Why The New York Times is moving its hub to Seoul
“Seoul will become our Asian headquarters,” Dunbar-Johnson said in an interview with the Korea JoongAng Daily at the Millennium Hilton Seoul in central Seoul Wednesday on the sideline of a 20th anniversary reception for the newspaper. “You can’t be a global news organization and not cover Asia with great rigor.”
The Korea JoongAng Daily was a publishing partner of the International Herald Tribune (IHT) at its launch on Oct. 17, 2000. The New York Times took full ownership of the IHT in 2002.
The New York Times made headlines when it announced in July that it will move its digital news operation based in Hong Kong to Seoul after concerns mounted over the implications of a sweeping national security law passed by China in June.
While journalists and staff have struggled with visa applications and concerns over restrictions against free press, Dunbar-Johnson called the national security law in Hong Kong “the final tipping point.”
“We felt that there could be a risk where the whole operation was just shut down, or that they would pull the plug,” he said, adding it was a move “to protect our operation over the long term.”
The move to Korea has already begun, with The Times setting up a new Asia hub in the Standard Chartered building in Jongno District, central Seoul, which has a maximum office capacity of 50 staffers. A dozen editors are relocating by the end of this year, and at least 20 by next year.
Dunbar-Johnson has served in his current position since 2013, and previously was publisher of the IHT. He also spent over 12 years with the Financial Times.
When asked if he had any words of advice to Korean media transitioning to the digital era, he noted that there are three guiding "lighthouses": Investing in journalism, understanding the consumer, and using technology.
The following are edited excerpts from the interview.
Q. Can you share how the decision was reached to move The New York Times’ digital hub out of Hong Kong?
A. The New York Times is really very much a digital-first operation. For part of the day as the sun rises in the east, our whole internet, our whole website, is run out of Hong Kong, and then it is handed over to London and then to New York. So, for us, our Asia digital hub was very important.
We began to wonder if [Hong Kong] becomes a more restrictive place to do journalism, what would that mean to us? At that point, two and a half, three years ago we began looking at some contingency planning. I got together with a group of my colleagues and we started thinking about if we were to move, where would we move to, and we started that process.
In the meantime, we began to see a number of signs that made us feel uncomfortable, especially around visa applications. It was more and more difficult to get visas renewed, or indeed to get new visas given to us for people coming in and out. The reason why we were in Hong Kong in the first place was because of the great ease of doing business, because of the freedom of press and the fact that we could easily acquire visas. It was an easy place to work from; it was an ideal hub. But all of those reasons were beginning to disappear.
And then of course, the Chinese national security law — that was the final tipping point for us. At the same time we had a long backlog of visa applications, which meant that a lot of journalists trying to get their visas renewed could not work. All of those things together made us decide to move.
Q. How was Seoul selected?
A. We had a group looking at where we should go and basically put a scoring chart together with the heaviest weighted scoring for freedom of the press: Which jurisdiction will give us greatest ease in freedom of the press? It quickly came down to Japan or South Korea.
You put ease of doing business, visa applications, schooling for your staff, housing, cost of living, labor regulations, and you give them different weightings. And then you come to a conclusion about what’s the best place, and Seoul was the winner — and frankly, I think quite an easy winner.
Q. Any there specific reasons why Korea was chosen over Japan?
A. Again, freedom of speech, freedom of expression. We look at rankings, and Seoul does very well, it ranks very highly. […] We want to look at education, how much living space you get for your money, communications; you look at from the business perspective connectively, digital connectively; and you look at all of those things together and that informs your decision. And in that decision, Seoul was better for us than Tokyo.
We are not abandoning Hong Kong. What we are doing is moving our digital hub and some reporting staff to Seoul. Therefore, Seoul will become our Asian headquarters. We’ve committed to moving our digital hub here; that decision is final. Seoul will become our Asia center, our Asia hub.
Q. You mentioned the national security law was the tipping point.
A. We had a tense relationship in China for some time. We launched several years ago now a Chinese language website which within months was banned — we still operate that website. Subsequently a lot of our American journalists have been evicted from China. China is a hugely important story. We think it’s our responsibly to cover it with great vigor, but often the Chinese don’t like that scrutiny and they express that by throwing our journalists out of the country.
