Mark Thompson, a veteran news executive who held top jobs at the BBC and the New York Times, will be the new head of CNN with a mandate to accelerate the cable news channel’s march into the digital media future.
The Warner Bros. Discovery unit is expected to announce Thompson’s hiring as soon as Wednesday, according to people familiar with the plans who were not authorized to comment publicly.
CNN has been run by news executives Amy Entelis, Virginia Moseley and Eric Sherling and Chief Operating Officer David Leavy since the June 7 firing of Chairman Chris Licht.
Thompson’s hiring is a signal that WBD is looking to transform CNN, which is largely dependent on cable subscriptions for its revenue, into a digital-first news operation just as he did at the New York Times, where he was chief executive from 2012 to 2020.
CNN, one of most recognized global brands for news, has hit rough terrain in recent years, plagued by falling ratings, a changing media landscape where younger viewers have abandoned cable TV, and a more partisan divide among news source viewership. The network’s Nielsen ratings badly trail conservative outlet Fox News and MSNBC, which caters to more liberal viewers.
CNN, which has nearly 4,000 employees, has also faced turmoil in the executive suite. Jeff Zucker, who led CNN through its most profitable years, was ousted in February 2022 after the company learned that he failed to disclose a romantic relationship with his longtime aide Allison Gollust, who also served as chief marketing officer.
After CNN became part of Warner Bros. Discovery, Licht, a former news and late-night talk show producer, was named chairman in April 2022. But his stewardship lasted about a year, as ratings continued to decline while he was forced by its new corporate parent to cut staffing.
Licht failed to connect with the staff and was unable to put together a prime-time program lineup that could reverse a ratings decline. He was also under pressure to put more Republican politicians on CNN, as Warner Bros. Discovery chief David Zaslav maintained the network had moved too far to the political left.
But the attempt to court more conservative viewers led to a chaotic town hall with former President Trump, which alienated CNN viewers for weeks afterward.
The London-born Thompson now enters a scenario that is similar to the one he faced at the New York Times a decade ago.
CNN is a highly influential news organization still largely tethered to a business model that is eroding as viewers shift away from pay TV subscriptions and spend more time with streaming video.
When Thompson joined the Times, he faced a similar challenge — a strong journalism organization that was seeing its audience decline as consumers shifted away from printed newspapers and more toward online sources for news.
Thompson oversaw an investment into audio products such as The Daily podcast, newsletters and conferences. He used digital versions of crosswords, games and recipes to increase the number of paying online consumers. As a result, the New York Times has lapped its major print competitors in the race for paid digital subscribers with nearly 10 million.
Whether Thompson can achieve the same kind of turnaround at CNN will be a major question in the media industry.
CNN has tremendous reach online through its website and apps, which are free and dependent on advertising. The cable network is what attracts paying customers through their subscriptions to pay TV services, which are declining about 8% each year.
CNN launched a direct-to-consumer streaming service in March 2022 called CNN+. Nine days after CNN became part of Warner Bros. Discovery, the new owners shut it down due to cost concerns.
CNN is launching a new streaming service next month — called CNN Max — that will be included as part of WBD’s Max streaming platform. It will offer a mix of live news presented by CNN anchors and simulcasts of several of the cable network’s programs including “The Lead with Jake Tapper” and “Anderson Cooper 360.”
Thompson has experience as a TV news producer during his more than 30-year run at the BBC, where he worked on current affairs programs including “Newsnight,” “Nationwide” “The Nine O’Clock News” and “Panorama.”
But he has largely operated on the business side since the mid-1990s, serving as controller and then director-general of the BBC before joining the New York Times.