After nearly two years of demoralizing turmoil, CNN newsrooms around the world cheered Wednesday when veteran British journalist Mark Thompson was named to lead the beleaguered network.
Thompson, 67, who ran the BBC before leaving in 2012 to become chief executive of The Times, launched a digital strategy at The Times that spurred a surge in subscriptions, profits and the company’s share price. Longtime CNN employees expressed hope that Thompson would pull off a similar turnaround at the struggling news network.
“Everyone I’ve talked to so far is very excited,” said a CNN reporter. “CNN needed a bold strategy, and he did that at The New York Times. He knew how to navigate a large organization.”
Thompson will be back in his new role on October 9, and his inbox will be packed. CNN, owned by Warner Bros Discovery, will prepare to cover the 2024 U.S. presidential election — a network that once dominated such major news events. But CNN’s ratings lag far behind rivals MSNBC and Fox.
In addition to the nightly ratings war, however, CNN and its rivals are facing the rapid decline of traditional television itself, presenting Thompson with the challenge of crafting a successful news streaming strategy without killing profitability (albeit shrinking) core business.
“His job is tough — ratings and profits are down,” said Marty Kaplan, a professor of communications and journalism at the University of Southern California.
According to Nielsen data, an average of 573,000 people tuned in to CNN every night in the second quarter of this year, down from 1.8 million in the same period in 2020.
“Actually, it’s shocking that on a good day, less than 1 million people tune in to CNN, and it’s now routinely beaten by Fox and MSNBC,” Kaplan said. “That raises the question: (Ideology ) is the middle ground still a competitive place.”
Compared to right-wing Fox News and left-wing MSNBC, Thompson will have to wrestle with tough questions about CNN’s political positioning.
The question haunted his predecessor, Chris Licht, as he sought to reposition CNN as a less “aggressive” network than it was under Trump – Warner Bros. CEO David Zaslav (David Zaslav) and John Malone (John Malone) set him the goal, which is actually the case. Billionaire and Warner board member.
Lichter struggled to complete the task. In May, he backed a live “town hall” meeting with former President Donald Trump, a move that drew fierce criticism — especially inside the CNN newsroom. He was fired the following month after an embarrassing profile in The Atlantic.
Given Thompson’s record, many believe he will gain a greater degree of independence than Lichter. “I would be very surprised if Mark didn’t establish journalistic autonomy and clarify his approach to it,” said one media executive who has worked with him. “His record speaks for itself.”
The Licht drama is just one of many setbacks for cable networks over the past 20 months. The company’s popular chief executive, Jeff Zucker, is stepping down in 2022 after his affair with a colleague came to light. In April 2022, shortly after Warner Bros. and Discovery Channel completed their merger, the CNN+ streaming service was axed. Well-known hosts were fired and morale was low.
Shortly after Lichter left in June, Zaslav approached Thompson. The two have crossed paths over the years, as Zaslav served as head of the Discovery Channel TV channel, which has a programming deal with the BBC.
Multiple internal and external candidates were being considered for the CNN job, a person familiar with the matter said. However, after a series of meetings and phone calls over the summer, Thompson was the chosen candidate. He also holds the title of editor-in-chief.
“There is no more experienced, respected and capable executive in journalism today than Mark, and we are delighted that he has joined our team,” Zaslav said in a statement.
Jon Miller, who was a senior executive at Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp during Thompson’s tenure at the BBC, said Thompson had “every good background imaginable”.
“You can make up your mind about the BBC and the New York Times, but it’s pretty clear what he’s done there and how he’s solidified their position,” said Miller, who now specializes in digital media investments at Integrated Media CEO of the company.
In a note to CNN staff on Wednesday, Thompson did not whitewash the problems facing CNN and the industry as a whole. He said TV journalism was “close to peak disruption”.
“We are under pressure from all directions — structural, political, cultural, you name it,” he wrote. “Others see threats, I see opportunities.”
Thompson has had his fair share of crises at two heavily scrutinized organizations, the BBC and The New York Times. The Oxford graduate first joined the BBC in 1979 as a production trainee. He worked his way up the ranks, cutting more than 6,000 jobs along the way.
At The New York Times, Thompson emulated Netflix’s strategy: invest heavily in “content” to attract subscribers. “Our argument is that you have to invest in product to have a chance in the digital media business,” Thompson told the Financial Times in 2020.
He transformed The New York Times from a paper stuck in perpetual cost-cutting mode into a media conglomerate with forays into TV, games and cooking, in addition to its core news business.
If there was a concern in the CNN newsroom following this week’s announcement, it was that Warner Bros. Discovery’s debt reduction plan could hamper Thompson’s efforts to revive the 4,000-viewer network.
“(CNN’s) content has to be better — that’s the New York Times’ promise, and it worked,” said one senior reporter. “Better content costs money.”
But Roger Mosey, who worked with Thompson at the BBC, said he had proven he could balance the demands of a newsroom and keep the business running. “He can be a great reporter and a great manager, it’s a rare combination,” he said.