New York Times CEO Mark Thompson says he expects the end of the physical newspaper in 20 years

Mark Thompson, CEO, The New York Times, speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland on Jan. 23, 2020.

Adam Galica | CNBC

The New York Times was founded in 1851, but it would surprise outgoing CEO Mark Thompson if the physical paper made it to 2040.

“I believe the Times will definitely be printed for another 10 years and quite possibly another 15 years — maybe even slightly more than that,” Thompson told CNBC’s A View from the Top. “I would be very surprised if it’s printed in 20 years’ time.”

More than 900,000 people currently subscribe to the print version of the newspaper, said Thompson. At its current subscriber levels, the paper could be printed seven days a week at a profit without a single advertisement, he said. 

But as readers become more accustomed to reading The Times on smartphones, tablets and computers each year, a printed paper is clearly a dying form. The New York Times Company reported last quarter that total digital revenue exceeded print revenue for the first time ever. Print advertising fell more than 50% year-over-year from last quarter, driven by both secular declines and the pandemic. Thompson told CNBC he doubts that advertising will ever come back.

“I’m skeptical about whether it will recover to where it was during 2019 levels,” Thompson said. “It was already in year-over-year decline for many years. I think that decline is probably inexorable.”

Thompson is stepping down next month as the Times’ CEO, to be replaced by Meredith Levien, after stewarding the company for the past eight years. As CEO, Thompson has seen shares of The New York Times Company rise more than 400%. The company’s gains have come as digital subscriptions have skyrocketed, especially in the past five years. The Times reported 1 million digital-only subscriptions in October 2015. At the end of the second quarter, the Times had 5.7 million total digital-only subscriptions. Thompson set a goal for the company to reach 10 million digital-only customers by 2025.

Thompson acknowledged Donald Trump’s U.S. presidential election had helped the Times’ boom in subscriptions, but he said a lot of the company’s back-end work to make its digital product better timed up with 2016 to create a perfect storm.

“I think by 2016, we’d gotten our act together,” Thompson said. “We had a lot of digital expertise in the building. We’d decided we were subscription first and that we’d pivot the business not just from print to digital but from advertising dollars to subscription. And just at the level of product, customer journey and marketplace, we’d gotten a lot better. And so we were ready to take the opportunity when it arose.”

Thompson also predicted there will be more news in the decade to come than the previous decade, which he said should mean continued subscription to the New York Times.

“Clearly, a dramatic news cycle — just day after day, enormous stories and enormous headlines — clearly helps,” Thompson said. “Our societies have been torn apart by fundamental disruptive forces around social division, globalization, automation, climate change, mass immigration and so on. If you think one election result is going to solve those problems and the news is going to go back to a placid few months in 1958, I don’t believe it.

“After arguably decades of post-war stability, we’re now in this crazy period of uncertainty and tension and anger, and I don’t think the anger goes away. We know, I think, in advance, that the losers of the election in 2020, whoever they are, will not wish to believe the election was legitimate. The battle will go on, the noise will continue.”

To read the entire interview with Mark Thompson and watch the video, sign up for a free trial to CNBC PRO. A subscription will also allow access to all previous ‘A View from the Top’ interviews to power your tech, media and telecommunications investing decisions.

WATCH: The NY Times CEO on the tone of its political coverage.

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