Will Mark Thompson Be CNN’s Magic Bullet?: “If He Can’t Make This Work, Then No One Can”
During the South by Southwest festival in March 2016, I was at a crowded shindig on the back patio of Easy Tiger, an Austin beer garden, chatting with Mark Thompson, then the CEO of The New York Times, which had commandeered the venue for the weekend. Thompson didn’t look like some corporate square infiltrating the boozy masses. He was dressed down, with his sleeves rolled up and a glass of red wine in hand, merrily imbibing with his colleagues. It had been about five years since the Times began charging readers for digital content—a pivotal strategy kickstarted under Thompson’s predecessor, Janet Robinson—and at the time, more than a million readers had gotten on board with the effort. I asked Thompson how many additional readers he thought could be convinced to pay for the Times on their laptops and smartphones. “I don’t see why we shouldn’t aspire to a digital-subscriber count of many millions,” he told me.
Four years later, when Thompson stepped down and passed the baton to his top lieutenant, Meredith Kopit Levien, the Times had surpassed 5 million paying digital readers, a number that has since risen to roughly 9 million. Moreover, digital revenue had already climbed north of $800 million, coming in a year ahead of schedule on a goal Thompson had set in 2015 of doubling the company’s digital coffers by 2020. All of which is to say, Thompson emerged from his eight-year CEO-ship as the leader who oversaw the Times’ evolution into an exemplar of the digital-media age.
In theory, that should sound like music to the ears of the 4,000-odd employees who work for CNN, where Thompson was crowned chairman and CEO on Wednesday morning. In addition to his Times stewardship, the announcement from parent company Warner Bros. Discovery heralded the London-born 66-year-old’s achievements during his eight-year run as director general of the BBC: presiding over one of the world’s largest newsrooms while managing an array of national and international TV, radio, and digital assets; leading the development of the pioneering streaming service BBC iPlayer; expanding web and smartphone services; and overseeing coverage of big-ticket news stories like the 2008 global financial crisis and the 2012 Olympic Games.
“There isn’t a more experienced, respected, or capable executive in the news business today than Mark,” said WBD CEO David Zaslav in an accompanying statement. “His strategic vision, track record in transformational leadership, and sheer passion for news make him a formidable force for CNN and journalism at this pivotal time.”
From what I’m told, Thompson’s name was at the top of Zaslav’s list pretty much right away after he fired Chris Licht in early June. In high-level strategy meetings about CNN, there’s been an acknowledgment that the network needs to “do what the Times did” in transforming an iconic legacy news brand. So why not get the guy who stewarded the Times through that very era of change? As a source close to the process put it, “He should have been the choice in the first place.” (For what it’s worth, Thompson’s former partners in crime at the Times sang his praises; Levien called him “a remarkable leader…intently focused on talent development,” and publisher A.G. Sulzberger said, “CNN is lucky to have him.”)
In the days after Ben Smith first reported on August 23 that Thompson was a leading candidate—surprising employees and observers alike, who expected Zaslav wasn’t in a rush to install a new general after Licht’s ill-fated year on the job—it was tricky to gauge how CNN’s long-suffering worker bees felt about the prospect of yet another shake-up in the C-suite. On the one hand, Thompson looked good on paper, a seasoned CEO who (unlike Licht, primarily known as a celebrated producer) had managed sprawling media organizations and knew his way around a complex P&L. On the other hand, I got a sense that the appetite for boat-rocking was low, and that people seemed perfectly happy with the interim leadership quartet of David Leavy, Amy Entelis, Virginia Moseley, and Eric Sherling, who will all report to Thompson once he begins in October.
On Wednesday, however, I picked up on some early enthusiasm for the new boss. “I woke up feeling very encouraged,” said one CNN journalist. “He seems like the transformational leader we need at exactly this moment.” In the words of another, “He has led two enormous, complicated, world-class news organizations, both of which were highly scrutinized, and unlike others in those roles, he left them in better shape than he found them. You have to think, if he can’t make this work, then no one can.”
Making it work will involve the tall order of reviving CNN’s ratings, stemming a drop in profits, and managing the decline of the network’s traditional television business while finessing its shift to streaming. CNN took a big step in that direction last week with the announcement of CNN Max on WBD’s Max service, which will be a mix of certain shows broadcast live from the main feed and programming developed exclusively for the new platform. Then there’s the more fundamental task of bringing sustained order and morale to a company that has effectively been in a state of turmoil ever since Jeff Zucker was shown the door almost 19 months ago for having an undisclosed romantic relationship with a fellow CNN executive.
Thompson has already been calling around to certain figures within the organization, and he will begin making the rounds in person in the coming weeks, starting with the CNN command center at Hudson Yards on Manhattan’s far West Side. In a memo to employees on Wednesday, he wrote, “I’ve spent most of the past twenty years figuring out with colleagues at some of the world’s other great news operations not just how to survive the revolution, but to thrive in it and gain new audiences and revenue streams. I aim to do the same at CNN. It won’t be my plan that wins the day but our plan, the plan we devise and implement together.”
For Thompson, running CNN may not be the swan song he expected. As his Times tenure was winding down, there were rumors he was interested in the presidentship of Magdalen College at Oxford, his alma mater (though he was a Merton College guy). Most recently, he’s been chairman of the board at Ancestry, the online genealogical service.
In 2020, Thompson did an exit interview for Quest Means Business on CNN International, hosted by his former BBC colleague Richard Quest, who asked what might come next in Thompson’s career. Beamed in from a rustic kitchen in Maine, Thompson replied, “I like big challenges, that should be fairly apparent. That might come in the shape of another big executive job, but it might not. I’m interested in the puzzle of how you help organizations confront the present and the future…. If I can help one or more organizations in the future, I’d love to do that.”