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February 19, 2018

BBC's Mark Thompson Jumps Out of the Frying Pan and into the New York Times Cauldron

Now, we don’t know for sure, but, maybe, in the New York Times’ CEO job description was this line: “Proven battle scars with Rupert Murdoch a plus.”

That’s just of many key attributes Mark Thompson, who recently stepped down as BBC Director General, will bring to his new post as NYT Co. CEO in November. The 54-year-old Thompson, who served for a very long eight years in the BCC post, butted horns with Murdoch, publicly and privately. Murdoch, of course, saw the BCC as big competition — and it is, dominating the British news landscape in ways that are difficult for Americans to understand. Murdoch aimed at those government-mandated licensing fees — taxes, as we would call them — that pay for the BBC. He wanted them changed, lowered and/or diverted, for reasons both business and political, the News Corp strategic m.o.

Thompson dodged, weaved, cut when he had to and preserved — according to UK conventional wisdom — the BBC’s heart through many tribulations.

We could also argue that the BBC and the NYT are cousins across the sea. Two august, truly global news institutions, the Cokes and Pepsis of the news world in brand awareness. Both are immensely powerful, sometimes comically balkanized in their decision-making, too often lumbering in execution, and yet both have made major strides in transitioning their power and work to the digital age. Both are very much works-in-progress.

So Thompson brings the experience at moving, too slowly for some, too dramatically for others, a huge entity. Just as he knows, deep in his marrow, the value of the BBC to the Britain, he gets the vital role of the Times in the U.S. — and increasingly globally. (“The Newsonomics of the British Invasion“)

It struck me that as the digital circulation plans of the Times went live, it has been finding a global paying audience, somewhere around 10% of those half a million digital subs. The global imperative is basic math. In Britain, Thompson served 1% of the world’s population. In the U.S., the Times serves 5%. The growth potential of both — especially in a world where close to a billion people can understand English — is huge. Out-of-country expansion, to gain new readers and advertisers, isn’t easy, but Thompson is one of the few potential CEOs who has it.

Add this checkmark: video. The BBC moved through a number of iterations of its iPlayer, but now that video player is a dominant one, and beyond print. Among those embracing video: that Murdoch company across town, the Wall Street Journal, fast becoming the jewel of the to-be-spun-off new news NewsCorp.

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