Is New York Times boss Mark Thompson the luckiest CEO in the world?
He was at Channel 4 when the ad market was soaring, left the BBC before the Savile scandal and has now inherited a booming New York Times. Ian Burrell reports on the latest chapter of a charmed career
You might call it the Thommo touch. Having walked away from the BBC with the adulation for its Olympics coverage ringing in his ears, the British media executive Mark Thompson is leading newspapers into the promised land.
As the president and chief executive officer of the New York Times Company, Mr Thompson has announced second-quarter profits of $53.4m (£34.8m), up by more than $9m on the same period last year. For an industry that is supposedly in terminal decline, the news was a fillip.
“We never need to worry about the future of journalism again,” commented Henry Blodget, the editor of New York’s Business Insider blog, somewhat hyperbolically. The excitement was borne of a financial statement that showed that a surge in demand for digital-only subscription packages, e-readers and replica editions has driven up digital-circulation revenues to $75.1m in the first half of 2013 (up 51.7 per cent on the same period in 2012).
The Grey Lady – as The New York Times is affectionately known – no longer looks so antediluvian. “Our improved results in the second quarter were an organisation-wide effort – with contributions from more favourable revenue trends and strong cost performance,” said an understandably proud Mr Thompson, who was appointed last year after overseeing the BBC’s transformation into a multi-platform global-media organisation.
How does he do it? Mr Thompson is undoubtedly a man of great talents: a gifted journalist in his early career, he demonstrated strong and visionary leadership during his eight years as BBC Director-General. He is also extraordinarily lucky.
When he left the BBC in September last year, it was apparently in great shape. The BBC Trust’s chairman, Lord Patten, slapped him on the back, described his record as “outstanding” and wished him the best in his new challenge in the Big Apple. Within days, a storm cloud that had been brewing under Mr Thompson’s tenure burst with a thunderclap over his hapless successor, George Entwistle, who was swept away after 54 days in the job.
Mr Thompson, who has belatedly admitted that he was alerted to Newsnight’s ill-fated Jimmy Savile investigation during his time as Director-General, has so far been little damaged by that scandal. He often appeared armour-plated at the BBC, taking the job after the Hutton report had decapitated the organisation’s chairman, Gavyn Davies, and its Director-General, Greg Dyke, in 2004. Mr Thompson joined the BBC after two years running Channel 4, a time in which he enjoyed the comforts of plentiful advertising revenues and analogue spectrum. He inherited the ratings blockbuster that was Big Brother but had departed by the time a racism controversy on the reality show threatened to engulf the whole network.
He arrived in New York facing some scepticism as a foreigner without a newspaper background taking on one of America’s most prestigious media positions. The doubters included writers on The New York Times itself, such as columnist Joe Nocera, who said Mr Thompson had appeared “wilfully negligent” over the Savile affair and wondered “what kind of chief executive he’d be at the Times”. Nine months on and the sun is shining on Thommo again. Of course, The New York Times has been at the forefront of digital innovation since it became apparent, a decade or so ago, that newspapers faced a future of declining print revenue.
Two years ago, the paper’s website introduced The Meter, a “leaky” paywall system that allowed users access to 10 free articles before they were asked to subscribe. The New York Times now has 699,000 digital subscriptions (up 35 per cent year on year) and versions of the metered model – also pioneered by the Financial Times – have been widely adopted by newspaper businesses around the world, including recently by The Daily Telegraph.
Mark Thompson is reaping the benefits of such foresight – shown by owner Arthur Sulzberger, Jnr, former chief executive Janet Robinson and executive editor Bill Keller – as he starts to introduce changes of his own designed to enhance the profile of The New York Times as an international brand. Having renamed the International Herald Tribune as the International New York Times, he has now offloaded The Boston Globe to businessman John Henry (the owner of the Boston Red Sox and part owner of Liverpool FC).
Mr Thompson knows that he still faces an uncertain future. Digital-advertising revenues have stalled, as the online market continues to fragment, and he has appointed a new head of advertising in Meredith Levien, recruited from Forbes. As one might expect of a former senior television figure, Mr Thompson is anxious for The New York Times to make greater use of video. He has hired a new head of video, Rebecca Howard, and partnered with the video site Retro Report.
Back in Britain, the BBC and Channel 4 are having turbulent years. But although his job in the US is going well, the former Director-General finally faces problems ahead. MPs on the Public Accounts Committee are furious a BBC Digital Media Initiative, set up on Mr Thompson’s watch, has collapsed at a cost of £100m. They are also angry at executive pay-offs handed to senior members of his team. The “outstanding” Director-General has been summoned before the committee to answer its questions. Mr Thompson will be hoping his luck holds out a while longer.
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