New York Times keeps growing its Seoul news hub
Dunbar-Johnson sat for an interview with the Korea JoongAng Daily Monday at the Grant Hyatt Hotel in central Seoul, returning to the country around one year after the launch of the Times' new Asia hub in Korea. The newspaper decided in 2020 to relocate its news operation from Hong Kong — which has served for decades as headquarters for many English-language media outlets in Asia — to Seoul.
"We didn't want to be in a position where we were encumbered by the Chinese national security law, which gets in the way of us doing what we need to do, which is report without fear or favor," he said. "The core reason why we moved to South Korea was because we felt this could be a place where we could report without fear or favor."
Dunbar-Johnson stressed that Seoul is "much more than a bureau, it's our Asia newsroom," and a part of the paper's strategy of "being on 24 hours."
He said, "We have a live team here in Seoul. They pass the baton to London, and that goes onto New York, and it allows us to be on whilst the sun is rising here and moves from east to west. Seoul is an absolutely fundamental part of the New York Times operation, and the staffing level and the speed of our hiring and moving people here is actually ahead of schedule despite the pandemic."
In February, the Times reached its goal of 10 million paid subscriptions ahead of its 2025 target and now aims to reach 15 million subscribers by the end of 2027.
The company's $550 million purchase of The Athletic online sports news outlet in January brought in 1.2 million more subscribers, helping to accelerate this process. But Dunbar-Johnson pointed out that the Times had been "on track" to get to its target ahead of 2025 even before the acquisition.
"International growth is a really important part of getting to 15 million by 2027," said Dunbar-Johnson. "We now have over a million digital subscribers outside the United States, which has been pretty significant growth from where we started. We aspire to have 20 percent of the total."
Currently, over a million of the newspaper's 10 million subscribers, or 10 percent, are international.
"We still have a long way to go," said Dunbar-Johnson. "We think that there is a lot of potential in Asia. We haven't really tapped the Asian marketplace as much as we would have liked."
He estimates that the Asian portion of the targeted 20 percent international subscribers "should be at least 30 percent of the total."
He described the New York Times' strategy of attracting subscribers with a "bundle," which includes the core news product, and digital offerings such as Games, recipe app Cooking, The Athletic, the Wirecutter product-recommendation site and audio app Audm.
The idea, he said, is to get people to "spend time within our ecosystem" through such a bundle service by finding people's "obsessions."
The New York Times Company also purchased the popular Wordle puzzle game in January, which Dunbar-Johnson said is "driving very significant audience to Games."
He added there isn't "any danger" of Wordle going behind a paywall "anytime soon," noting that "once people are in the environment, then they begin to search for other things."
He continued, "It validates the whole idea of creating an ecosystem of interests. Once you are in the door, you want to open another door, and go into another room, and you begin to see that there's lots of other things of interest there."
Dunbar-Johnson especially wants to reach out to young readers and "internationally-curious people who are proficient in English who and also work for multinational organizations."
He pointed to the New York Times' three-year agreement with the state-run Korea Education and Research Information Service (Keris) at the beginning of the year which will allow all students in four-year universities in Korea to receive free digital subscriptions to the paper and its news app.
"We are very pleased to have an arrangement with Keris, which allows us to access students in Korean universities, which I think is a very important deal for us," he said. "It allows us to hopefully start a relationship with young Koreans, and we are very keen to find ways to engage with them further."
He noted Korea has "very smart young people who speak English to a very high standard" who aspire to do higher education in the United States and eventually come back to do business here or work in a multinational corporation.
The company reported an operating profit of $109.3 million for the fourth quarter of 2021, or a 12 percent increase from a year earlier, and revenue of $594.2 million, a 16.7 percent rise.
The size of the Asia hub in Korea, located in an office building in central Seoul, has also grown faster than expected over the past year.
"We are almost at capacity here already in spite of the pandemic," said Dunbar-Johnson. "We will be over 40 people in the coming months. It's actually gone faster than I had anticipated." This is nearly double the number of staffers compared to when the Seoul office officially launched in May last year.
He said "one very difficult hiccup" in the process was the death of Carlos Tejada, a deputy Asia editor for the Times, who died of a heart attack last December.
The death was "a big blow to us," he said, recalling Tejada, who contributed to the Times' Pulitzer-winning coverage of the Covid-19 crisis in China, as a "great journalist and part of the heartbeat of the Seoul office."
One of the Times' long-term goals internationally is to "continue to grow our Asia coverage," Dunbar-Johnson said.
"Certainly you will see more coverage of Korean issues than you probably would have a few years ago, simply because we have a lot of people here."
He added, "Korea is a very interesting story in itself; its culture is very rich, and the music scene, film scene, food scene, socioeconomic scenes very interesting. Korea was always a very interesting story for us before we had a news hub here, but the coverage will deepen, that's the main difference."
Dunbar-Johnson said the Times is especially focused on developing a series about women in leadership positions in Korea, and prioritizes climate response coverage globally.
He stressed the newspaper's mission to protect "independent, high-quality journalism" amid the rise in autocracies, noting the Russian state media's coverage of the Ukrainian crisis and the national security law in Hong Kong.
"Sometimes you'll take business hits because of that, but short-term, middle-term, long-term, that will always be our position," he said. "We will never self-censor. We will always try to seek the truth."
Dunbar-Johnson said, "What I believe in my soul is that a vibrant democracy has to have a vibrant free press. The two things go hand in hand. And what we've been seeing with the rise of autocracies, and what we've been seeing in the last few weeks in Russia is very, very sad."
On the situation in Hong Kong, where reporters and some business staff remain, he said, "It is clear that the situation has deteriorated."
He continued, "We hope that we will be able to continue to report the truth in Hong Kong as well. But it's likely that will become increasingly difficult over the coming months and years. When we report from China, often the Chinese administration doesn't like what we report, and they put pressure on us to make it difficult for us to do that. So I expect the same thing to happen in Hong Kong."
Dunbar-Johnson said, "You need media to keep businesses and governments in power honest. If you don't have a free press, it leads to autocracy, corruption and abuse of power."
He said, "South Korea is a young, vibrant liberal democracy, and in order for it to continue to being successful, it needs a strong vibrant press." There is no fear of "censorship" in Seoul, he added.
With such considerations he said, "We're very pleased with the fact that we made the decision we made" to move to Seoul.
"We are a global media organization, and Asia is a big part of the world," he said. "Our ears and eyes for Asia are here. So, it will continue to be incredibly important to us as we grow our ambitions internationally. It's where we decided to base ourselves for Asia, and that's a big decision made three years ago. And our experience so far has been very good."
BY SARAH KIM [email@example.com]