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The newsroom that never sleeps: inside The New York Times' control centre in London

Covering the most powerful media companies to the smartest startups, former Independent media editor Ian Burrell examines the fraught problem of how news is funded today. Follow Ian @iburrell.

NYT branding at the Edinburgh International Book Festival 2019 / Picture: Craig Gibson, The New York Times

In an exam room atmosphere of intense concentration, New York Times journalists edit copy from the Iowa caucuses and update dispatches from China on the spread of the new coronavirus.

When conversation briefly breaks out, the mix of English and American accents is a reminder that the website of the world’s most famous newspaper is, for several hours of each day, run not from Manhattan but from an L-shaped room overlooking a traffic junction near the British Museum.

It’s a substantial operation, comparable in scale to the newsrooms of some of Britain’s smaller national titles. The London team of around 50 journalists handles news not just from the UK and Europe but from as far afield as Moscow and Tehran. And each morning, before America wakes up and colleagues start arriving at their desks on 8th Avenue, The New York Times control room is here in London’s Bloomsbury.

“Over in the corner you have a group of editors who are running the platforms right now because New York is asleep,” says Jim Yardley, The New York Times Europe editor. “They are running the home page, they are making decisions on stories…when to move them around and when to change headlines. We also have people here who are looking at what our competitors are doing and whether or not there is something that we are missing. There’s a quiet hum but everyone is really working very hard.”

The London newsroom has a crucial role in The New York Times’s strategy for reaching its target of 10 million subscriptions by 2025 because 20% of those subscribers are anticipated to come from outside the United States. Potential UK sign-ups are currently being courted with an offer of four weeks free, then £1-a-week for a year, and the overseas subscriber base stands at 500,000 (roughly the same as The Times and Sunday Times of London has in entirety).

The New York Times is ramping up its London team and will soon create a UK version of the paper’s Express Desk, which was recently launched in New York to handle breaking news. A team of five journalists is being brought in to run the desk early this year.

The UK is seen by the paper as both a hub for global reporting – by dint of its geographical location and time zone – and a major source of news.

Until 2016, The New York Times had its international news hub in Paris. That operation, which dated back to 1887 and the beginnings of the Paris Herald, folded as part of the transition to a digital-first organisation. “We closed that down and we opened this as a digital newsroom,” says Yardley, a distinguished former foreign correspondent who took charge of the London office later that year, coincidentally on the day of Donald Trump’s election victory. “We have all of our bureaus in Europe report into editors here; let’s see, Brussels, Berlin, Rome, Paris, Frankfurt…Madrid and Athens, Moscow, Tehran…”

A home away from home

Inside the Bloomsbury newsroom, which is spread over two floors, The New York Times London bureau is just a part. It is dedicated to covering stories from the UK and has been in existence since the Second World War, helmed by distinguished correspondents such as John F Burns and Alan Cowell. In a piece this week, bureau chief Mark Landler posited the question: “What If Brexit Works?” His colleague Stephen Castle, former political editor of the Independent on Sunday, reported from Brussels on the “Brexodus” of Britons leaving the Belgian capital.

Brexit, says Yardley, was “our most-read international story last year by a long shot”. The NYT’s coverage of the UK’s protracted departure from the European Union is compelling content not only for British readers (and potential subscribers) who seek the perspective of a reputed global news provider, but also for Europeans wanting to explain Brexit’s wider implications, and for US readers gripped by political upheavals across the world. “I think we have found a renewed interest in politics and democracy because I think people that took certain things for granted realised that they couldn’t,” Yardley observes.

The UK, Canada and Australia are the paper’s three biggest markets outside the US.

Having a significant editorial presence in the UK enabled The New York Times to try and make sense of British politics and Brexit by producing a series on the legacy of austerity. “We went all over Britain for those stories and that was very useful and we got a lot of reader response,” says Yardley, who as a reporter conducted a similar exercise in the US for The New York Times Magazine immediately prior to the 2016 election. “I did report that the whole country was pretty angry,” he says, in response to a suggestion that the NYT was blindsided by Trump’s win.

