CNN Names Mark Thompson As New CEO

CNN has named Mark Thompson, a former top executive at The New York Times and the BBC, as its new CEO and chairman as the network gears up to cover the 2024 presidential election, parent company Warner Bros. Discovery said Wednesday.

Thompson will officially take over on Oct. 9, a press release by the company states.

“There isn’t a more experienced, respected or capable executive in the news business today than Mark, and we are thrilled to have him join our team and lead CNN Worldwide into the future,” Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav said.

Thompson comes in at a critical time for CNN as the organization contends with lower ratings amid the inevitable decline of cable news, which for now remains a profitable business, and the need to tread its future in the digital space.

“The world needs accurate trustworthy news now more than ever and we’ve never had more ways of meeting that need at home and abroad,” Thompson said. “Where others see disruption, I see opportunity. I can’t wait to roll up my sleeves and get down to work with my new colleagues to build a successful future for CNN.”

Mark Thompson was named the new CEO of CNN.
Mark Thompson was named the new CEO of CNN.

Mark Thompson was named the new CEO of CNN.

Following the ouster of Chris Licht as the network’s chief executive after a chaotic time at the top, Zaslav appointed a team of four executives to lead the network in the interim period saying he was in “no rush” to bring in a new CEO.

But Zaslav seems to now have settled on Thompson to the surprise of staffers who thought CNN veterans Amy Entelis, Eric Sherling, Virginia Moseley as well as his trusted lieutenant and CNN Chief Operating Officer David Leavy would remain in charge through the 2024 elections, according to Variety.

Earlier this month, the network announced a major overhaul of its programming, in what was considered the interim team’s first signature move following Licht’s departure. Thompson was briefed on the changes but had no role in them, according to the Times.

The company said the members of the interim leadership team “will continue in their functional roles,” and will now report to Thompson.

“I know they’ll be a huge help to Mark when he comes on board,” Zaslav said in an email to employees.

In a memo to staffers, Thompson acknowledged the challenges facing the business, adding that “there’s no magic wand that I or anyone else can wield to make this disruption go away.”

“We face pressure from every direction — structural, political, cultural, you name it,” he said.

Thompson continued: “I’ve spent most of the past twenty years figuring out with colleagues at some of the world’s other great news operations not just how to survive the revolution, but to thrive in it and gain new audiences and revenue streams. I aim to do the same at CNN.”

The consideration of Thompson for the role was first reported by Semafor. Other contenders included James Harding, another former BBC executive who now leads Tortoise Media, the outlet said.

The Wall Street Journal reported Zaslav and Thompson previously worked together under a joint venture the BBC had with Discovery.

Thompson, who joined the Times in 2012, is credited with turning around the Times’ digital subscription business and leading several successful projects at the company, including the launch of the “Daily” podcast and NYT Cooking, before departing in 2020.

In an interview with McKinsey senior partner Yael Taqqu and McKinsey Publishing’s Raju Narisetti recounting his tenure at the top of the Times, Thompson said one of the things that helped him succeed there was the “cold eye” of an outsider.

“In this case, I took the job because, besides all the problems and the difficulty of change in a legacy media organization, I thought there was also immense potential,” he said in July 2020.

Prior to his role at the Times, Thompson served as director general of the BBC for eight years in what is a considered a high-stakes, politically charged position. He left following overseeing the coverage of the 2012 Olympic Games in London. Thompson started his career at the British public broadcaster in 1979 as a production trainee.

In an interview with the New Statesman in 2010, Thompson had said the BBC had a left-wing bias when he joined the organization.

“In the BBC I joined 30 years ago, there was, in much of current affairs, in terms of people’s personal politics, which were quite vocal, a massive bias to the left,” he said at the time. “The organisation did struggle then with impartiality.”

Thompson’s start at the Times was marred with questions given he was director general when a top show on the network canceled a report exposing former BBC presenter Jimmy Savile’s alleged abuse of children and women.

Arthur Sulzberger Jr., the then-publisher of the Times, addressed the controversy in a letter to staffers saying Thompson provided a detailed account of what happened and he was confident Thompson “played no role in the cancellation of the segment.”

Thompson’s entry is the latest in a series of changes at the top of CNN in recent years.

Zaslav announced Licht would take over as CEO of CNN in February 2022 after the resignation of Jeff Zucker. Zucker announced he was stepping down after nine years at the network over an undisclosed relationship with a colleague.

Licht’s time at the top was marked with controversy but it was a damaging 15,000-word profile written by The Atlantic’s Tim Alberta that sealed his fate. During Licht’s leadership, the network saw poor ratings and lower profits, and drewheat for hosting a town hall with former President Donald Trump as part of his efforts to get back into Republicans’ good graces, among other things.

Licht, a former executive producer at CBS’s “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert,” was also the one to announce the shutdown of the network’s streaming service CNN+ just weeks after its widely advertised launch last year.

Yet CNN appears to now be ready to dip its its toes back into streaming, announcing the launch of a 24-hour live streaming channel on Max.