RMIT Alumni Magazine: The leadership issue
What inspired you to become a journalist?
I was born in a very rural area, Torrumbarry, about 20 miles from Echuca [Victoria], on the Murray River, population, 11 or 12, depending on the year. My father for a period had worked as a proof reader, a job you could do without formal qualifications. He’d originally been a barman. If I was up late, I’d see the next day’s paper brought home at 11 pm, and there was something fascinating, truly fascinating about tomorrow’s news today. I was intrigued by that.
Why did you apply to RMIT, and what did you learn that you’ve taken through your career?
Actually it was compulsory. Initially I was a copy boy at Melbourne’s Herald, which was an afternoon broadsheet paper [the paper was merged in 1990 to form the Herald Sun]. As part of that cadetship, you would study for a day and a half at RMIT. It was a very pragmatic course, everything from copy editing to headline writing, combined with a more philosophical context. In fact, one of the subjects that had a most profound influence on me was sociology.
You were a correspondent in China and Japan for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age and the Financial Times (UK) in the early 80s and 90s, covering extraordinary times in Tiananmen Square and the bubble economy in Japan. What were some memorable stories from that time?
China, from a broad perspective, was fascinating because it was a country coming out of a totalitarian government, there was gradual reform, there was emancipation not just of an economy, but of individual aspiration. I went to Tibet a couple of times, was thrown out and threatened with expulsion. But for the average foreign correspondent the danger is not for you, it’s for the people you talk to, and being thrown out of a place is the worst thing that could happen to you.
Then you moved from being a journalist to an editor; first at the Financial Times (FT) in the UK, as foreign news editor, then at the Weekend Financial Times. What was the transition into management like?
Part of the Australian sensibility helped as a manager, in that the foreign news editor at the FT is a stressful job. You’re balancing a lot of egos, some great journalists who have some overwhelming egos.
It was important to just be very pragmatic, very practical, not to take things personally, just get on with it, to genuinely try to help great copy into the paper. If there’s something wrong with the story, to not allow my ego to get in the way but to be clinical about the analysis of the flaws in the story. I think we did collectively manage to improve the foreign coverage. Without even thinking about it, over a period, I had developed a reputation as a good manager, but I had no managerial training.
You were appointed managing editor of the Wall Street Journal in 2008, when News Corp had just acquired the paper, moving from your role as editor of The Times in London. You made editorial changes to the Wall Street Journal, upsetting traditionalists. How do you approach leading a newspaper with a huge tradition through a period of change?
If you go back to the archives, there was a lot of scepticism about the take over of Dow Jones [which owns the Wall Street Journal] by News Corporation. I remember meeting staff in various groups and it was clear that it didn’t make sense to say, “Trust me, things will be fine.” It was more, “Look we have to bring the paper into the contemporary age, it’s a great paper.”
No one should think anything can’t be made better. People weren’t sure about the direction, and some were complacent, and yet around them there was upheaval in the media. [After changes to the paper] we became the biggest-selling paper in the States.
Going from the Wall Street Journal to CEO of News Corp, you now oversee a huge portfolio from newspapers around the world, then in Australia, Foxtel, realestate.com.au, right through to book publishing in Harper Collins. How do you maintain a big portfolio and still maintain focus?
Well you have to have great people, and you have to trust great people. And then having instinct about when you need to intervene and sometimes when you need to interfere. You can sense when things are going a little awry, and you’ll never have perfect timing on that, but to be watching the numbers, which are a clue, and to be talking to enough people, without talking to senior people in a way that undermines. There’s subtlety to it, not that I am particularly subtle.
How do you hone your judgement? How do you practise getting it right?
Well you practise it by practising it. Being a foreign news editor is the same, [deciding] is this an important story coming out of Rwanda? Will there be a change in government in Mexico? Inflation in Japan? Factions in China? Day after day, inadvertently, you were forced to hone your decision-making powers.
And you can scale it up to a corporation level?
Probably fewer decisions but more profound consequences.
Has the language of journalism changed as a result of the different platforms, whether people access it on an iPad as opposed to newsprint?
I think that was a temptation when the iPad was being created. We had one of the first iPads at the Journal - it was literally chained to a table.
Steve Jobs was a fan of the Journal, and wanted us to be a content launch partner. One of the first iterations [of the paper on the iPad] was doing everything the device could possibly do, but it really didn’t highlight the Journal in its full glory. So we were very clear with our guidance that the iPad version would be as much like the Journal as possible, taking advantage of some of the flexibility that you have with the device, rather than having the device dominate.
I had an interesting set of discussions with Steve Jobs, because Steve thought that you should scroll up [to access more content]. But because we were from a newspaper background I thought we should turn pages, which had the advantage of replicating the sensibility of a newspaper, but also crucially, allowing us to put full page ads in.
You work with one of the world’s most powerful men, Rupert Murdoch [Executive Chairman of News Corp]. What has that taught you about the nature of power?