Late last year The New York Times carried out a nine-month investigation into corruption in European Union agricultural subsidies. Coordinated from London, the project sent reporters to nine countries, gathering documents and building a database of evidence. This probe into “The Money Farmers” linked EU subsidies to the relatives and friends of Hungarian leader Viktor Orban (a detractor of Brussels). “A lot of this money was actually subsidising many of the same political factions that are deeply critical of the EU,” says Yardley.

The reporting has prompted talks in the European parliament. After the stories were published, the paper was asked by readers “why didn’t publications in Europe do this?” The answer, Yardley suggests, is “partly…a resource issue, partly it was we could see from the outside and that was a little bit of an advantage.”

In 2010, The New York Times reignited the UK phone-hacking scandal – which was disappearing from the local news agenda – with a deep investigative story in its magazine headlined “Hack Attack”. Then, the paper’s targeting of international readers was less obvious – it had 51,000 subscribers overseas in 2012, a tenth of the current amount.

Investing in reporters to win new subscribers

Today, the London-based team has resources to be more proactive. Last month it took on investigative reporter Jane Bradley, who had a fine track record at BuzzFeed News UK and the BBC’s Panorama. “We believe fervently that good, high-quality investigative journalism is something that people most anywhere want,” Yardley says.

The New York Times’s reporting of the Salisbury poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal led to its investigative reporter Michael Schwirtz uncovering a team of Russian assassins – Unit 29155 – working across Europe.

This kind of move-the-dial reporting is crucial to the paper bringing new subscribers on board.

Yardley (who reports to Michael Slackman, the paper’s international editor in New York) is himself a Pulitzer Prize winning reporter, in recognition of work exposing the failings of China’s legal system. For six years he was based at the paper’s Beijing bureau. He held a similar position in New Delhi and Rome but was tempted to come to London (“probably our most prestigious bureau”) because, after a career spent travelling the world, he wanted to play a hands-on role in the paper’s digital revolution. “London was a great opportunity to see everything the paper was doing in microcosm.”

In addition to the UK-focused London bureau, there are regional desks, photo editors and graphics editors (visual journalism is of growing importance). The business team produces the DealBook newsletter, ready for when American readers wake up. London has a dedicated journalist for the paper’s podcast The Daily, Lauren Jackson. Adam Satariano covers the European technology sector. Eleanor Dunn arrived from the BBC as social media editor. There is a culture desk headed by Matthew Anderson, and a dedicated fashion writer, Elizabeth Paton. “You can see the empty Dior boxes on her desk,” jokes Yardley, who praises Paton’s investigation into the “shadow economy” of low-paid workers used by couture brands in Italy.

Reporter Tariq Panja scrutinises the world of sport and its governing bodies. Yardley acknowledges that coverage of (association) football is essential for a global news brand. Rory Smith, formerly of The Times of London, is chief soccer correspondent and based in Manchester. “Football is the most popular sport in the world, maybe basketball would be second,” says Yardley, who once followed a Chinese basketball team around the country for a year as inspiration for a book on Sino-American relations. “The Premier League has a big fanbase in America, it’s very important for us.” He identifies climate change as a priority subject for the paper.

The Opinion team (which Yardley as a news editor does not oversee) is separated from the newsroom by a symbolic row of indoor plants. There is also a commercial operation in a separate building couple of blocks away, bringing The New York Times London staff to more than 100.

Publisher The New York Times Company, which has former BBC director-general Mark Thompson as its chief executive, announced last month that it had hit its target of $800m (£613m) annual digital revenues a year ahead of schedule. It has 5 million subscribers (4 million of them digital) and is already halfway to its 2025 goal.

But Yardley, who once worked for papers in Atlanta and Alabama and says the economic pressure on smaller publishers “saddens me a lot”, is careful not to say that the global title is growing at the expense of others. He acknowledges that The New York Times’s success is not guaranteed. “We have a lot of resources, we are very lucky,” he says. “We are having a good economic moment right now and it’s great that our whole core is to reinvest in the journalism.”

Ian Burrell's column, The News Business, is published on The Drum each Thursday. Follow Ian on Twitter @iburrell

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