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The Guardian - US
The Guardian - US
Adam Gabbatt in New York

Can Mark Thompson revive CNN’s struggling fortunes?

A town hall with Donald Trump in South Carolina before the election in 2016.profits reportedly dropped to $750m in 2022, compared to more than $1bn two years earlier.
A town hall with Donald Trump in South Carolina before the election in 2016. CNN’s profits reportedly dropped to $750m in 2022, compared to more than $1bn two years earlier. Photograph: Andrew Harnik/AP

In late summer, CNN found itself in crisis. Under the disastrous tenure of chief executive Chris Licht, the news channel had seen top anchors leave and ratings plunge.

Behind the scenes, CNN staff were grumbling about an apparent attempt to move the network’s political coverage to a rapidly disappearing center – an effort typified by the widely criticized decision to host a town hall with Donald Trump in May.

Licht had left in June, and bosses were desperate to find someone who could steady the ship.

Enter, two months later, Mark Thompson, the British former BBC director general and former chief executive of the New York Times.

“I’ve long admired Mark’s transformative leadership and his ability to inspire organizations to raise their own ambitions and sense of what’s possible … and achieve it,” David Zaslav, the chief executive of Warner Bros Discovery, which owns CNN, told staff in a memo.

“I’ve spent a lot of time talking with him over the last few weeks and couldn’t be more excited for all that’s in store.”

As chairman and chief executive of CNN worldwide, Thompson will be charged with overhauling a news network that is struggling. Its profits reportedly dropped to $750m in 2022, compared with more than $1bn two years earlier, while Forbes reported that the amount advertisers spent on CNN in the first four months this year had declined by 39% from the year before.

At least Thompson has experience coming into difficult situations. He spent eight years as director general of the BBC, before leaving for the New York Times in 2012, where he entered a news organization grappling with the challenges of making money from the internet as print sales and advertising declined.

Tasked with increasing paying subscribers to the Times’ online offering, Thompson set about re-configuring the Times from a heavily news-focused organization to a sort of one-stop shop for users: a place where people could read about goings-on in Washington and extreme weather events in Florida, but could experience other, perhaps less serious things, as well.

“Mark Thompson and his team said: ‘What are some other areas, that are not news, that creates lifestyle habits that then makes us a necessity?” said Julia Alexander, director of strategy at Parrot Analytics and a media analyst at Puck News, which first broke news of Thompson’s CNN appointment.

“They have gaming, cooking, even the Athletic. It’s this idea that: we’re going to give people what they’re looking for throughout the day, and they’re going to be bundled within our news product, and that’s going to help us support our news product, and ideally that our brand remains relevant among young consumers.”

“All of those things, if you’re David Zaslav, sound incredible. All those things are like: ‘That’s what we’re struggling with.’”

Subscribers to the Times can now choose an “all-access” subscription, which includes gaming, cooking and the Athletic’s sports coverage, or tailor their subscription to their tastes.

In an announcement this year Max, the streaming platform owned by Warner Bros Discovery, said that it would include CNN in its platform, with the goal of providing a Thompson-esque, something-for-everyone offering.

“Our vision for Max is to be the one to watch for all members of a household. We have the broadest and highest-quality entertainment offering, and now will include world-leading news as a meaningful addition for all Max subscribers, at no extra charge,” JB Perrette, WBD’s chief executive and president, global streaming and games, said.

The hope is that live news can give Max an edge over rivals like Netflix and Hulu – which already provides live sports. Within this larger thinking, Warner Bros Discovery sees CNN as a “value add” within Max, Alexander said.

Thompson, who is tasked with heaving CNN towards that change, has faced challenges before.

As director general, Thompson was in charge when the comedian turned rabbit-hole explorer Russell Brand made lewd phone calls to actor Andrew Sachs on BBC Radio 2 – the BBC suspended Brand and his co-host, Jonathan Ross – and was criticized after Nick Griffin, the then leader of the far-right British National party, appeared on the Question Time news program. Thompson defended the decision, saying the British public had the right “to hear the full range of political perspectives”.

Thompson left the BBC in September 2012, just before a scandal erupted over accusations that Jimmy Savile, the TV host and DJ, had sexually abused young children for decades, including on BBC premises. It would later emerge that investigative reporters from Newsnight were preparing a story about the accusations against Savile, only for the report to be dropped by the program’s editor.

“I was not notified or briefed about the Newsnight investigation, nor was I involved in any way in the decision not to complete and air the investigation,” Thompson told the New York Times in 2012.

“During my time as director general of the BBC, I never heard any allegations or received any complaints about Jimmy Savile.”

Mark Thompson in March this year.
Mark Thompson in March this year. Photograph: James Manning/PA

Thompson left the New York Times in 2020 after eight years. By the time of his departure, the Times had 10 times as many paid subscribers as it did when he started. Still, turning round CNN will be another challenge entirely.

“It’s different, for sure,” said Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at New York University.

“It’s not like he’s going to come to CNN and do what he did. That was a newspaper transitioning to digital publication. This is a more complicated change, because it involves such a different shift in viewer behavior.”

One problem for CNN is that the traditional cable news channel model appears to be on its way out. In its heyday, CNN was making money from two places: from cable providers and by advertisers. That dual revenue stream is already declining, and viewing figures for its live news have also dropped.

“It needs to figure out how news, and 24-hour news, fits into a streaming world,” Rosen said.

“The problem is, while people do turn on their television set and just watch a network, they don’t go to their streaming platforms and just turn them on and say: ‘Whatever they have, I’ll just watch anything that’s on there.’

“That’s not how people use streaming, right? They go with more intention than that. So how you reconfigure a broadcast network for a different consumer choice environment is the problem.”

That’s something CNN previously failed to do with CNN+, the $100m streaming service that was scrapped in April last year, just a month after it launched. Viewers had to pay extra to watch CNN+, which had attracted journalists including the former Fox anchor Chris Wallace, but when Warner Bros Discovery bought CNN from AT&T it shut down the service, with Licht suggesting viewers did not want “standalone offerings”.

“We face pressure from every direction – structural, political, cultural, you name it,” Thompson said in a memo to staff this week. “Like many other media organizations, CNN has recently felt some of the uncertainty and heartache that comes with all of that.”

He added: “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.”

In an era in which rightwing politicians have no qualms spreading lies about issues including stolen elections, vaccines, trans people and more, one issue for CNN will be how it covers politics without platforming what Rosen called “strategic lying”.

“Being for democracy, being for truth … [they] were always background assumptions that anybody in journalism could make. They weren’t out front because nobody disputed them,” Rosen said.

“But now you have in the US a political party that is in many obvious ways anti-democratic. You have a movement, the Maga movement, that is kind of done with traditional American democracy.”

He added: “I would say the most important problem Thompson faces, from my point of view, as an observer, is how to turn CNN into a truly pro-democracy, pro-truth network. To me, that is the biggest problem. It’s where creativity and leadership are most needed.”

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