Effectively, the Chinese national security law means, our interpretation of that is, that Hong Kong is going to be exactly like any other city in mainland China. So all of the benefits that I was talking about earlier have disappeared. Our experience is that our journalists are being evicted from mainland China, and we think they are likely to get evicted from Hong Kong in the future. There is a very strong risk that will happen, and we can’t afford to have that happen.
Q. Do you fear arrests of journalists?
A. There is a risk of that. I don’t think it’s a big fear. It’s our ability to conduct the journalism [that is the main thing]. It is certainly a concern. The interpretation of the Chinese national security law is very broad: What is sedition? It’s open to interpretation, and under that law, to our understanding, you can get arrested, so there is a risk to that. Our highest priority is the security of our staff. But from my perspective, the biggest risk is just our ability to do the journalism that we want to do.
Q. Did staffers in Hong Kong feel threatened?
A. There weren’t specific threats, but there were issues with getting visas. At one stage we had 10 visas waiting, people who were working in Hong Kong already who had have to get their visas renewed and weren’t getting them renewed. This was very recent, just before and after the new [national security] law. What that meant was that they could not work. In the past, while your visas were being renewed, you could still work. They changed the law, so you could no longer work. So for several weeks, we had as many as 10 or our colleagues who couldn’t work, they were benched. Now that’s a big deal.
We don’t want to be in a position in six months or even six years where we have a risk of our operation being shut down because we’ve produced a piece of journalism that the Chinese administration takes offense to.
Q. What is it like working out of Hong Kong now?
A. I think eventually, my concern is that Hong Kong will become like any other Chinese city, in the way that the law is applied, whether it is Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou; that is the concern and that is the risk. As I said earlier, we’ve had journalists expelled from Beijing and other places. Therefore we think there is a risk of that happening in Hong Kong. I certainly hope that it doesn’t happen.
This is not something we wanted to do, but something we felt we had to do to protect our operation over the long term. We are very committed to Asia. Asia is a huge story. The whole Asia story is huge. China is central to that. We will likely continue to expand our coverage of the region. You can’t be a global news organization and not cover Asia with great rigor. And it’s extremely important that we have a robust journalistic operation to cover it. It’s likely that we’re going to get bigger, but we have to have a base, a headquarters that allows us to that, to build from. We are likely to have more journalists in Taipei, Singapore, Tokyo; we’ll spread things evenly, but this will be our central focus.
Q. What is the role of the digital news operation, which some may describe as the future of The New York Times?
A. Our strategy in The New York Times is to acquire as many digital readers, subscribers as possible. We currently have six and a half million paying digital subscribers. We have an ambition to get to 10 million by 2025; we are well on our way there.
For us to grow our digital circulation, we need to be first class in terms of our digital operation; we have to give a consumer experience that is genuinely first class. In order to do that, you need to have a 24/7 operation. For example, when there is a late breaking new happening in America, where the team there is sleeping, the Hong Kong team can pick it up. […] It means that you’ve got to be on the whole time; first and foremost, they have the keys to the digital cupboard for part of the day. The the other thing they do is report on the region.
Q. Do you have more concrete details on the move?
A. By the end of year, we will have 12; by the middle of next year we will have up to 20, and I think realistically I can see at least 35 people here, and then a capacity to go beyond that. The space we’ve taken here, half a floor of the Standard Chartered building, has the capacity to take up to 50 people. We have taken that amount of space intentionally. We think that there is a distinct possibility we will grow up to that number. We will be looking to hire locally.
Q. What does the 20th anniversary of the publishing partnership with the Korea JoongAng Daily signify to you?
A. I remember very well, it was a group of us in Hong Kong for a meeting, we had this ambition of creating these global-local partnerships with key media in the region, and the first market we came to was here. We did a lot of research on who we wanted to partner with, and we decided that JoongAng was the right partner for us, it had the same values as us.
Digital is vital to us, but print is still a very important part of our business. We are very committed to our print business. […] These partnerships to us are very, very important, because they are successful. People like to have local content and global content. The fact that it’s lasted 20 years I think really is a testament to that. What is important is how we develop, build on that 20-year relationship, to think about how we can evolve things in the digital sphere as well as continuing to work hard to make sure that our print products are as viable and robust as possible. I had the good fortune as a result of this partnership to have come to Seoul on many occasions. Every time I come here, I feel like I learn a little bit more […] and every time I feel a bit enriched by that.
BY SARAH KIM [email@example.com]