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Mark Thompson named CNN chief executive and chairman at critical juncture in news network’s history

Sanjit Das/Bloomberg/Getty Images

Mark Thompson, the former chief executive of The New York Times and director-general of the BBC, will be the next leader of CNN, the network announced Wednesday, taking the reins of the renowned global news organization at one of the most pivotal times in its 43-year history.

“There isn’t a more experienced, respected or capable executive in the news business today than Mark, and we are thrilled to have him join our team and lead CNN Worldwide into the future,” David Zaslav, the chief executive of CNN parent company Warner Bros. Discovery, said in a statement.

Thompson, who will officially start on October 9 as chief executive and chairman, and act as the network’s editor-in-chief, said in a statement that he “couldn’t be more excited about the chance to join CNN after years of watching it and competing against it with a mixture of admiration and envy.”

“The world needs accurate trustworthy news now more than ever and we’ve never had more ways of meeting that need at home and abroad,” Thompson said. “Where others see disruption, I see opportunity. I can’t wait to roll up my sleeves and get down to work with my new colleagues to build a successful future for CNN.”

The appointment of Thompson, a seasoned media executive who is widely credited with rescuing The Times during a turbulent period in the newspaper’s history, comes at a momentous time for CNN, with the network facing a slew of significant challenges. How those challenges are addressed will define the future of the news network.

Most notably, CNN faces an existential threat to its business model due to the rapid contraction of traditional linear television, where it generates the bulk of its revenue. Thompson faced a similar challenge during his time at The Times when the newspaper’s longtime print business collapsed as audiences migrated online and readers canceled their hard-copy newspaper subscriptions. At the Times, Thompson successfully transformed the newspaper into a digital powerhouse.

CNN also continues to grapple with a thorny political environment. Former President Donald Trump, who made the news network a top target in his first term, is seeking the White House again in 2024 while also facing multiple criminal indictments — all of which effectively guarantees that newsrooms will be forced to swim through a polluted river of mis-and-disinformation, along with smears from Trump and his allies.

Thompson acknowledged a state of “peak disruption” in the media industry, writing Wednesday in his first memo to CNN staffers, “We face pressure from every direction – structural, political, cultural, you name it. … There’s no magic wand that I or anyone else can wield to make this disruption go away. But what I can say is that where others see threat, I see opportunity – especially given CNN’s great brand and the strength of its journalism.”

To compound the challenges, Thompson will be met with the tough task of leading a 4,000-employee strong global news company that has suffered several seismic blows in the last 20 months. During that trying period, its longtime chief executive Jeff Zucker was unexpectedly ousted; the streaming service CNN+ was abruptly shuttered; star anchors Chris Cuomo and Don Lemon were fired; several programming shakeups were implemented, including the relaunching of its flagship morning program and prime time lineup; and mass layoffs took place.

Adding to the turmoil, Zucker’s replacement, Chris Licht, proved to be an unpopular leader during his short run as chief executive, with morale nosediving to some of the lowest levels in the company’s four-decade history. In his little more than a year on the job, Licht alienated staffers and implemented programming changes that contributed to ratings declines. Under his watch, MSNBC started to beat CNN in key ratings metrics, including the advertiser-coveted 25-54 demographic.

Ultimately, Licht was fired in June after a devastating profile in The Atlantic magazine captured him making a number of comments, including badmouthing the network’s coverage prior to his tenure, that made it impossible for him to continue leading the organization.

When Zaslav fired Licht, he installed a four-person interim leadership team made up of head of talent Amy Entelis, head of newsgathering Virginia Moseley, head of programming Eric Sherling, and head of commercial David Leavy. The team, known internally among staffers as “The Quad,” quickly got to work, restoring some of the lost internal morale and making key decisions in a swift manner, such as assembling a permanent prime time roster.

Warner Bros. Discovery said Wednesday the four-person leadership team will continue in their roles, reporting to Thompson.

While it was widely believed by CNN staffers that the four-member team would be in place through the 2024 election, providing the network stability as it traversed a difficult news terrain, recent reports that Warner Bros. Discovery was searching for a singular leader ruptured that notion. Some staffers feared it was too soon for another executive shakeup, but many expressed excitement at the possibility Thompson would be selected for the assignment.

CNN Digital, in particular, has been eager for its division to be gifted more attention. Thompson, whose roots are in television, had a remarkable track record at The Times, bolstering its digital business by acquiring The Wirecutter, launching NYT Cooking and making the newspaper an audio destination by launching programs such as “The Daily” podcast. The moves marked a string of major successes for the company that bolstered online readership and increased The Times’ footprint far beyond its print publication. When he was appointed to lead The Times in 2012, the newspaper had fewer than one million digital-only subscribers. At the end of his eight-year run, The Times had more than five million digital subscriptions.

As the lucrative cable television business dries up, CNN and other news networks will need to transform their business to fully embrace digital and streaming. CNN.com is among the most trafficked news destinations in the world but generates far less revenue than the television operation and has no subscription business.

Meanwhile, Thompson joins CNN as it also tries its second hand at streaming, building a new presence on the Max platform in an effort seen as critical to pulling CNN into the future. Since cable television’s peak in the early 2010s, millions of Americans have cut the cord each year, reducing CNN’s reach and subscription base. For the first time ever in July, streaming viewership surpassed traditional television viewing in the US.

In a 2021 interview, Thompson offered a blunt assessment of the U.S. television news business, calling it “in dead trouble” as younger audiences moved on to other platforms.

CNN+, which launched last year as the network’s ownership changed hands from AT&T to Warner Bros. Discovery, was quickly shuttered within weeks of its debut. Zaslav and other Warner Bros. Discovery executives balked at the high cost of building and maintaining programming for a streaming service built largely around personality-driven content. The standalone streamer also didn’t fit into Warner Bros. Discovery’s larger plans to house all content inside a single super-streamer.

CNN Max, which was announced in mid-August, promises to be different. The streaming service will be located inside the Max app, alongside content from HBO, Discovery, and Warner Bros. Pictures. It will draw largely on existing resources, simulcasting shows such as “The Lead with Jake Tapper” and “AC360.” And it will place an emphasis on traditional hour-long news reports instead of more evergreen lifestyle content.

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