Thompson has digital cred but faces challenges at NYT

The former BBC director general was hired to guide the Times to a cross-platform future

On Tuesday, The New York Times named Mark Thompson, the outgoing director general of the BBC, as its new chief executive officer. Thompson starts in November. In the announcement, Times chairman and publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. said that Thompson was the man to guide the Times into a digital future, with increasing focus on cross-platform content.

“We have people who understand print very well, the best in the business,” Sulzberger said, as reported in the Times Media Decoder blog. “We have people who understand advertising well, the best in the business. But our future is on to video, to social, to mobile. It doesn’t mirror what we’ve done. It broadens what we are going to do.”

Thompson is widely credited with restoring faith in the BBC and widening its reach with an on-demand streaming service called the iPlayer and an increased Web presence overseas. He leaves the corporation on a high after successful coverage of the Olympics. But critics say that his limited experience in a commercial environment (the BBC is publicly funded) make him a questionable choice to run the Times, even as those close to him describe him as “voraciously ambitious” with an impressive track record that bodes well for future success.

Luke Johnson was chairman of Channel 4 in 2004, when Thompson left his role as chief executive there to return to the BBC as director general. “Mark faces three major challenges,” Johnson said. “Being chief executive of a private corporation is very different from being boss of a public entity, as both Channel 4 and the BBC are. Running a newspaper is very different to running a broadcaster. And running a corporation in America is very different to running one in Britain.”

Johnson also noted that television has adapted more successfully to the digital revolution than many print outlets, and that the guaranteed revenue from the British government allowed Thompson to push the corporation forward. “At the BBC, the public service remit trumps economics, whereas in the case of The New York Times, it’s vice versa,” he said.

According to some close to him, Thompson loves a challenge.

“He’s always been fascinated by big, old, powerful, prestigious institutions,” said Mark Damazer, a good friend and BBC colleague of Thompson’s since 1984. “He has the hide of a rhinoceros, and almost solipsistic self-confidence. He’s extremely comfortable in the use and distribution of power.”

Thompson joined the BBC in 1979 as a production trainee and worked his way up the ranks to become director of television in 2000. In 2004, after a two years away as chief executive of Channel 4, he was appointed to the top post at the BBC, director general, after previously stating he would turn down the position if asked.

The future of the BBC was uncertain at the time. Thompson’s predecessor, Greg Dyke, resigned following the Hutton Inquiry into the suicide of a BBC source who accused the British government of exaggerating the Iraq threat in order to invade. Thompson had to rekindle public faith in the BBC while securing the corporation’s revenue through a license fee paid for by British taxpayers, handling breaches of editorial guidelines by BBC presenters like Russell Brand, and managing the corporation’s digital transition.

Steve Hewlett, who presents The Media Show on BBC Radio 4, says that the last of these achievements, his ability to expand the BBC online and worldwide without compromising the brand, makes him an attractive prospect at The New York Times, which has been without a chief executive since Janet Robinson left in December of last year.

Thompson is “a BBC man through and through,” Hewlett said. “He’s brought a venerable and challenged institution from the old world into the new. Now he’s going from one venerable and challenged institution to another.”

Transforming the Times won’t be easy. Since 2006, the company has been losing money. Last month it posted net losses of $88 million for the second quarter of 2012 . Over the last year, it has sold off 16 regional papers and announced plans to sell one of its digital assets, the advice website

Thompson’s motives for taking what looks to be a challenging job may have been partly personal: His wife is the American author Jane Blumberg, his eldest son is at Harvard and his daughter starts at Harvard this year. “He’s after the power, the status, and the challenges,” said Johnson. “It’s a very powerful position in America.”

“He gets digital,” said Hewlett, who first worked with Thompson as a researcher on the BBC show Nationwide in 1982. “But he’s not a miracle worker.”

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Hazel Sheffield is a former assistant editor at CJR. Follow her on Twitter @hazelsheffield. Tags: , ,