Mark Thompson Helped Steady 2 News Outlets. Can He Do the Same at CNN?

Mark Thompson, a former top executive at The New York Times Company and the BBC, was touring wine country in the south of France with his wife in mid-June when an unexpected call came in.

David Zaslav, the chief executive of Warner Bros. Discovery, CNN’s parent, was on the other end with a question: Would Mr. Thompson be interested in taking over leadership of the network?

It had been mere days since Mr. Zaslav had fired Chris Licht as chairman of CNN, ending a stormy 13-month tenure that had been defined by declining ratings and sagging staff morale. The call kicked off a series of in-person meetings, phone calls and video conferences that ultimately culminated in Mr. Thompson’s return to the news business after three years away.

CNN announced Wednesday that Mr. Thompson would be its next chairman and editor in chief, beginning Oct. 9.

“I am confident he is exactly the leader we need to take the helm of CNN at this pivotal time,” Mr. Zaslav wrote in a note to colleagues.

CNN, one of the world’s leading news organizations, has been buffeted by a nearly endless string of crises for the last 18 months. Ratings have plunged, profits have fallen, strategies have shifted and two former prime-time stars were shown the door.

Mr. Thompson, 66, joins the network with far more experience running a sprawling news organization than Mr. Licht, a former morning and late-night show producer.

Mr. Thompson started at the BBC in 1979 as a trainee and ascended to director general, the broadcaster’s top position, in 2004. He ran both the editorial and business operations in that role, as he will at CNN.

He joined the Times Company as its chief executive in 2012, the top business-side job at the organization. He was among a group of executives who revitalized the company financially by greatly expanding its digital subscription business, which was still in its infancy when he started.

“I just thought we weren’t doing it well enough,” he said in an interview with a British publication two years ago. “And we weren’t doing it smart enough. And we weren’t using data properly.”

The Times now has nearly 10 million subscribers, more than nine million of them digital-only. Mr. Thompson left the company in 2020, and was replaced by Meredith Kopit Levien, who has expanded the subscription strategy.

Dean Baquet, a former executive editor of The New York Times, said that Mr. Thompson was “the perfect hire” for CNN.

“He understands change, which is the most important quality for whoever they chose as a leader — someone who understands what things are going to have change,” Mr. Baquet said. “Newspapers were a little bit of a learning curve for Mark just because he had never been at a newspaper. But this is his world. He’ll be very comfortable in that world.”

In a note to CNN staff on Wednesday, Mr. Thompson acknowledged that broadcast journalism was going through “peak disruption.”

“We face pressure from every direction — structural, political, cultural, you name it,” he wrote. “Like many other media organizations, CNN has recently felt some of the uncertainty and heartache that comes with all of that. There’s no magic wand that I or anyone else can wield to make this disruption go away.”

He continued: “But what I can say is that where others see threat, I see opportunity — especially given CNN’s great brand and the strength of its journalism.”

Mr. Thompson, a British-born Catholic who is a big fan of classical music, opera and television, has mostly stayed out of the media limelight since he left The Times. He has been working on a novel, and served on a number of boards, including that of the Royal Shakespeare Company and the genealogy company Ancestry. He has also advised the boards of Axel Springer, the German media giant that purchased Politico in 2021. He stepped down from the role at Axel Springer on Wednesday.

In June, Mr. Thompson was knighted during King Charles’s “Birthday Honours” for his services to media, and is officially known in Britain as Sir Mark Thompson.

A top challenge for Mr. Thompson at CNN will be its transition to a more digital-focused future as the cable business declines. Several CNN executives reached Wednesday said they believed that Mr. Thompson would have a broad mandate to impose changes at the network. CNN has already begun testing a registration wall on its website, according to a person with knowledge of the change, who said it could be an early step toward eventually charging CNN’s readers for online access.

Last week, Warner Bros. Discovery announced that it would introduce a dedicated CNN channel on Max, the company’s streaming service, in late September. Unlike its cable and broadcast news competitors, CNN Max will simulcast at least three flagship shows — hosted by Jake Tapper, Wolf Blitzer and Anderson Cooper — from its parent network.

Mr. Thompson will also have to steady the nerves of a network with more than 4,000 employees worldwide.

In December 2021, CNN’s leading prime-time star, Chris Cuomo, was fired during an ethics inquiry. Two months later, the CNN chairman Jeff Zucker was abruptly pushed out of the network. In April 2022, Mr. Zaslav pulled the plug on CNN+, an expensive streaming platform. This year, Don Lemon, the prime-time anchor turned morning show host, was fired not long after he made ageist and sexist comments.

Amid all the turmoil at the network over the past 20 months, viewership has fallen sharply. In August, MSNBC widened its weekday prime-time ratings lead over CNN to its biggest margin since February 2020. Fox News’s lead is even bigger.

According to estimates from S&P Global Market Intelligence, CNN is on pace to generate about $832 million this year, down about six percent from the previous year, as lower ratings cut into ad revenue. The company is on pace to miss its profitability target for the year, according to two people familiar with the matter who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss confidential financial information.

Still, CNN has continued to win plaudits for its journalism. This year, the network received more news and documentary Emmy nominations than any other cable news network.

Since Mr. Licht’s ouster, the network has been run by three veterans of CNN — Amy Entelis, Virginia Moseley and Eric Sherling — as well as David Leavy, who is a longtime lieutenant of Mr. Zaslav. Warner Bros. Discovery said in its statement they would continue at the network, reporting to Mr. Thompson.

Mr. Thompson, who has residences on New York’s Upper West Side, western Maine and London, told CNN staff members in an email on Wednesday that he would “pop in a few times” before his October start date (which, using the preferred British style, he described as being on “9 October”).

“If you see a tall figure with an English accent and a loud laugh, you’ll know who it is,” Mr. Thompson wrote.

Lionel Barber, a former editor at The Financial Times who has known Mr. Thompson since they were students in the 1970s, said that he had a notable ability to withstand the kind of criticism that is frequently directed at people in top media jobs.

“He’s got a big personality, he’s totally secure in himself, but he doesn’t boast and he doesn’t show off his knowledge,” Mr. Barber said. “But if you try to take him on on something, or you disagree with him, you’ll get a full volley back.”

Though Mr. Barber said that Mr. Thompson had kept his hand in the media business with his various board seats over the last three years, he acknowledged that the CNN chairmanship was a job of an entirely different order.

“This is a guy who just feels he’s got one more big job in him,” he said.

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