- CNN’s new CEO is Mark Thompson, an experienced news leader, Warner Bros. Discovery announced.
- Insiders said Thompson’s familiarity with turnarounds and talent at the New York Times will benefit CNN.
- His appointment by WBD CEO David Zaslav also could help the company if it decides to spin off CNN.
Former colleagues and acquaintances told Insider that Mark Thompson, the newly appointed chairman and CEO of CNN, will bring needed big-newsroom experience and strong talent relations to the role.
Thompson joins a CNN that has been through crisis after crisis under former CEO Chris Licht, whose brief tenure was fraught with setbacks as he struggled to win over viewers and staff with a new vision for the Warner Bros. Discovery news network.
The new CEO will also be taking over a network that, like most of cable news, is in decline. CNN’s digital strategy has begun to take shape after being upended when WBD pulled the plug on the newly launched CNN+ more than a year ago. WBD announced in August that it will add a dedicated live CNN channel to its Max streaming app, but it is lagging behind news rivals who have been operating and experimenting in the streaming space for a longer period of time.
Thompson, a Brit who joined the Times after years at the BBC, is widely credited with transforming the Times into a digital powerhouse, transforming a financially troubled news organization. During his tenure as CEO, he used data to identify the Times’ audience and provide them with mobile news and advertising products.
“What you can give him credit for is the most successful transformation of a news organization globally,” Ken Doctor, a news analyst and longtime Times observer, said. “The job is to figure out where CNN fits in the market, who they can serve, and how well they can serve that audience.”
There were flops along the way to success for the Times under Thompson, such as the failed NYT Now mobile app. According to a Times insider, he acknowledged them directly and encouraged people to move on, which was reassuring.
Thompson was also successful in pushing the Times into new areas to generate new revenue streams.
He was met with skepticism early on when he declared a goal of reaching 10 million subscribers, which was unprecedented in digital news. His hiring of COO Meredith Kopit Levien, who had championed the controversial branded content form of advertising at the Times, raised eyebrows among news purists. Levien would eventually take over as CEO from Thompson.
His leadership occasionally strained relations with the Times newsroom, which is clearly separated from the business side. Thompson, for example, let data star Nate Silver — a favorite of then-executive editor Jill Abramson — leave for ESPN rather than pay more to keep him.
“He’s a strategic, forward-thinking thinker,” Abramson said via email of Thompson. “He’s not going to overpay for big names or flavor of the week.” When he was considering leaving the New York Times, he refused to outbid ABC for Nate Silver. In retrospect, I believe Mark was correct.”
The upcoming presidential election in 2024 will provide CNN with an opportunity to boost its dwindling ratings, but it may also serve as a litmus test for Thompson in terms of how the network should cover former President Donald Trump.
Thompson acknowledged the structural, political, and cultural challenges confronting TV news in a memo to CNN staff sent Wednesday and obtained by Insider. “Like many other news organizations, CNN has recently experienced some of the uncertainty and heartbreak that comes with it all.” There is no magic wand that I or anyone else can wave to remove this disruption. But I can say that where others see danger, I see opportunity, especially given CNN’s strong brand and journalism.”
Thompson is expected to be involved in editorial
Observers expressed cautious optimism in response to the Thompson news. They will also be watching to see how he fulfills WBD CEO David Zaslav’s commitment to providing a broader range of political perspectives, including conservative ones. Earlier in the process, it was unclear whether Zaslav would seek a CEO to oversee the entire operation or someone to focus more on the news side.
A former Thompson colleague anticipated that the executive, who has extensive experience running two global news organizations, would be more involved in news coverage than he was at the Times.
“He wants to be involved in editorial,” said this source. “My role at CNN is to oversee both. He’ll be able to direct coverage when necessary, but I believe he’ll be more hands-off than Jeff Zucker, CNN’s previous president.
“Everything I’ve heard from CNN is, there’s a relentless focus on costs,” the former colleague continued. “Mark is capable of coming in and providing a strategy for the future.”
Zaslav reportedly chose Licht in early 2022 without interviewing any other candidates, and this time around, he’d promised to conduct a thorough search. According to Semafor, another prominent British journalist, James Harding, is also in the running for the role this time around.
Some CNN employees may be disappointed that Zaslav chose an outside candidate and another white man over promoting an internal executive or hiring a woman or person of color. The leadership team at WBD has been chastised for its homogeneity.
In a staff note obtained by Insider, Zaslav praised Thompson for building The New York Times into a successful online subscription business while CEO from 2012 to 2020, and for developing the BBC’s streaming service and expanding its web and smartphone services prior to that.
“Mark has been in the news business for more than four decades, and as many of you know, he has a remarkable track record of innovation and excellence.” “I am confident he is the right leader for CNN at this critical juncture,” Zaslav wrote.
Thompson’s hire could give WBD more options for CNN’s future
CNN’s new leader, according to company insiders, will need to be excellent at managing talent in order to stabilize a newsroom that has been shaken by Licht’s programming changes and criticism of their previous work.
Former Thompson colleagues said one of the British executive’s strong suits at the Times was cultivating relationships with stars like Andrew Ross Sorkin, reflecting his time at the BBC, where he served in a number of news roles before rising to director-general in 2004.
“He was always good at getting people to do what he wants,” a second Times source said. “At the end of the day, he is talented; he has previously created creative products.” He has invoices for that work.”
CNN’s new CEO gives WBD options for the network, according to Jonathan Miller, CEO of Integrated Media Co., which specializes in digital-media investments.
“If he does a good job, it gives them the option of continuing to own CNN and having a healthy asset — or it’s more easily sold because it’s healthier and has strong, stable leadership,” Miller explained. (WBD has stated that CNN is not for sale.)
CNN’s interim leadership team, which includes Amy Entelis, EVP, Talent and Content Development; David Leavy, COO; Virginia Moseley, EVP of Editorial, CNN US; and Eric Sherling, EVP of US Programming, will continue to report to Thompson, according to WBD. Some anticipate that Leavy, who has been handling the business side, will move into another role, such as his previous role as WBD’s chief corporate affairs officer. Leavy, for one, has stated that he has no plans to change roles.