Can Mark Thompson save the New York Times?

The outgoing boss of the BBC leaves a media giant in need of heavy cost-cutting. And now he's about to join another

New York

It is just as well that Mark Thompson's biting days are behind him. American newspapers take a dimmer view of newsroom "hijinks" than the BBC did when its future director-general bit into a junior reporter's arm when he was running the Nine O'Clock News in the late Eighties. One can only imagine the disciplinary uproar that "man bites man" might cause at the stately New York Times, the beacon of liberal newsgathering in the US, which Mr Thompson is going to run.

The British executive has come very far, of course, in the intervening years (and, by the by, he long ago apologised to the hapless employee for the biting, which he said was horseplay, hugely misinterpreted). But as he sets sail for the US, and his new challenges, it seems he may yet again have to bare his teeth. With revenues falling, The New York Times looks in need of the same brand of cost-cutting that Mr Thompson brought to the Beeb.

Mr Thompson was announced late on Tuesday as the new chief executive of The New York Times Company, a post he will take up in November, a few weeks after he hands over the reins at the BBC to George Entwistle.

For watchers of the US newspaper scene, the appointment of a man steeped in news broadcasting, and with no print experience whatsoever on his CV, looks a leftfield appointment to run the Gray Lady. Yet there are more similarities between the BBC and The New York Times than might appear on the surface.

Both have built huge news operations across the world that pride themselves on their objective reporting, while being assailed by outsiders for a perceived liberal bias. Both have a public service mission at their core.

In the case of The New York Times, this is protected by the controlling Ochs-Sulzberger family, whose patriarch bought the title in 1896 and whose scion, Arthur Sulzberger Jnr, is chairman today. Both, in their different ways, have been pioneers on the internet, The New York Times having built by far the richest American newspaper website and a powerful brand that has expanded across the US and now has ambitions internationally.

And both are facing a harsh squeeze on their revenues. Mr Thompson has found £1bn in cuts at the BBC in the past five years, the inevitable response to a freeze on the licence fee that included shifting jobs out of London and forcing reporters to work across more of the broadcaster's platforms.

It is a set of changes that have sent morale at the organisation to an all-time low.

At The New York Times, falling advertising revenues have cancelled out the benefits of introducing a paywall on the website, and its publicly traded shares are bumping along at all-time lows. Yet at the same time, the newsroom is in denial about the need for cuts. Mr Thompson will have his work cut out.

Ed Atorino, analyst at Benchmark Company, who monitors shares in the New York Times Company, is not a fan of the appointment.

"The fact is, he is British and he is not a print guy, he has not worked with the print community, and there are a lot of prima donna reporters at the Times, the cream of the crop. Will he speak their language? Can he have an immediate impact? Running The New York Times is a far cry from running the BBC. He will face a lot of problems with the very strong print unions, he inherits a declining print business, he has to deal with very difficult competitive and economic conditions."

Mr Thompson is one of the few director-generals to have found another major media job on leaving Auntie's warm bosom. He has spent almost his entire career in public broadcasting, and almost all of that at the BBC, with the exception of two years running Channel 4 before ascending to the top job at the Beeb in 2004. As if to reassure the Times newsroom, much was being made yesterday of the fact Mr Thompson still considers himself, foremost, to be a journalist.

Mr Thompson's impending arrival has been greeted with a mix of caution and even optimism in newsroom. The talk from management on Tuesday was not of grim cuts but of the exciting digital future, and the director-general's strong record in moving the BBC online through ventures such as the iPlayer. The fact that the Olympics, streamed in their entirety online, were a triumph for Auntie – in contrast to the terrible reception that NBC's sporadic coverage received in the US – helped boost Mr Thompson's stock here.

"The Times needs to be transformed and people there are more receptive to an outsider than they would have been five years ago," says Reed Phillips, managing director of the media-focused investment bank DeSilva & Phillips. "In fact, the rank and file are actively looking for someone to take charge and to show them the way to future. The company is clearly looking for a change agent, and for a pretty dramatic transformation away from print."

Yet he will have more challenges even than just getting New York Times reporters to strap a video camera to their press hats. Chief among those is whether it is time to stop shrinking.

