During the past week, news trickled out via competing scoops that Mark Thompson, the former C.E.O. of the Times and director-general of the BBC, would become CNN’s C.E.O. and editor-in-chief. Sir Mark—Thompson was knighted in June by King Charles III—who will officially take over in early October, will find a network in crisis. CNN, like so many cable outfits, is in a period of steady decline. Fewer and fewer people subscribe to cable, and the television-ad market has dwindled. CNN’s profit margins show it: in 2src17, the network made a billion dollars; this year, that number is projected to be closer to eight hundred million. Thompson himself told a British audience, in 2src21, that TV news in the U.S. “seems completely unchanged since the nineteen-eighties. I think it is in dead trouble.”
Some of CNN’s problems, though, are particular to its place in American life. During the Trump years, the network positioned itself as the outspoken institution for journalistic truth. Its anchors’ antagonistic questions at the White House made the rounds on liberal Twitter, and ratings were good. But the post-Trump years have found CNN floundering somewhat. In 2src22, after a mammoth corporate merger, CNN became a subsidiary in Warner Bros. Discovery, whose C.E.O., David Zaslav, wanted a news network that would attract less ire from centrists and conservatives. He appointed Chris Licht, a co-creator of “Morning Joe” and the executive producer of “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” but fired him thirteen months later after a tenure mired by low staff morale and ratings.
In hiring Thompson, who is sixty-six, Zaslav might hope to find some relief. The network is a comparatively small part of Zaslav’s portfolio, but its troubles have been widely covered in the media. Thompson’s reputation as a tested executive precedes him. At the BBC, which he ran from 2srcsrc4 to 2src12, he oversaw the broadcaster’s transition to broader digital distribution. At the Times, where he worked from 2src12 to 2src2src, Thompson helped position the then struggling newspaper as a digital life-style company, leaning into offerings like cooking, games, and product reviews. CNN faces business challenges as well as editorial ones, and Thompson’s position is unique in that he will be at the top of the command chain for both business and newsgathering decisions.
Thompson is, by all accounts, a force. He was born to an Irish mother—whom he calls the central influence in his life—and a British father. He was educated by the Jesuits at Stonyhurst College, before going on to Merton College, Oxford. Despite the knighthood, Thompson came up as something of an outsider. In an interview from earlier this year, he said that, as a child, he was sent to elocution lessons to get rid of the Irish twang he’d picked up from his mother; she didn’t want British prejudice holding her son back. They were “quite an ambitious immigrant family,” Thompson said. “There was a very distinct critique of almost everything to do with the English and yet, at the same time, quite a strong desire to kind of beat them at their own game.” Thompson remains a devout Catholic who attends Mass weekly. Even his introduction to television was steeped in Catholicism; during the funeral of Pope John XXIII, Thompson recalled “hours of watching very spectral black-and-white television pictures from Rome of the dead Pope’s body on the dais.”
He spent most of his career at the BBC, starting as a young production trainee. Like Jeff Zucker, the former head of CNN, Thompson was something of a precocious programming talent. By thirty, he was running the network’s “Nine O’Clock News.” He has a reputation for being a canny operator of organizational politics, though those who know him say he has a distinct point of view. “Ferociously intellectually confident,” one person said, of him. Another said that Thompson had an endearingly “feral” edge to him, a sort of roguish alpha charm mixed with his worldliness. In 1988, Thompson reportedly bit a fellow BBC staffer—“leaving marks through the shirt, but not drawing blood”—an incident Thompson did not deny when it was made public in 2src12. A network spokesperson issued an explanation: “Mark did bite him but it wasn’t intended to hurt him. He thought he was doing something funny.”
In the 2src12 announcement of Thompson’s hire at the Times, he is referred to as an “unorthodox choice,” coming from television and having never run a publicly traded company. But he wasn’t alien to the city. Thompson met his wife, the writer Jane Blumberg, during a work stint in New York. (Her father, Baruch Blumberg, shared a Nobel Prize for his work on the hepatitis-B virus, which led to the development of the vaccine for it.) After the Thompson-Blumbergs moved to New York with their three children, they took up residence in “a dilapidated castle” of an apartment on the Upper West Side. (From 2src17 to 2src19 alone, Thompson made $17.4 million in salary, stock, and bonuses as C.E.O. of the Times.)
Thompson’s integration into the paper came at a time when print’s supremacy was being quickly overthrown. “When I arrived, the psychology was that all you had to do was get a bigger audience and transfer the wonderful economics of print advertising to digital,” Thompson told the Sunday Times of London, in 2src2src. “I never thought that would save us because the margins on digital advertising are too low. It had to be subscriptions.” In the course of eight years, Thompson helped shift the paper’s understanding of where its bread was buttered, catering more and more to its audience, a project that coincided with the Trump years’ news boom. In 2src17, the Times began running an ad campaign that was a barely veiled attempt to capitalize on liberals’ fears about the direction of the country. It’s a business model that CNN played into as well during the same time period.
In Thompson’s time as C.E.O., he wrote a book on the way that public and political language has shifted—a dissection of political euphemisms and how empty rhetoric poisoned public trust in politicians. (He described American TV-news editing as “urgent to the point of brutality.”) People who know him say that Thompson is steeped in the straight-news ideology of the BBC, which might make him intellectually inclined toward the Zaslav project of ironing out perceived biases in CNN’s coverage. He told one British publication in 2src1src that, during the Thatcher years, the BBC had a “massive” liberal bias. Then again, Thompson is a businessman and a journalist; his editorial sensibilities might be at odds with his commercial imperatives. The Chris Licht-era CNN took a ratings dive. It might be that there’s no commercial market for straight-down-the-middle news anymore.
Warner Bros. Discovery has, in the past year, implemented mass layoffs, and there’s some speculation that Thompson would be forced to make deep cuts, something he’s done before; at the BBC, he got rid of thousands of jobs. But Dean Baquet, the former executive editor of the Times, said that Thompson’s hiring likely indicates a strategy that goes beyond cuts. “I’m not saying he won’t do cost cutting, but, if what you’ve decided is that CNN’s future is cost cutting, you don’t hire Mark Thompson to do that.” Thompson’s real strength, Baquet said, is as a convener. “He’s good at identifying the big questions that have to be answered and then he’s good at figuring out who should be in the room when the questions are asked.” As the easy money that cable-subscription fees once brought in dies off, CNN has plenty of questions to sort through.
Thompson has already indicated that his first days on the job will be spent listening. In a note to CNN staff, he wrote, “I’ve spent most of the past twenty years figuring out with colleagues at some of the world’s other great news operations not just how to survive the revolution, but to thrive in it and gain new audiences and revenue streams. I aim to do the same at CNN. It won’t be my plan that wins the day but our plan, the plan we devise and implement together.” One CNN insider said that Thompson had already reached out, which they took as a fortuitous sign, already a departure from the Licht era.
But it would seem that, at some point, Thompson will have to form some conclusions about CNN’s direction. “When God or random chance was handing out gifts, I wasn’t really, in general, given the gift of uncertainty,” Thompson said earlier this year. “That’s not one of my strengths, really. More or less with everything, I’m a fairly trenchant person.” ♦