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April 29, 2017

New York Times Digital Chief Search Hits a Bump, After Erik Huggers' Rejection

In The New York Times Company’s annual earnings conference call tomorrow, expect few surprises: 2014’s four quarters won’t be markedly different from 2013’s, the numbers adding up to a business still in mortal struggle, an enterprise in the press vanguard moving its business from print to digital and yet only a quarter to a third of the way there. (More here in in my new Tuesday Capital New York “What are they thinking?” column.)

On the company’s last earnings call in late October, Thompson talked about his search for new top leadership. He talked about a search for a Chief Digital Officer and Chief Marketing Officer, and formally bade adieu to Denise Warren, the long-time Times exec who had pushed and pulled the Times through its successful paywall launch after heading up advertising.

Don’t expect to hear an appointment to either job on Tuesday’s call. We do know that several top candidates have made their way through the process, with at least one reportedly turning down the job.

Speculation inside the Times building about who will take the top digital job has centered on the “BBC guy” and the “HBO guy,” with only a few people knowing their actual identities.

The BBC guy is Erik Huggers, I’ve learned. In January, though, Huggers turned down the position, several sources with knowledge of the situation, who requested anonymity confirmed to me.

41-year-old Huggers, a native of the Netherlands, is a highly respected, seasoned digital executive with a who’s who of top companies on his résumé—in rough order, Microsoft, the BBC, Intel and Verizon, among them. Significantly, he worked for Mark Thompson, the BBC’s Director General from May 2007 to March 2011. His portfolio was wide: “BBC’s online services across web, mobile and TV platforms and oversight of enterprise and broadcast technologies, R&D and archive.” A chief achievement: the well-received and hugely U.K.-dominating BBC digital video iPlayer.

Huggers spoke to The Wall Street Journal on Thompson’s 2012 appointment to the topTimes job, and the iPlayer initiative, and the closeness of their relationship is apparent. As the Journal noted, “Mr. Thompson recruited Erik Huggers from Microsoft and charged him with sorting out the iPlayer project. ‘The vision and determination to make this happen was really, completely, utterly in Mark’s hands,’ said Mr. Huggers, now at Intel Corp. Mr. Huggers suggested Mr. Thompson’s first task at Times Co. will be to make sure the right person is in the chief technology role.”

Within BBC, Huggers fit the role of change-maker, prompting predictably strong opinions, pro and con, on his impact.

He then moved to Silicon Valley to head Intel’s Media Group, working there a total of three years. His tenure at Verizon, in San Francisco, heading up “OnCue,” a “re-imagining of TV” initiative, lasted just eight months, and didn’t end smoothly. Huggers had led the development of OnCue at Intel, which sold it to Verizon and moved him over to the new owners along with the product. Verizon, in turn, closed down the project within months of the purchase.

Huggers now serves on two Europe-based boards and lives in the Bay Area. He lays outrecent thoughts on online video streaming and company innovation at LinkedIn.

Huggers interviewed at the Times and, according to several confidential sources, turned the job down last month. Huggers didn’t reply to request for comment on his candidacy. Similarly, the Times declined to comment on it or the current timeline of the wider process.

While others, including a high-ranking HBO technology executive, have been in the mix, none, apparently, has proceeded as far as Huggers did.

The job description, circulated privately in November, gives the job title as E.V.P./Digital, though the spot has elsewhere been described as head of product and technology, as well.

The description lays out the expected competencies in leadership (“Aligns people and organizations around change. At highest levels, not only acts as change leader, but creates a series of change leaders to support a coordinated effort“) and cross-divisional communication (“Can manage across the matrix; ability to build consensus for a digital strategy across news, marketing and advertising. Skill to manage through influence and by building strong relationships.“). The big hoped-for payoff is expressed simply: “The EVP, Digital will ultimately tie all of the company’s digital aspects together in support of the company strategy.”

Further, it clarifies the broad reach of the job, saying the executive would “be directly responsible for the Digital organization, which consists of Core and New Product Management, Digital Design, product portfolio management, project management, systems management (enterprise, product, advertising, etc.), data infrastructure and analysis (business intelligence) and technology, enterprise technology and engineering.”

That’s a staff in the high hundreds at least, comprising almost a third of the Times’workforce.

We see two fundamental streams of Thompson thought at play in the new top digital officer job. One: Thompson wants to speed culture change at the Times, borrowing a more Silicon Valley-like, time-to-market, experiment-more-freely way of doing things. Second, he believes that singular leadership of product and tech functions would aid that speed-the-digital-plow quest.

Thompson seems inclined to go outside of the Times to advance those goals.

Whoever assumes that new singular leadership will likely bring significant change to the Times, and that change will cut both ways, as potential breakthroughs can be measured against what’s currently working well and could go awry. With such change, there’s great promise and great peril.

Critical in both the assessment and the appointment, then, is the separation of what has worked and what hasn’t. Supporters of the current structure can point to the Times’ major successes in the last several years, highlighted by its successful digital/All Access paywall strategy, its mobile-leading products and its ability to adapt more quickly in areas such as native ads. Critics can finger the commercial failures of 2014’s niche paid launches, including NYT Now and Opinion apps, and the larger issues cited in the leaked New York Times Innovation report. (“The Newsonomics of the Times’ Innovators’ Dilemma”).

If the Times were to go internally to fill the chief digital job, the logical internal candidate is Marc Frons, the Times’ Chief Information Officer, who currently carries the Timesportfolio in technology, but not its product or audience teams. The appointment of Frons could bring the kind of singular leadership in digital product and technology that is Thompson’s goal, and build on relationships already in place with advertising and with the newsroom. Would Frons’ appointment, though, be sufficiently game-changing for Thompson?

Hiring into the top digital job may be tougher than one would expect. There are plenty of Silicon Valley tech geniuses, but few who understand the unique differences of a media company. If product ideation and development are more the Times’ issues than technology, then top-flight, strategic media product thinking should be at the top of the list. Again, the Times’ product is unique in many ways, and digital information and entertainment media learnings—the kind we’d see from the Amazons, Googles, Microsofts and Facebooks—often have uneven applicability to news media.

The Times’ unique culture and traditions further complicate the reorganization. It’s not simply a matter of moving around resources, titles and skills to further digitize The Gray Lady. That’s tough enough, of course, but it’s the kind of challenge faced by every publisher.

Thompson must deal with two Times-specific phenomena. Number one, the Timesnewsroom holds a kind of a sway in the enterprise unlike any other in U.S. journalism. Executive Editor Dean Baquet signaled his own interest in defining the Times’ digital news future when he tapped NPR veteran Kinsey Wilson for a new top deputy position as editor for innovation and strategy, focusing most on digital. The new newsroom connection, then, to company-wide digital strategy becomes at once more sophisticated, and perhaps, complicated.

Second, the Sulzberger family overlay, from the top in publisher Arthur Sulzberger and powerful vice-chairman Michael Golden to the trio of talented 30s-something cousins, (Capital: “Sulzberger scion’s star rises”) each given greater digital management responsibilities just over the last year, makes change more complex.

Look at Thompson’s appointments as disruption from the top. As 2015 rolls on, the TimesC.E.O. may well enjoy the successes of a more aligned company—or find itself figuring out how to re-connect frayed parts. The answer had better be the former; the Times needs to spend more and more of its time working new relationships outside its building, and less within.


First published in Capital New York

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