Mark Thompson has jumped out of the cash-strapped frying pan, across the Atlantic, and into the budget-slashing fire, with the announcement that he has been named president and CEO of the New York Times. In January, it emerged that Thompson would step down from his role as BBC director general after the London Olympics, and speculation was immediately rife about which leadership role he would take on next.
Thompson steps down on a high note, after BBC coverage of the Games was widely praised throughout the media and the country. He replaces Janet Robinson at the NYT, who retired last December, and the move confirms months of rumours that he would venture Stateside.
Thompson’s reign at the BBC was beset with difficulties – his arrival coming just after the Hutton Inquiry and subsequent criticism of the corporation’s journalism in 2004. He was then forced to implement a standards cleanup after the “Sachsgate” incident, involving Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand, in 2008.
All throughout his tenure, he had to deal with budget reductions – which became particularly severe in the wake of the financial crisis and Coalition austerity measures – but nonetheless attempted to steer the BBC from its analogue past to a full embrace of the digital-TV and online revolution. Thompson oversaw plans to cut 2,000 jobs over five years and reduce running costs by £700m – inevitable consequences of the licence fee being frozen for six years from 2010.
This run of experience will stand him in good stead at the Times, which faces similar problems of cost-cutting and how best to exploit its brand in the digital arena: challenges that are facing all print-based media groups, as physical sales continue to decline without online advertising making up the shortfall.
Skills with staff cuts and a smart, long-term digital vision will both be required assets – and perhaps Thompson’s lack of experience in the newspaper business will help him to perceive a clear, new route for the embattled NYT. One aspect of his new role that will have a ring of familiarity is the responsibility to compete with one Rupert Murdoch – owner of the rival Wall Street Journal and Fox media groups – but that, like the other challenges he faces, will not be easy.