1961- | VIC, China, UK, USA | Reporter, editor, executive
Thomson rose from a journalism cadetship on the Melbourne Herald to become the most powerful newspaper executive in the world. A gifted reporter, he was posted to Beijing in the mid-1980s by Fairfax newspapers, then joined The Financial Times as China and later Japan correspondent. Recalled to London, he served in various editing roles before heading the paper's US edition in New York, where he caught the eye of Rupert Murdoch. In March 2002, Murdoch appointed Thomson editor of the London Times. He was the first Australian-born journalist to hold the job. By 2013 Thomson was chief executive of News Corp and in control of all the Murdoch publishing assets in the US, Europe and Australia.
On the journey to becoming the most powerful figure in Rupert Murdoch’s global publishing empire, Robert Thomson set a number of remarkable milestones: the first Australian to edit the London Times, the first Australian to edit The Wall Street Journal and the first chief executive of the international conglomerate that now controls all of News Corporation’s publishing assets.
His achievements were made more remarkable by the fact that he was born into a poor country family, his father the barman at the only pub in Torrumbarry, a hamlet west of Echuca along the Murray River.
The family moved briefly to Bendigo before settling in the Melbourne suburb of Elwood when Robert, the eldest of three boys, was five. Jim Thomson worked for a time as a proofreader at The Age and the paper he brought home each night was Robert’s first contact with what would become his life’s obsession.
When he arrived at The Herald in 1979, Thomson was the odd boy out – physically and temperamentally. At 188 centimetres tall, he already showed signs of the stoop that would worsen over the years – eventually diagnosed as ankylosing spondylitis, a form of arthritis that can lead to fusion of the spine. Some of his fellow cadets thought he was not cut out for journalism and wouldn’t succeed.
But after three years, Thomson scored a coveted posting to The Herald’s Sydney bureau from where, in 1983, he jumped to The Sydney Morning Herald. “He was an obvious but low-key talent,” says Eric Beecher, who edited the paper at that time. “He had a sort of elegance to him, the way he wrote, the way he worked. It’s so rare.”
Thomson proposed an ambitious project – a series of interviews with Australia’s reclusive judges. It led to a book and a Journalist of the Year nomination. “It was typical of Robert: softly, softly he gets what he wants,” says Beecher. “He is very determined.”
When Fairfax looked to appoint a new China correspondent in 1985, Thomson, still less than seven years in journalism, leapt at the chance.
In the mid-80s London’s Financial Times did not have a staff correspondent in Beijing, taking its coverage instead from the resident Fairfax correspondent. This would be Thomson’s springboard to global media greatness.
After his three-year Fairfax posting, Thomson became the first Financial Times staff correspondent in China – a role that carried him through the tumultuous events of the 1989 Tiananmen Square uprising and massacre. From Beijing he was posted to Tokyo and then called to London in 1994 to become foreign news editor.
In 1996 Thomson was made editor of the Financial Times weekend edition, which he transformed, revamping its arts and culture coverage and bringing in a clutch of new, left-field writers. In 1997 the edition became the fastest-growing paper in the UK.
Sir Richard Lambert, a former Financial Times editor, says: “He really made his name on the weekend paper. He had an unusual editing flair. It was original and slightly quirky and it hit the right spot for the readership.”
In late 1997 Lambert moved to New York to launch a US edition of the Financial Times to take on The Wall Street Journal. In 1998, Thomson took over as US editor, with a lavish budget to build market share. “Robert did a lot of hiring and a lot of flag-waving,” says Lambert.
“Rupert Murdoch was very interested in what we were doing and rang me a couple of times. He certainly would have watched what Robert did in expanding the paper.”
The US editorship was a prestigious job that seemed the consummation of Thomson’s career at the Financial Times. But the affair was destined to end badly, propelling Thomson into the arms of Murdoch.
When Lambert decided to step down in 2001 after a decade as the Financial Times’ editor, Thomson was convinced the job was his by right of talent and achievement. But instead Andrew Gowers, editor of the FT’s German edition, was appointed.
The decision was a blow to Thomson, the first major setback of his career. “Robert believed he had been promised the job and he took it very badly,” says Gowers.
Several months later Thomson resigned from the Financial Times and was immediately announced editor of The Times. He was tasked with taking the venerable paper from broadsheet to tabloid format, a move that fuelled public controversy and staff tensions. He succeeded, drawing a circulation lift while boosting The Times’ online audience.
Rupert Murdoch was impressed and their relationship grew stronger. Thomson became an absentee editor, spending more and more time at Murdoch’s side in the US – particularly as Murdoch hatched his plans to capture The Wall Street Journal. When the deal was done in August 2007, Thomson became managing editor and editor-in-chief of Dow Jones.
As in London, Thomson faced stiff opposition to his revamp of the paper. Critics accused him of dumbing it down as he broadened news coverage, cutting back on investigative and long-form journalism and moving away from a purist approach to business and finance. Others argue it became fresher and more readable with better political coverage. It remains the best-selling newspaper in the US.
In December 2012 Rupert Murdoch announced Thomson’s elevation to the journalistic stratosphere with a tweet that encapsulated the key elements of their relationship: “Congratulations to Robert Thomson, incoming CEO of our publishing company. A special leader and great friend. Also an Aussie!’’
The splitting of the Murdoch empire left control of the big movie and cable TV assets in a new Fox Group. Thomson took over the rest, with the newspapers and news websites in the US, Britain and Australia, as well as the book and education assets, consolidated into a new News Corporation that is now one of the world’s biggest publishing houses.
Mark Baker is CEO of the Melbourne Press Club. He preceded Robert Thomson as Beijing correspondent for The Age and Financial Times. This article is adapted from a profile of Thomson published in the Fairfax Good Weekend magazine.
Courtesy of News Corp/Newspix.
Rupert Murdoch and Robert Thomson at a 2015 News Corp/AFL announcement. Pic by Alex Coppel, courtesy of News Corp/Newspix.
‘Rupert has Got a Crush on You”, Mark Baker, Good Weekend magazine, 23 March 2013.
The Man Who Owned the News, Michael Wolff, Broadway, 2008.