Rupert gives a tremendous amount of autonomy to people – you see that, sense that, feel that. He has energy and curiosity, he’s 83 but you wouldn’t know it. He doesn’t come in to work any day with a jaded sensibility, it’s all about, “What can we do today?”
Of all the lessons, that’s been the greatest one for me is that you can’t allow elevated status to be an excuse for indolence. He wouldn’t tolerate it and I don’t tolerate it, at least in myself, and I hope that others are similarly motivated. Very powerful people can have a sense of achievement and self-satisfaction. Rupert doesn’t think like that at all. It’s “What can we achieve”, not “What have we achieved”.
What are the essential qualities of leadership as you understand it?
So much of leadership is implied. Partly it is your personal behaviour and professional bearing. It’s the environment that you create. People talk about a creative environment or a productive environment, in part because the newsroom is such a potentially combative place and if you allow it to be so, dominated by conflict.
You learn a lot in a tense place such as a newsroom, where you have to make decisions, you’re dealing with big egos and you’re dealing with very smart people and managing them and trying to get the most out of them.
So you do need to be conscious of creating the right dynamic that is getting the most not just out of one or two prima donnas, but is elevating, in an egalitarian manner, everyone’s abilities. And that sounds idealistic, but I think you should have some idealism when you’re trying to create a contemporary workplace, because a workplace can’t possibly be what it was in 1970 or 1980.
What do you think the impact of mentoring is?
In the Australia of my youth there may have been a lack of understanding of the power of mentorship, that if you needed a mentor you’re a bit of a wuss. There is more we can do to help young people be open to ideas, self-criticism and opportunity. There is great efficacy in having a conversation at the right time in someone’s life, as I found with my high school careers counsellor. He provided calm, thoughtful guidance at a moment of ignorance, naiveté and confusion (not that I am now immune to those three states).
And what about handling criticism?
Well if you work in media other media will always have a poke at you. There was a lot of criticism early on at the Journal, criticism when I was editing the Times, and institutionally, externally there will always be more criticism than praise. Early on I was a little surprised by it, particularly at the Times where I’d come out of the Financial Times, bit like a sheltered workshop really, into the open environment of somewhat hostile, competitive newspaper London.
Sometimes you see things that frustrate you in a way that they shouldn’t, but I guess that’s human vulnerability. There are other times where people praise you farmore than they should and you take that too seriously. Overall, the danger is not necessarily reacting to it, because you will react. The real danger is craving it, and altering your behaviour to seek that praise, to curry favour, to burnish ego.
You received an honorary doctorate from RMIT in 2010, what was the experience like?
I did, and I was honoured. Well it was certainly recognition that I would never get a doctorate by legitimate measures. So I took it both as a compliment and I was genuinely honoured. I was in two minds about accepting it to be honest, not about RMIT but in terms of, as I said, I don’t particularly crave prestige.Prestige is addictive.
But given that I started life as a barman’s son in rural Victoria, I think it’s important if someone of my mediocre skill set can have the journey, the wondrous, serendipitous journey that I had, that there are working class kids in Victoria who should realise that all possibility is possible. And they won’t have the confidence of their class, so I thought as long as people understand it was a journey, and a very fortuitous one, then apart from making my Mum smile, there’s a reason, beyond individual indulgence, to accept.
Top: Robert Thomson, CEO of News Corp’s global operations, started his career as a copy boy for the Melbourne Herald.
Above left, right: Robert Thomson and Professor Paul Gough during the interview at News Corp headquarters in New York.
Photos by RMIT alumnus Peter Rad. Peter works internationally as an artist and commercial photographer. His award-winning work has received critical acclaim worldwide, and is featured extensively in top-level magazines, high profile advertising campaigns, and fine-art exhibitions.
Background image: RMIT’s Swanston Academic Building.
About the interview
RMIT’s Professor Paul Gough, Pro Vice-Chancellor of the College of Design and Social Context, gives his insights into interviewing Robert Thomson at News Corp global headquarters in New York.
The News Corp offices in New York are vast and a little awe-inspiring, but once inside, it was rather relaxed. Robert and his team shared open offices; he mixed easily with his large team in an open-plan setting.
I was aware of the sheer reach of News Corp by the variety of framed front pages from newspapers all over the world, and also the omnipresent media screens showing news footage and broadcasts from all corners of the globe.
It was a great honour being able to spend time with Robert Thomson. He gave generously of his time and his thoughts on leadership, education and global communications.
What was immediately clear is that he carries his global responsibilities very lightly, but it was also very clear that he was extraordinarily well connected, globally linked, thinking on a continental scale, and capable of making major, even paradigm-shifting ideas and decisions of considerable magnitude.
RMIT has some impressive global alumni. Many of them feel great loyalty to their alma mater, they want to give something back, they want to create opportunity for our students, they genuinely feel that they belong to the global RMIT family.