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August 1, 2014

For New York Times' Sake, Mark Thompson Should Step Aside

Follow-on post: The New York Times and the Thompson Effect: Blow Over or Blowback?

Scandals are the order of the day, from David Petraeus’ emergency resignation this week to the implosion of BBC leadership, as its new Director-General George Entwistle announces his own hurried departure today. Now, in the U.S., attention turns directly to Mark Thompson. Thompson — Entwistle’s predecessor and the leader of the BBC for eight  years until he announced his departure in March — is supposed to enjoy his first day as CEO of the New York Times Company Monday.

Arthur Sulzberger has so far given a vote of confidence to his long-awaited pick to succeed Janet Robinson  Yet, at this moment, there has to be much hand-wringing among Sulzberger and those closest to him. Within the next 36 hours, he must make a new decision. Go forward with the person he’s long sought to double down on the Times’ global, digital strategy push (“The Newsonomics of the New York Times’ Expanding Global Strategy“) or decide that the potential cost to the institution of the Times makes it impossible to give Thompson a key to his new office.

I expect the latter. It’s a hugely difficult decision. Yet, the global value of the Times’ brand and its trustworthiness must trump any one person’s job or future.

We have heard these two inevitable son-of-Watergate questions: “What did he know?” and “when did he know it?”  Those are always good to trot out, but as chief executive, Thompson’s bears responsibility for wrongdoing at the BBC one way or the other.

Thompson certainly built a good record for diligently investigating BBC misdoings during his watch. In addition, at present, there are no smoking guns to show willful cover-up, though there is ample evidence that Thompson missed a number of opportunities to right his institution, as the long, tortured history of Jimmy Savile child abuse allegations and the knowledge that the BBC had scuttled its own NewsNight investigation into the affair have both surfaced.

Now, especially with Entwistle’s resignation, we can expect the inquiries (there are two, with more in the wings) into what went wrong  to expand. The formal inquiries and the less-formal ones in the re-vivified London press (Murdoch’s The Sun: “Bye Bye Chump, Clueless Boss Entwistle Resigns Over Newsnight ‘Paedo’ Show“) will form, ironically, a part two to the ongoing Hackgate scandal.

Different in tone and depth, perhaps, we can expect a great conflation: British media is rotten, and the politicians will have to get to the bottom of it. Beyond sensational and sussing out real wrong-doing, illegal or otherwise, there are big business interests at stake here. The BBC, dominating the UK news landscape in ways that are unknown in the U.S., has been a political pinata for many years;  Thompson spent much of his tenure maneuvering to retain BBC funding and  role.  It was competitor ITV that broke the Savile story. Now, the BBC’s for-profit competitors and many critics smell fresh blood. Calls to better regulate, rein it and break out the BBC will be strong well into 2013, at a minimum.

The UK story will be quite watchable, as Hackgate has been.

For the Times, though, it’s not a foreign scandal. It’s a scandal, like Superstorm Sandy, that will arrive on its doorstep Monday morning.

Today, Mark Thompson isn’t the head of the Times. Today, the Times has the ability to sidestep the storm. Today, the Times has the ability to move forward, building on what’s been a very good 2012. Yet, the only way to do that is for Mark Thompson to announce that despite his full confidence that he will be cleared of any wrongdoing, the inevitable public questioning of his role — in Parliament and beyond — makes it impossible for him to proceed with his new post.

If Arthur Sulzberger and Mark Thompson don’t get this right, here are the consequences:

  • The New York Times’ positive 2012 story gets buried. It not only has built a successful All-Access/digital circulation business, but it’s model — 10-article meter, open to social and search, smart packaging of the Sunday print product and digital access — is the one that is now being copied around the world. Its election-year journalism — in the news pages, in Opinion and with the newly knighted Nate Silver — has reinforced its role as a leading global news source. (Ironically, that gain, over time, will come at, in part, the expense of the BBC.) Its new international footprint, first China and next year, Brazil, is making its global claim real. Why mess with all that incipient success, as Thompson — not the Times’ emerging digital business model or its journalism  – becomes the story. For Sulzberger today, the big question: Why snatch defeat from the jaws of too-soon-to-celebrate victory?
  • The Times becomes part of the media mess. As News Corp’s Hackgate unfolded, the nature of the Times/Wall Street Journal competition changed. Sure, Rupert Murdoch continued to put new resources into the Journal, and, sure, the Journal’s journalism remained top-notch. When publisher Les Hinton, though, was forced to resign given his association with the tainted UK properties, suspicion sapped the Journal’s competitive edge. Through the scandal, the Times could play the white knight, above reproach. It could differentiate itself from News Corp papers, all unfairly or not, touched by Hackgate. Now, if Thompson moves into the CEO job, you can almost hear the Murdochian chortles, as the Times is pulled into the mud of “they all do it.”
  • The light between a New York Times CEO and a News International CEO disappears. What is Thompson’s main defense?: There may have been reports or messages of one kind or another noting the brewing scandal, but I was too busy to read everything. That sounds too much like James Murdoch’s Hackgate defense when confronted with pointed emails alerting him to the depth of the crisis. Again, it doesn’t matter whether the issues of scandal themselves can be equated or whether the willfulness of deniability are of the same scale. What matters is that it’s easy to paint Thompson with the same brush.

The Thompson pick was a gutsy one. A Brit. A broadcaster. A breath of non-traditional Times air. It may well have been an inspired choice. Now, though, the world has forced a new choice on the Times. Leadership must now rise to that difficult occasion, just as its staff has.

Times journalists know they must be above reproach. The editors already deserves credit for allowing long-time business and now Op-Ed columnist Joe Nocera to ask forthrightly, “[Is Mark Thompson] The Right Man for the Job?” just 10 days ago.  Public Editor Margaret Sullivan has publicly exhorted the Times’ to stay “aggressively” on the story. Today, it’s been on top of the Entwistle story, with Thompson’s name and role noted. Good journalists make sure that the coverage of their own company is forthright, and pulls no punches. That’s a journalistic convention we’ve seen sorely tested by the industry’s decade of chaos, but one we expect that the Times will continue to proudly embrace.

Now, it’s up to Arthur Sulzberger to do what his newsroom has done: Face the facts, and then follow them to a decision that is seeming increasingly inevitable.

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