Mark Thompson, a former senior executive at The New York Times Company and the BBC, was touring southern France’s wine country with his wife in mid-June when an unexpected call came in.
David Zaslav, CEO of Warner Bros. Discovery, CNN’s parent company, is on the other end with a question: Would Mr. Thompson be interested in taking over the network?
It’s been just days since Zaslav fired Chris Licht as CNN president, ending a stormy 13-month tenure marked by falling ratings and flagging employee morale. The call began with a series of in-person meetings, phone calls and video conferences that culminated in Mr. Thompson’s return to the world of news after a three-year absence.
CNN announced Wednesday that Mr. Thompson will be its next president and editor-in-chief, effective October 9th.
“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 his colleagues.
CNN, one of the world’s leading news organizations, has been hit by an endless series of crises for more than a year and a half. Ratings are down, profits are down, strategies have changed, and two former primetime stars have been shown at the door.
Thompson, 66, joined the network with far more experience running a sprawling news organization than Mr. Licht, a former morning and evening producer.
Mr Thompson began working at the BBC in 1979 as an apprentice and rose to Managing Director, the broadcaster’s highest position, in 2004. He has managed editorial and commercial operations in this role, as he will at CNN.
he Join the Times Company as its CEO in 2012, the highest position on the business side of the organisation. He was among a group of executives who revitalized the company financially by greatly expanding the digital subscription business, which was still in its infancy when he started.
“I thought we didn’t do it well enough,” he said in an interview with a British newspaper. two years ago. “And we weren’t doing it smart enough. We weren’t using the data properly.
The Times now has nearly 10 million subscribers, more than nine million of which are digital only. Mr. Thompson left the company in 2020, and has been replaced by Meredith Cobbett Levine, who has expanded the subscription strategy.
Dean Baquet, former executive editor of The Times, said Thompson was the “perfect hire” for CNN.
“He understands change, which is the most important quality for whoever chooses him as a leader — someone who understands that things have to change,” Mr. Paquet said. “The newspapers were somewhat of a learning curve for Mark just because he had never been in a newspaper before. But that’s his world. He’d be very comfortable in that world.”
In a memo to CNN staff on Wednesday, Mr. Thompson acknowledged that broadcast journalism was going through a “turbulent peak”.
“We are facing pressures from every direction, structural, political, cultural, you name it,” he wrote. Like many other media organizations, CNN has recently felt some uncertainty and pain that comes with it all. There is no magic wand that I or anyone else can use to remove this turmoil.
“But what I can say is that where others see a threat, I see an opportunity – especially given CNN’s great brand and the strength of its journalism,” he continued.
Thompson, who was born in Britain and is a keen fan of classical music, opera and television, has stayed out of the media spotlight since leaving The Times. He has been working on a novel, and has served on a number of boards, including the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Ancestry Genealogical Company. He also served as an advisor to the board of Axel Springer, the German media giant that bought Politico in 2021. He resigned from his position at Axel Springer on Wednesday.
In June, Mr Thompson was knighted at King Charles’ Birthday Honors for his services to the media, and is formally known in Britain as Sir Mark Thompson.
Mr. Thompson’s biggest challenge at CNN will be its transition into a more digital-focused future as the cable business declines. Several CNN executives said Wednesday they believed he would have a broad mandate to force changes at the network. CNN has already begun testing a registration wall on its website, according to a person familiar with the change, who said it could be an early step toward charging CNN readers for Internet access.
Last week, Warner Bros. announced. Discovery announced that it will offer a dedicated CNN channel on Max, the company’s streaming service, in late September. Unlike its competitors in cable and broadcast news, CNN Max will simulcast at least three major programs — hosted by Jake Tapper, Wolf Blitzer and Anderson Cooper — from its parent network.
Mr. Thompson will also have to calm the nerves of a network of more than 4,000 employees around the world.
In December 2021, CNN primetime star Chris Cuomo was fired during an ethics investigation. Two months later, CNN chief Jeff Zucker was abruptly fired from the network. In April 2022, Mr. Zaslav shut down CNN+, an expensive streaming platform. This year, prime-time anchor-turned-morning-show host Don Lemon was fired shortly after making ageist and sexist comments.
Amid all the turmoil the network has experienced over the past 20 months, viewership has fallen precipitously. In August, MSNBC widened the difference in weekday prime time ratings over CNN to its largest margin since February 2020. Fox News also has an even bigger lead.
According to S&P Global Market Intelligence estimates, CNN is on pace to generate $832 million this year, down about 6 percent from a year earlier, as declining ratings eat into advertising revenue. The company is on track to meet this year’s profitability goal, according to two people familiar with the matter, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss confidential financial information.
However, CNN continued to earn praise for its journalistic work. This year, the network received more news and documentary Emmy nominations than any other news network.
Since Mr. Licht’s ouster, the network has been run by three longtime CNN employees — Amy Intellis, Virginia Mosley, and Eric Scherling — plus David Levy, who was a longtime lieutenant of Mr. Zaslav. Warner Bros. said: Discovery said in its statement that they would continue with the network, and would report to Mr. Thompson.
Mr. Thompson, who owns residences on New York’s Upper West Side, on Main West and in London, told CNN staff in an email on Wednesday that he would “come a few times” before the October start date (which, using the preferred option) is British style, as he described it. It’s October 9th.
“If you see a tall figure speaking with an English accent and laughing out loud, you will know who it is,” Thompson wrote.
Lionel Barber, a former editor at the Financial Times who had known Mr. Thompson since they were students in the 1970s, said Mr. Thompson had a remarkable ability to withstand the kind of criticism often directed at people in senior media jobs.
“He’s got a lot of personality, and he’s completely secure in himself, but he doesn’t show off and he doesn’t brag about his knowledge,” Barber said. “But if you try to confront him about something, or you disagree with him, you’ll get a full refund.”
Although Mr. Barber said Mr. Thompson kept his hand in the media business through his various board seats over the past three years, he acknowledged that heading CNN was a job with a very different order.
“Here’s the guy who feels he has another big job at it,” he said.