Mark Thompson, former Director-General of the BBC, becomes CEO of The New York Times

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.

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6 responses to “Mark Thompson, former Director-General of the BBC, becomes CEO of The New York Times

  1. David Schatzky

    Given that the very survival of print organizations these days depends on their revenue-producing activities, especially digital, Thompson seems no gamble at all, but exactly the right choice. Let’s hope so. Many of us could easily bear the departure of some newspapers (and might even welcome their demise) but please, not The New York Times!

  2. Thompson will also undergo a certain degree of suspicion from the ranks (both shopfloor and management). It’s not exactly xenophobia. More like “otherness”. When foreigners are invited to run media organizations, surprising attitudes can emerge. It’s as if you have been a PC person all your life and suddenly you are expected to be a Mac. Similar outcomes. Very different processes.

  3. Let’s hope he doesn’t end up like Mr. Price from Mad Men.
    And which newspapers would Mr. Schatzky wish gone? Those whose opinions he doesn’t like?

  4. Michael Gundy

    Chairman Arthur Sulzberger Jr. in his capacity of keeping the brand alive has traditionally taken a very cautious approach…almost too conservative. I can only wish the Times the best as is crawls into this century. My only concern is that Mr. Sulzberger’s attempt to breathe some life into his demi-corpse media empire will turn out to be a “Hail Mary” throw.

  5. Elisabeth Ecker

    Re Fred Langan’s comment. I would like to see the newspapers gone that are nothing but propaganda sheets for political interests, especially when they appeal to an audience whose interests they don’t serve.

  6. David Schatzky

    Mr. Langan, I could do without newspapers where writers write lazily or sloppily, or incite readers to hate, shame or ridicule the weak, the unfortunate and those who occasionally err; or which don’t provide context and reflect only one perspective – generally without nuance. I would mourn the loss of the National Post, but not the Toronto Sun. I wouldn’t miss the Globe and Mail as much as I once thought I would. I’m ambivalent about the Star, simply because it’s predictably preachy. But I wasn’t advocating for the end of any particular publication; I was saying I would miss some more than others if any were to go under. No news is not good news, even if the editorial slant or the way some stories are reported is distorted or simple-minded.