(Reuters) - The New York Times Co has tapped BBC’s Mark Thompson as its next president and chief executive, capping an eight-month search for an executive to lead the company as more people get their news through digital products.
Thompson, 55, will report to the New York Times board of directors and to its chairman, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., starting in November, the company said on Tuesday.
“Our board unanimously concluded that Mark is exactly the right person to lead The New York Times Company at this particular moment in time,” Sulzberger wrote in an internal email to employees.
Thompson will lead the New York Times, publisher of its namesake newspaper and the Boston Globe, during unprecedented challenges facing the publishing industry as advertisers place their dollars elsewhere and readers favor smartphones and tablets over the printed page.
Thompson most recently served as director general of the British Broadcasting Corp, one of the most powerful television positions in Britain. He announced in March that he was stepping down from that post at the end of the London Olympics after serving in the top job since 2004.
Thompson guided the BBC with its eight TV channels, 50 radio stations and extensive website through morale problems, assaults from Rupert Murdoch’s media empire and threats to the corporation’s funding by the British government.
“He’s the man that turns up with his dust pan and brush when the party is over,” said Emily Bell, a former Guardian news executive and current director of digital journalism at Columbia University, referring to Thompson’s skills in dealing with organizations in turnaround.
The New York Times is one of the most prominent newspapers in the world and is considered a thought leader in the news business. Last year, it rolled out a pay model for its digital products that so far has been hailed for its success in getting readers to pay for news.
“It’s a positive,” said Doug Arthur, an analyst with Evercore Partners. “He’s run a big time operation that certainly gets a lot of scrutiny.”
Indeed, the New York Times has had its share of scrutiny with its depressed stock price, canceled dividend and troubles increasing advertising revenue. Not to mention the departure of Thompson’s predecessor, former CEO Janet Robinson, a 28-year Times Co veteran who abruptly left the company in December.
Reed Phillips, managing director with media investment bank DeSilva & Phillips, said that “the fact that they would hire someone completely outside of print and completely outside of the U.S. was surprising.”
But one newsroom source said Thompson’s possible appointment was already “baked-in” to their thinking once his name was floated in the press earlier this year.
“There’s not a lot of whispering going on like, ‘Oh my God, he’s going to save paper’ or ‘Oh my God, he’s going to destroy the paper,'” the source said.
A second newsroom source said: “The biggest question is whether this is a signal that we are going to be getting more into the TV business or is he just going to take what we do already and distribute it more broadly digitally.”
The second source pointed to Thompson’s deal-making with other media outlets, specifically a joint venture with iTV, and said the newsroom is wondering if maybe international or TV partnerships are in store for the paper.
One of Thompson’s big achievements at the BBC was the development of the iPlayer, which enables viewers to catch up on missed programs for free online. It was considered a huge hit among those viewing the Olympics.
The BBC online had about 57 million unique monthly visitors worldwide in June, according to comScore.
“His take is that news is the heart of that big organization and he was completely, thoroughly protective of the journalist and news operation,” said Garth Ancier, former president of BBC Worldwide America.
Thompson will become head of a much smaller company that once was a sprawling media conglomerate with TV and radio stations, magazines, dozens of newspapers scattered throughout the United States and ownership stakes in cable networks, such as Discovery Communications, and sports teams from the Boston Red Sox baseball team and Liverpool soccer club.
Over the years its has been shedding its assets - last week, the company said it was in discussions to sell its Internet property About.com - and will soon be down to only a handful of newspapers, including the International Herald Tribune and Worcester Telegram & Gazette.
Reporting By Jennifer Saba, Liana Baker and Peter Lauria; and Noel Randewich in San Francisco.; Editing by Peter Lauria, Steve Orlofsky, Leslie Gevirtz and Muralikumar Anantharaman