CNN Is Expected to Pick Mark Thompson as Next Leader

Mark Thompson, a former chief executive of The New York Times and leader of the BBC, is expected to be named the next top executive of CNN, according to three people with knowledge of the decision.

Some senior executives at Warner Bros. Discovery, CNN’s parent company, have already been informed of the decision to hire Mr. Thompson, said the people, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because some executives at CNN hadn’t yet been informed of the decision.

Mr. Thompson and a spokesman for Warner Bros. Discovery did not respond to requests for comment.

CNN, one of the world’s pre-eminent news organizations, has been battered by a nearly endless string of crises for the last 18 months. Ratings have plummeted, profits have slumped, and the network is still reeling from Chris Licht’s tenure as chief executive, which was terminated in June amid sagging staff morale.

Since Mr. Licht’s ouster, the network has been run by three veterans of CNN — Amy Entelis, Virginia Moseley and Eric Sherling — as well as David Leavy, who is a longtime lieutenant of David Zaslav, the chief executive of Warner Bros. Discovery.

Mr. Thompson, 66, joins the network with more experience running a sprawling news organization than Mr. Licht, a former morning and late-night show producer.

Mr. Thompson started as a trainee at the BBC in 1979 and ascended to the position of director general, the broadcaster’s top position, in 2004. He joined The Times as its chief executive in 2012, and was among a group of executives who revitalized the company financially by greatly expanding its digital subscription business.

When Mr. Thompson took over at The Times, a subscriber-only paywall for the paper’s website was still in its infancy. In his early days at The Times, he said in an interview with a British publication two years ago, he was met with “skepticism” that it was possible to significantly expand the number of digital subscribers.

“I just thought we weren’t doing it well enough,” he said. “And we weren’t doing it smart enough. And we weren’t using data properly.”

The Times started hiring more data scientists and engineers, as well as focusing on what would work well on a mobile phone, he said. The paper also began to build out more visually appealing parts of the website that included cooking recipes and crossword puzzles. By the time a huge news story arrived with the 2016 presidential election, the number of subscriptions began to soar.

“When Trump got elected, it meant that we were more ready than anyone else,” Mr. Thompson said.

The Times now has nearly 10 million subscribers, more than nine million of them digital-only. Mr. Thompson left The Times in 2020, and was replaced by Meredith Kopit Levien, who has expanded the subscription strategy.

A top challenge at CNN will be its transition to a more digital-focused future as the cable business declines.

Last week, Warner Bros. Discovery announced that it would debut a dedicated CNN channel on Max, the company’s streaming service, in late September. Unlike its cable and broadcast news competitors, CNN Max will simulcast at least four hours of live programming from its parent network, including some flagship shows.

Other news networks have been mostly reluctant to livestream content from the main cable station out of fear of violating lucrative agreements with distributors.

Mr. Thompson will also have to steady the nerves of a network with more than 4,000 employees worldwide.

In December 2021, CNN’s leading prime-time star, Chris Cuomo, was fired during an ethics inquiry. Two months later, the CNN chairman Jeff Zucker was abruptly pushed out of the network for failing to disclose a romantic relationship with a colleague. By April 2022, just days after the creation of Warner Bros. Discovery, Mr. Zaslav and senior executives quickly pulled the plug on CNN+, an expensive streaming platform that Mr. Zucker had intended to represent the network’s digital future.

This year, Don Lemon, the prime-time anchor turned morning show host, was fired not long after he made comments widely perceived to be ageist and sexist. Then in May, Mr. Licht oversaw a televised forum with former President Donald J. Trump that was roundly criticized, including publicly by the CNN eminence Christiane Amanpour.

Over the last two months, the four people running the network have made programming changes, including installing a full-time anchor for CNN’s morning show and completing a prime-time lineup that had been in flux for more than a year.

Amid all the turmoil, viewership has fallen sharply. In August, MSNBC widened its weekday prime-time ratings lead over CNN to its biggest margin since February 2020. Fox News’s lead is even bigger.

The 2024 presidential election will give Mr. Thompson the potential to lift ratings and drive profits. It also poses a high-stakes challenge, as some of the Republican presidential candidates, including Mr. Trump, have declared the press their enemy.

In addition to Mr. Thompson, Mr. Zaslav held discussions with other candidates, two people familiar with the recruiting process said.

Puck reported earlier that Warner Bros. Discovery would name Mr. Thompson as CNN’s top executive.

Benjamin Mullin is a media reporter for The Times, covering the major companies behind news and entertainment. More about Benjamin Mullin

John Koblin covers the television industry. He is the co-author of “It’s Not TV: The Spectacular Rise, Revolution, and Future of HBO.” More about John Koblin

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