PAPER OF RECORD

08.15.12

The Gray Lady’s Shotgun Wedding: Mark Thompson Joins The New York Times

It seems perfect enough. Chief Executive Mark Thompson is poised to lead The New York Times through the digital revolution. Peter Jukes on his ambiguous legacy of bloodletting and self-preservation.

It looks like a match made in heaven. The appointment of Mark Thompson, outgoing director general of the BBC, to the role of president and chief of The New York Times, potentially combines two of the greatest traditions in English-speaking journalism: the probity and international popularity of Britain’s public-sector broadcaster with America’s iconic newspaper of record. 

But it’s also a shotgun wedding, forced by circumstance. The Gray Lady—like most newspapers—continues to hemorrhage money, and faces the dual challenge of declining subscriptions (because of free Internet news) and catastrophically falling advertising: last year the entire ad revenues for all publishers in the U.S. was around $24 billion combined, while Google’s was $32 billion.

Faced with these bleak winds from cyberspace, “convergence” of print, broadcasting, and digital is the only media game in town. This was what drove James Murdoch’s plan to takeover BSkyB last year—the creation of a newspaper/TV digital hub—before it was derailed by the hacking scandal. News Corp. now hopes to build the same kind of platform around The Wall Street Journal. Thompson’s appointment makes complete sense in this context: he’s not only been in broadcast news for three decades, he also helped BBC online become the most popular news site in the world, overtaking the once unassailable NYTimes.com.

From this side of the pond, however, Thompson’s legacy is more ambiguous. Many of the great innovations, such as the on-demand iPlayer or the expansion of BBC America, were on the cards before he took over from his charismatic predecessor, Greg Dyke, who resigned in the wake of Iraq War. Dyke, with decades of commercial experience, was more popular among staff than the enigmatic BBC insider who joined the corporation in 1979. 

Thompson has also had to oversee a big reduction in the BBC budget, thanks to a hasty behind-the-scenes agreement with the coalition government in 2010. Year-on-year cuts of around 20 percent are predicted to last well into the future with thousands of redundancies each year. Many veteran journalists are losing their jobs or moving elsewhere. The main criticism of Thompson is that rather than make strategic cuts to unneeded channels or services, he has gone for a generalized bloodletting, which leaves the BBC weaker on many fronts. Weaker, but still in good shape, especially if the coverage of the Olympics is anything to go by. While NBC’s coverage of the last three weeks still draws flak, the BBC’s multichannel digital coverage has been met with universal plaudits.

Thanks to the Olympics, Thompson’s going out on a high, but that still doesn’t disguise a big gap in his résumé: a lack of commercial experience. Though he spent two years as the head of Channel 4, which relies on advertising for income, the channel is actually protected by legislation and has a public-service remit. No such protection is afforded to The New York Times, and all Thompson’s experiments will be tested by the hard metrics of the bottom line. Though his managerial and political skills will stand him in good stead with the paper’s empire and the Sulzberger family, it won’t necessarily generate new readers willing to fork out money for digital versions of the paper. 

Politically, too, Thompson’s appointment will do little to appease those who accuse the paper of being a den of left-wing liberal bias. To many conservatives, having a former head of the BBC in charge of The New York Times is like putting an NHS chief executive in charge of health care.

Thanks to the Olympics, Thompson’s going out on a high, but that still doesn’t disguise a big gap in his résumé: a lack of commercial experience.

At least Thompson knows the world of journalism though. One of the virtues of the BBC training schemes he joined in 1979 is that, though it spots high flyers at an early age, it also puts them out to till the media fields. Thompson has worked his way up from the basic levels of production and copy tasting, through various deputy editorships of flagship news and current-affairs programs. He is journalist to the bone—though, as a former senior BBC executive told The Daily Beast, ”he was always on the move somewhere and made decisions on the basis of how good it would make him look.” “Yes, he’s interested in journalism,” the source said, “but Mark Thompson’s main area of interest is Mark Thompson.”

Such self-preservation and drive may well be prerequisites of the job. The digital domain presents many newspapers with an existential crisis, and if Thompson’s talents for survival can be harnessed to preserving the best of American print journalism, no one will mind his ego.