventional. On those aspects there was perhaps more generosity.
Do you still have the same passion for business as you did when your first started out in your career? And what do you think you bring to the New York Times brand going forward in terms of expansion into other areas?
I have, if anything, a much deeper passion for the business now than I did when I started. What I, and all of my colleagues on the business-side of The Times bring, is a desire to succeed in delivering on our strategy so that we can continue to invest in our journalism and in the platforms that deliver that journalism. This becomes a virtuous circle, as, the more great content that we produce, the more ways that we can find to monetize it across multiple platforms whether that be across our website, across audio, video or film, live journalism events or across our print platforms.
How important is PR and social media to your business?
Our greatest asset is our quality, deeply-reported original journalism. Certainly, social media can play a role to help us reach new audiences, but we’re continually evaluating our position with the publishers and social platforms. We’ve proven people are willing to pay for quality journalism, so we consider whether distributing our content in this way will help boost our subscription business and whether the social media players are offering sufficient compensation to recognise the fact that journalism is expensive and labor-intensive to produce.
You’ve been quoted as saying ‘there is a lot more potential in online subscriptions’, how do you plan to realize this potential going forward?
Our 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 international 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. We have more than 1,700 journalists worldwide, the largest number in our history, and we’re continuing to invest in our international newsrooms and bureaus.
This year we added night editors and an Express Desk team in London, bolstered our international audio team, added a bureau chief in Northern Europe and one in Madrid, and of course we’re in the process of relocating our digital hub to Seoul.
We feel there’s a significant opportunity to reach a larger international audience, and we’ll do that in a number of ways. One is continuing to invest in the deeply-reported, independent journalism, enterprise stories and investigative reports synonymous with The Times. The other is to build our technological capabilities. Engineering now is the second-largest functional area at The New York Times, second only to journalism, and it continues to grow.
We also want to bring new audiences to the breadth and depth of the report. We’ve just hired Lori Leibovich to lead Well, our new desk devoted to coverage of personal health and wellness, Marc Lacey will lead a new team supporting our leap into Live and our podcast stable continues to expand. We recently acquired Serial productions, our juggernaut podcast The Daily passed two billion downloads in September, and our narrative audio team launched a 1619 podcast and Rabbit Hole, among others.
How does The New York Times as a business, take advantage of overseas markets? And how big is your business in other (international) areas?
English-speaking countries outside the U.S. present an exciting opportunity for us. International subscriptions make up approximately 18 percent of our digital-only news subscriptions and around a third of our audience is from outside the United States. We think that international subscriptions should be at least 20% of the total and I suspect it could be higher than that.
Overseas markets are a source of new readers but our presence in them is also crucially important in terms of informing our global readership of what is going on. Last year we reported from some 160 countries – there are very few other media organizations that can say that and it is an essential part of our mission and indeed why we present value to readers who want to understand our hyperconnected world. In turn, as we grow our international audience of highly engaged, paying readers, they are attractive to advertisers as these readers tend to be highly curious, well educated, frequently travelling and often work for multinational organizations. Again, these are all highly desirable attributes for advertisers.
We have 31 bureaus outside the United States, plus newsroom hubs in London and Asia, and some of the most crucial storylines in the year ahead will be reported from our international teams on-the-ground: the longer-term economic and social impacts of the pandemic and worldwide vaccination efforts, the continued rise of China’s dominance and power, climate change and climate migration, understanding the full domestic and geopolitical implications of Brexit, and significant world events like the Tokyo Olympics and COP26.
Where can you see the business in the next five or so years?
We’re on our way to meet our goal of 10 million global subscribers by 2025, having surpassed the 7 million mark earlier this year. Our Chief Executive Meredith Kopit Levien has been clear that in order to produce the world’s best and most ambitious journalism; we must adapt and evolve, that our company should reflect the diversity of the world we cover; and that we remain independent in every way as we continue to grow our business.
What is the business ethos at The New York Times?
We seek the truth and help people understand the world. That is our mission and it is rooted in our belief that great journalism has the power to make our readers’ lives richer and more fulfilling, and all of society more just. If we fulfill that mission we will meet our business objectives, as good journalism happens to be good business. They are mutually compatible as our business results testify.
What is your favorite piece of art – or the one piece you would love to have on your wall or at home?
There is a painting hanging in a small alcove as you enter the China Club in Hong Kong. It is of a portrait of a young Chinese woman of humble origins. It is, for me, utterly captivating.
Do you have any business or political role models?
No, not really other than certain colleagues who I have worked with and for who I have found inspiring. I tend to find inspiration more from literature.
What do you get up to in your spare time?
I love to read, mostly fiction, and having the time to do so is a real luxury. I am also a big walker. I find it helps decanter the mind especially if the environment in which you ramble or hike is inspirational.
Stephen Dunbar-Johnson is the president, International of The New York Times Company. Dunbar-Johnson is responsible for the oversight and strategic development of the Times Company’s international businesses. Dunbar-Johnson was appointed president, International for The New York Times Company in October 2013 to lead the global expansion of the company.
Prior to The Times, Dunbar-Johnson was publisher of the International Herald Tribune (I.H.T.), a position he assumed in January 2008. Before joining the I.H.T .in 1998, he held various business development roles in the United Kingdom, France and the United States over 12 years at The Financial Times. He was educated at Worth School and Kent University in the U.K. and has completed an executive management program at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and the Sulzberger Executive Leadership Program at the Columbia School of Journalism.