Mark Thompson is facing a “climax of turmoil” while at the helm of CNN

After nearly two years of turmoil that sent morale sour, CNN newsrooms around the world rejoiced Wednesday at the appointment of veteran British journalist Mark Thompson to helm the struggling network.

Thompson, 67, ran the BBC before leaving in 2012 to become chief executive of The New York Times, where he launched a digital strategy that led to dramatic improvements in subscriptions, profits and the company’s share price. The hope, longtime CNN staff say, is that Thompson will implement a similar turnaround at the struggling news network.

“Everyone I’ve spoken to so far is thrilled,” said a CNN journalist. CNN needs a bold strategy (and he did in The New York Times). He knows how to navigate sprawling organizations.

Thompson, who will return from retirement to start his new position on Oct. 9, will have a full inbox. CNN, which is owned by Warner Bros Discovery, will prepare to cover the 2024 US presidential election — the kind of big news event the network once dominated. But CNN’s ratings have fallen far behind rival networks MSNBC and Fox.

Yet beyond the nightly ratings wars, CNN and its competitors are also facing the rapid decline of traditional television itself — which sets Thompson up to the challenge of developing a successful news broadcast strategy without killing off the profitable, if shrinking, core business.

“He’s had a hard time at work,” said Marty Kaplan, a professor of communications and journalism at the University of Southern California. “Evaluations and earnings are down.”

On average, just 573,000 people watched CNN on any given evening in the second quarter of this year, down from 1.8 million during the same period in 2020, according to Nielsen.

“It’s shocking, in fact, that on a good day fewer than a million people tune in to CNN, and it’s now regularly beaten by both Fox and MSNBC,” Kaplan said. “This raises the question of whether the (ideological) center is still a place that can be competitive.”

Thompson will have to navigate such thorny questions about CNN’s political standing compared to Fox News on the right and MSNBC on the left.

The issue haunted his predecessor, Chris Licht, who attempted to reposition CNN as a less “busy” network than it was during the Donald Trump administration — a goal in fact set for him by David Zaslav, CEO of Warner Bros., and John Malone, the cable billionaire. And a member of the Warner’s Board of Directors.

Licht struggled to carry out the task. He advocated a face-to-face meeting with Trump last May, which drew fierce criticism — especially within the CNN newsroom. He was fired the following month after publishing an embarrassing profile in The Atlantic.

Given Thompson’s track record, many believe he will be allowed a greater degree of independence than a yacht. “I would be very surprised if Mark did not forge journalistic independence and clarify his approach in this regard,” said one of the media officials who worked with him. “His numbers speak for him.”

The Licht drama was just one of the many setbacks the cable network has suffered over the past 20 months. And its famous CEO, Jeff Zucker, resigned in 2022 after his relationship with one of his colleagues became public. Streaming service CNN+ was canceled shortly after Warner and Discovery completed their merger in April 2022. High-profile presenters were fired, and morale collapsed.

Shortly after leaving Licht in June, Zaslav approached Thompson. The two men met over the years because Zaslav was head of Discovery TV, which had programming deals with the BBC.

A person familiar with the process said there have been a number of candidates considered for the CNN job, both internally and externally. However, after a series of meetings and calls over the summer, Thompson emerged as the chosen candidate. He also holds the title of Editor-in-Chief.

“There is no more experienced, respected, or capable news executive today than Mark, and we are thrilled to have him on our team,” Zaslav said in a statement.

John Miller, who was a senior executive at Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp during Thompson’s time at the BBC, said Thompson “has as good a background as you can imagine”.

“You can decide what you think of the BBC and the New York Times, but it’s pretty clear what he did there and how he strengthened their position,” said Miller, who is now chief executive of Integrated Media, a digital media investment firm.

In a memo to CNN staff on Wednesday, Thompson did not smooth over the problems facing CNN and the industry. He said television journalism was “approaching the climax of turmoil”.

“We are facing pressures from every direction, structural, political, cultural, you name it,” he wrote. Where others see a threat, I see an opportunity.

Thompson has endured his fair share of crises at the BBC and The New York Times, two organizations that come under intense scrutiny. The Oxford graduate joined the BBC for the first time as a production trainee in 1979. He worked his way to the top, cutting more than 6,000 jobs along the way.

Thompson modeled his New York Times strategy on Netflix: invest heavily in “content” to attract subscribers. “Our thesis is that you have to invest in the product to have a chance in digital media,” Thompson told the Financial Times in 2020.

He transformed The New York Times from a newspaper stuck in perpetual cost-cutting mode into a media conglomerate with a presence in television, gaming and cooking in addition to its core journalism.

If there is a concern in CNN newsrooms after this week’s announcement, it is that Warner Bros. Discovery’s debt-reduction program could derail Thompson’s efforts to revive the 4,000-strong network.

“(CNN’s) content has to be better—that was the New York Times promise and it worked,” said one senior journalist. “And better content means spending money.”

But Roger Musey, who worked with Thompson at the BBC, said he had proven his ability to balance the needs of a newsroom and keep the business going. “He can be a great journalist and manager, which is a rare combination,” he added.

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