The parent company has sold off a slew of other assets, including local papers, television interests and a stake in the Boston Red Sox. It is about to sell About.com, a disappointing digital add-on. It still owns the Boston Globe, but a dispute over whether to sell that was one of the factors behind the sudden dismissal of Mr Thompson's predecessor, Janet Robinson, last December. That and the fact that the Ochs-Sulzbergers are no longer getting a dividend.

"My strong sense is that the Sulzberger family is not looking to take big risks," says independent media analyst, Craig Huber, of Huber Research Partners, pouring cold water on those who see Mr Thompson's arrival as heralding a transformation. "Rather they want a good caretaker, someone who will continue to streamline the company and invest back into digital. The priority is to maintain the long term solvency of the flagship paper, to get the digital paywall right, and to manage The New York Times' transition from print to digital."

For years, the family has lived well on the income from dividends, but that stopped in 2009, as the company had a near-death experience brought on by excessive debt (and a splurge on a new building just off New York's Times Square). Some members of the family have been forced to sell shares instead to maintain their lifestyles, stoking a new round of palace intrigue about whether some will eventually push to sell the paper entirely.

Michael Bloomberg, billionaire mayor of New York, waits in the wings for his moment to pounce, but such a sale will have to be over the dead body of Mr Thompson's boss, Arthur Sulzberger.

Navigating such intrigue, and working with Mr Sulzberger, will require as much political skill as negotiating with successive British governments on behalf of the BBC. And no biting, please.

What's the story? Two big-hitters

The BBC

Key people The director-general is chief executive of the world's largest broadcaster. Mark Thompson will be replaced by George Entwistle, head of the Beeb's television arm. The DG is overseen by the BBC Trust, chaired by Lord Patten.

Ethos Motto is "Nation shall speak peace unto nation". Reithian principles of impartiality and universality remain powerfully entrenched.

Size 23,000 staff. 230m people a week tune into a BBC News programme. BBC Online attracts 43m browsers a week. Annual revenue is £4.1bn.

The New York Times

Key people All roads lead to the descendants of Adolph Ochs, who bought the NYT in 1896. His great-grandson, Arthur Sulzberger Jnr, is chairman. His family still exercises a lot of control.

Ethos Ochs created the slogan "All the news that's fit to print" that still appears on the NYT's masthead. It has struggled to turn its reputation for journalistic excellence into profitability in the digital age.

Size 7,400 employees. Papers include the International Herald Tribune and Boston Globe plus 16 regional titles, eight TV stations and 40 websites. NYT has 1.6m daily sales. Company revenue for 2011 was £1.47bn.

Sport
Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi during Barcelona training in August
footballPete Jenson co-ghost wrote Suarez’s autobiography and reveals how desperate he's been to return
News
newsMcKamey Manor says 'there is no escape until the tour is completed'
Voices
Hunted: A stag lies dead on Jura, where David Cameron holidays and has himself stalked deer
voicesThe Scotland I know is becoming a playground for the rich
News
people
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Architect Frank Gehry is regarded by many as the most important architect of the modern era
arts + entsGehry has declared that 98 per cent of modern architecture is "s**t"
Money
Welcome to tinsel town: retailers such as Selfridges will be Santa's little helpers this Christmas, working hard to persuade shoppers to stock up on gifts
news
Arts and Entertainment
Soul singer Sam Smith cleared up at the Mobo awards this week
newsSam Smith’s Mobo triumph is just the latest example of a trend
News
Laurence Easeman and Russell Brand
people
Sport
Fans of Dulwich Hamlet FC at their ground Champion Hill
footballFans are rejecting the £2,000 season tickets, officious stewarding, and airline-stadium sponsorship
News
Shami Chakrabarti
people
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch has refused to deny his involvement in the upcoming new Star Wars film
filmBenedict Cumberbatch reignites Star Wars 7 rumours
Sport
football
News
news
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Head of Business Development and Analytics - TV

competitive benefits: Sauce Recruitment: Outstanding analytic expertise is req...

Head of ad sales international - Broadcast

competitive + bonus + benefits: Sauce Recruitment: Are you the king or Queen o...

Business Development Manager Content/Subscriptions

£50k + commission: Savvy Media Ltd: Great opportunity to work for a team that ...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £30000 per annum + uncapped: SThree: Do you feel like your sales role...

Day In a Page

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker