Mark Thompson was knighted by King Charles III last June “for services to media,” according to the official announcement. It marked another milestone in a long and successful career that included significant transformations of the BBC and the New York Times. As he nears retirement age, the London-born son of an Irish mother and British father, was presented with an irresistible opportunity to lead CNN, an esteemed news network that has been grappling with an identity crisis, declining viewership, and subpar financial results. Thompson will officially start on October 9 as chief executive and chairman, and act as the network’s editor-in-chief. He is expected to revolutionize CNN while preserving its core values in a challenging environment. If anyone can do this, it’s Mark Thompson.
“There isn’t a more experienced, respected or capable executive in the news business today than Mark, and we are thrilled to have him join our team and lead CNN Worldwide into the future,” said David Zaslav, CEO of Warner Bros. Discovery (CNN’s owner) when he announced Thompson’s appointment.
Thompson is married to writer Jane Blumberg and the father of three kids who love to watch Dr Who with him whenever they get a chance. Thompson attended a Jesuit secondary school and earned a degree in English from Oxford, where he headed up the university newspaper. During his tenure at the BBC, he progressed from intern to reporter, producer and news anchor, culminating in his appointment as director-general from 2004 to 2012. He spearheaded the establishment of the network’s pioneering streaming service, expanded web and mobile offerings, and orchestrated the BBC’s coverage of most important stories of the time.
When offered the position of CEO of the New York Times Company in 2012, Thompson initially declined. Acknowledging his respect for the Times, Thompson met with the board and the controlling family who assured him they were open to supporting significant management changes and offered to compensate him generously.
Thompson was convinced that the focus of the New York Times should be on digital subscriptions. When he arrived, there were just over half a million digital subscribers with flat growth and doubts about whether readers would be willing to pay. Thompson saw the Times as more than just a news source — he regarded it as a refined cultural artifact. He firmly believed that readers would be willing to invest in superiorly crafted news and narratives.
He bet on quality and a diversified product with news and information on real estate, travel, entertainment, hobbies, cooking, product reviews and podcasts. And he changed the way people worked. The editorial team focused on producing digital (and especially mobile) content that they then repackaged for the print edition, still a significant revenue source.
Thompson and the Times benefited from two significant audience boosts. The first was Donald Trump’s presidency, when the Times became a foil to his lies and abuses of power. The second was the pandemic, which drove homebound Americans to high-quality sources of information. During Thompson’s nearly eight years at the helm, digital subscribers increased tenfold, reaching 5.7 million by the time he left the company.
The Times was now in a virtuous circle in which increased revenue enabled them to invest more in the editorial product, thereby attracting more subscribers. “There’s nothing that makes me more proud than the fact that our newsroom is substantially larger today than when I joined. The world needs Times journalism now more than ever,” Thompson told McKinsey in an interview looking back at his eight-year tenure.
Thompson wasn’t in charge of the editorial side at the New York Times, but he offered his views in a 2016 book, Enough Said: What’s Gone Wrong with the Language of Politics? He foresaw trends that are now prevalent in America, such as the dominance of the 24-hour news cycle and important debates disappearing under the weight of information overload. He also deplored the impact of political rhetoric and lack of civility in the populist discourse of people like Donald Trump and Silvio Berlusconi.
Thompson is set to take on CNN’s relentless news cycle with the US presidential elections just over a year away. The network has experienced declining viewership compared to rivals Fox and CNBC, as well as a drop in cable TV subscription revenues and a struggling advertising market. While Thompson made staff cuts at the BBC, he’s not the type of CEO who will make cost control his primary focus.
CNN also had its day in the sun during Trump’s presidency, with journalists who didn’t shy away from asking tough questions and who didn’t buy into the White House narrative. But this combative approach also drove away some moderate and conservative viewers. Warner Bros Discovery CEO Zaslav has chosen to invest in a more neutral and focused CNN, dedicated to straight news delivery. During Chris Licht’s short and chaotic tenure at CNN, the network failed to attract the moderate viewers and even lost some who enjoyed a more confrontational approach.
Having grown up at the BBC, Thompson prioritizes news above all else. However, he acknowledges CNN’s existential threat in today’s highly disruptive media landscape. In his first message to the staff, Thompson said, “We’re dealing with pressures from different angles — structural, political, cultural, and more. There’s no magic wand to make this disruption disappear, but I see opportunities where others see threats. With CNN’s strong brand and powerful journalism, we can navigate this challenge together.”
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