In a long career, Robert Thomson has left a trail of happy reporters in his wake—at The Financial Times and more recently at The Times of London, where the newsroom under his guidance was, in the words of a former colleague, “the happiest place to work on Fleet Street.”
He’s got his work cut out for him at The Wall Street Journal (The Wall Street Journal has an exclusive content partnership with Mint in India).
Chosen one: Thomson is the one charged with executing Murdoch’s vision for the newspaper. He may be the publisher, but his responsibilities include few of the tasks that title usually connotes.
Last Wednesday morning, Thomson, who is 47, walked into the morning news meeting at The Journal, his first day as the de facto editor in the wake of the resignation of the managing editor, Marcus W. Brauchli, whom Thomson has known since the 1980s when the two were foreign correspondents in Beijing.
With editors assembled around the table, Thomson said the paper would not rush to replace Brauchli, and he assured the group that people who thought the paper was straying from its traditions were misinformed. Then, he said, he offered something no reporter or editor could resist: more space for more words.
Thomson said that the News Corp., which is controlled by Rupert Murdoch and which bought the newspaper’s parent company, Dow Jones and Co., last year for close to $5 billion (Rs20,000 crore), would invest $6 million a year to add four pages for international news.
Adding heft to a paper at a time when cutbacks are the industry norm—The Journal’s advertising revenue, like other newspapers, declined in the first quarter—is a nice start for Thomson to ease the anxieties of staff members whipsawed by change. But the vagueness of his role—publishers do not typically attend news meetings—has everyone wondering what else he has in store.
“As far as I can tell, he is a mystery man,” said one editor at the paper who spoke anonymously because he was not authorized to speak publicly. “It’s better for him to turn out to be a nice guy and an inspired journalist than for him to start out telling us he loves us, and then turn out to be Darth Vader.”
Thomson will soon become much more familiar to The Journal’s staff, because he is the one charged with executing Murdoch’s vision for the newspaper. He may be the publisher, but his responsibilities include few of the business tasks that title usually connotes. “I’m the head of content, that’s the simplest way to say it,” he said.
Thomson’s own story is an up-by-the-bootstraps tale of ambition and guile. The tabloid version would read like this: Born in rural Australia, he falls hard for the newspaper life as a child watching his father in a home-based part-time job proofreading galley sheets of the local paper. He initially bypasses university (he earns a degree later in life) to become a copy boy at age 17 at The Melbourne Herald, where one of his tasks is to fetch milkshakes for the reporters to coat their stomachs before their after-work drinking sessions.
“It was what people imagine to be a journalistic upbringing,” Thomson said in his 11th floor office in Lower Manhattan. “It’s the most interesting job on the planet. You are being paid to be curious.”
He later earned credentials as a reporter by uncovering corruption in the Australian judiciary—which he turned into a book in 1987 called The Judges—and covering China, including the events at Tiananmen Square, for The Financial Times and The Sydney Morning Herald.
In China, Thomson became friendly with Brauchli, but many people who know both say their friendship has been overstated in the press. “I don’t think they were best buddies,” said Adi Ignatius, an editor at Time magazine. “But there was a certain esprit de corps among foreign correspondents, especially in Beijing at the time.”
As he worked his way up the ranks of The Financial Times, eventually becoming US managing editor in 1998, he befriended Murdoch, and by all accounts, sparks flew.
Andrew Gowers, who beat Thomson to become editor of The Financial Times in 2001, recalled a visit he made to the New York bureau in which Thomson took him to lunch to meet Murdoch at the News Corp.’s Manhattan office. “There was something going on there, it was like a coquetry really,” Gowers said. “It was clear they had seen a lot of each other at that point.”
“He has this intuitive way with people, which he’s deployed to a remarkable extent with Rupert.”
On Thanksgiving Day in 1998, The Financial Times published a scoop on its front page that made an unhappy holiday for reporters at competing newspapers: Exxon and Mobil were close to a merger that would create the largest public company in the world.
Thomson, new to his position as managing editor at The Financial Times, dispatched street hawkers to pass out the paper at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade several blocks away from the paper’s Manhattan offices, and appeared on television to promote the scoop. Then the early follow-up coverage suggested the deal might not happen.
“You just want to curl up and die at that point,” recalled Will Lewis, the reporter who wrote the article and who is now the editor of The Daily Telegraph in London. “Robert says, ‘I trust you. Go back to the prime source.’ He pushed me forward. And the story was then confirmed.”
Reporters who have worked for Thomson say he is loyal, almost to a fault. One reporter said he “can’t say no”. Many former colleagues say he is not the type of manager who is capable of easily firing workers.
The prevailing theory as to why he never became editor of The Financial Times is because the paper needed to trim its ranks after a hiring boom during the dot-com days, and Thomson was not seen as the right person to do that.
When Thomson learned almost seven years ago that he would not be named editor of The Financial Times, he did what many defeated journalists might do—he retreated with colleagues to a dark corner of a bar. But then he turned to his friend Murdoch and took the helm of the mogul’s 217-year-old The Times of London. At The Times, he changed the appearance of a venerable newspaper—some would say a British institution. He shrank the paper from a broadsheet to a tabloid. Circulation increased even as many traditionalists complained about the new format.
“In Britain, people think of it as stodgy, extremely traditional,” he said last year at a lecture at RMIT University in Australia, where he received a journalism degree in 1989.
“So, it took an Australian to shrink it into a tabloid, or a compact,” he joked. “We used the ‘c’ word, so it was more socially acceptable.”
In the last two years, Thomson persuaded Murdoch to attend the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, an event Murdoch had not attended in years (Murdoch prefers the company of deal-makers, like those at the annual conference in Sun Valley, Idaho, sponsored by the investment bank Allen and Co.).
From event to event at Davos, Thomson and Murdoch were often together. “It was like Rupert was on his arm,” said Gowers, who saw both men there. Thomson also encouraged Murdoch to buy The Journal and, according to one person who knows both men, was a driving force behind the News Corp.’s offer.
As a result, Thomson, who lost out at The Financial Times, is now running its biggest competitor. Beyond overseeing changes to the paper, he must confront a news staff that is recovering from Brauchli’s departure as managing editor.
Thomson declined to discuss Brauchli’s departure, but generally he has only good things to say about him. The notion that the paper is betraying its roots by becoming more general in its coverage, he said, is “fallacious”.
“Foreign correspondents were incredibly frustrated,” he said. “They couldn’t get international political stories into the paper. That wasn’t Marcus’ fault. They just didn’t give him the investment.”
Thomson said he was not worried expanding news coverage would alienate The Journal’s core readers. “We’ve increased the pagination to display more domestic and international news, not reduced the business story count. It is highly amusing that Left-wing media commentators who tend to regard all businesspeople as criminals or reprobates are worried about us alienating business readers.”
Traditionalists at The Journal take note: Thomson is unmoved by legacy. “There is a great temptation to be so respectful of history that you are haunted by it,” he said during the lecture at RMIT. “The truth is, if you are haunted by history, you will be history.”
©2008/The New York Times