In NYT’s search for transformation, Thompson a surprising choice

"If Thompson manages more than failure, it will, in some ways, be an astonishing achievement"

Is Mark Thompson the right person to be chief executive of The New York Times? The cynical might note that, as he likely arrived at the building in a town car rather than a Batmobile, and with no discernible cape, he is unlikely to be the perfect fit for a company which requires not so much management as miraculous reincarnation.

The 55-year-old director general of the publicly funded BBC initially seems a surprising choice for a commercial newspaper company in New York City. Thompson’s background as a news journalist and senior broadcast executive has been conducted in a very different commercial environment to that currently endured by the Times.

The entire news industry is riding a downward curve in profitability and revenues; the NYT’s decline from a company which made $300 million a year 10 years ago to one marginally in loss is only atypical in that it has fared better than most. It has money in the bank and a growing national and international user base. Since former CEO Janet Robinson left the company at the end of 2011, it has looked for and failed to find a replacement. Now it has Thompson, who is neither the commercial manager nor the Silicon Valley entrepreneur the Times allegedly sought for the post. So what does the company want from him, and what can he give them?

Transformation, that magical term invoked freely and found so rarely, will be at the top of the list. Every legacy news organization whose principal product is a daily newspaper is currently looking for transformation—of revenues, of its products, and of its structure and costs.

It is unlikely that Thompson will magically find new revenue streams—no one else has—and he is not an entrepreneurial manager. Battling for licence fee payer support, as the BBC must, is a tough business model in its own way, but it is entirely alien to the advertising market. But Thompson’s understanding of media brand extension, platform developments, and the global digital environment match those of any current Times board members, none of whom, aside from Arthur Sulzberger Jr., have comparable business experience. A more difficult question is whether Thompson can be sufficiently strategic and win support for the kinds of changes the Times will have to make. He will be given no time, no buffer, and no second chance by investors, and probably no money by advertisers.

If Mark Thompson has a superpower, though, it’s soldiering on with few resources, sweeping the stables of previous excesses. Both as chief executive of Channel 4 and as director general of the BBC, he followed visionary expansionist regimes. Maybe as a consequence of the conditions he has operated in, Thompson never won many popularity contests with his own staff outside his natural domain of the newsroom. His intellectual self-confidence is intimidating for some, his self-sufficiency has frustrated some senior managers, and others acknowledge his considerable intelligence and his flair for austerity but find it hard to locate his creative vision.

The jobs of running the BBC and running the NYT are similar in one overriding respect: that as leader of the corporate body, you are never allowed to become dictator of the whole operation. At the BBC, the director general is basically tottering down a perilous obstacle course carrying the cultural equivalent of the crown jewels which he must try not to drop, lose, or inadvertently hand to Rupert Murdoch. Similarly, the chief executive of The New York Times is a steward who has to do the bidding of the family and the shareholders, bear the scrutiny of the newsroom and New Yorkers. Both at the Times and the BBC, editorial remains the powerful focus of the operation.

But The New York Times is not the BBC. It does not have the scale and the funding, it does not have the brand recognition or the technology or content or users. It does have an enormous challenge to its future and a tiny gap of opportunity. The Times’s future does not depend on one person, and if it did, it would not be the CEO. But Thompson arrives at a crucial moment. The paper needs more than just a continuation of strategy and regime; it has no future as a local newspaper and its ultimate ambition must lie with global presence and development. If Thompson manages more than failure, it will, in some ways, be an astonishing achievement.

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Emily Bell is Director at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia Journalism School. Tags: , ,