One would have thought in the dynamic world of American media there would have been plenty of candidates for the NY Times top job. No doubt there were. But Chairman Arthur Sulzberger Jr. picked a Brit.
On August 15, Slate Magazine raised the question why he did so. He is going to have to work hard, the online magazine believes, to convince shareholders, including his family members, that he found the right man. “Running a U.K. media group with guaranteed revenue is hardly analogous to leading a U.S. newspaper business challenged by free-market forces.”
But the publisher is putting forward a serious business case. He cites Thompson’s role in developing the BBC’s digital content. He also notes that Thompson oversaw BBC Worldwide, its commercial arm outside the U.K. And he highlights Thompson’s media skills. Earlier in his career he produced hard-hitting news programs. And while in charge of Channel 4, a state-owned but mainly commercially funded broadcaster, he demonstrated an ability to develop joint ventures to adapt to new technology while keeping costs relatively low.
Slate makes an additional point. Thompson has “a taste for a fight with Murdoch, a task the Times chairman appears unworthy, or afraid, of taking on with much gusto.” Two years ago, before the phone-hacking scandal punctured the Murdoch empire’s force-field, Thompson led the charge against News Corp’s purchase of the remainder of U.K. satellite broadcaster BSkyB. He argued the deal would create cross-media ownership that would not be allowed in the United States or Australia.
Slate believes that in the United States, over the long run, the Times cannot win the economic battle against better-funded, more popular media organizations like Murdoch’s Fox. But it says the Times is an exception, a little like the BBC, and that this matters more, in the short and the long run.
The BBC has managed to combine the authoritative with the popular and has paid as much attention to “the numbers” as its private competitors. At the same time it concentrates on public service and on quality, both in the old media and the new.
Mark Thompson’s appointment is a gamble that the Times may very well win.