August 16, 2012 · 0 Comments
Above: The New York Times announced that Mark Thompson, the outgoing director general of the BBC, will be the New York Times new president and chief executive. Photograph: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images
By Michael Wolff:
The BBC director general can’t expect much power at the New York Times. Better yet, he won’t have much responsibility either.
Mark Thompson, the director general of the BBC, has the kind of equivocal reputation that attaches to most leaders of deeply bureaucratic and largely immoveable organizations. Especially in a cost-cutting era, you are likely to please nobody very much – and your future career might be better served in another country.
On Monday, Thompson was named president and chief executive of New York Times Company, an organization that, at least in terms of the hand-wringing and angst it provokes as to the future of the culture, is not dissimilar to the BBC.
Personally, I lose the plot line when my friends in the British media go on about the internecine issues of the Beeb, so my view of Thompson, whom I’ve known casually for five or six years, is probably closer to what the New York Times sees. He’s a smart guy and willing political player. He is fully aware of the problems of the media business and, while slightly resentful about being trapped within them, is a man trying to gamely make the best of a bad situation and not be blamed for losing the ship.
In this, I suspect he is more realistic, and certainly less desperate than his new boss, Arthur Sulzberger, the Times’ publisher and chairman, a man very much lashed to the mast of a foundering boat. Indeed, it is a very real possibility that Sulzberger will be remembered as the man who sank the Times.
Thomson has much less to lose than Sulzberger, and likely a clearer head – and, as well, better prospects. It’s a new beginning for him, in a new country, and in a new business – one that, conveniently for him, he knows virtually nothing about and therefore can take little responsibility for. The New York Times company derives the overwhelming amount of its earnings from newspaper distribution and advertising, an enterprise that everybody reading this column has no fewer formal qualifications to run than Mark Thompson.
That’s one of the things that would have made Thompson attractive to Sulzberger. Sulzberger actually holds Thompson’s new job, and will continue to do so: Sulzberger is the company’s top operating executive. He would have taken the CEO title for himself after ousting longtime titular CEO Janet Robinson, if his extended family, which together controls the voting shares, had let him. (Curiously, Thompson would probably be better-suited to being the publisher-chairman who would monitor Sulzberger as the CEO.) The peculiar compromise, leaving Sulzberger in place with full executive authority, but not giving him the CEO title, has meant: a) no reputable No 1 would take this job knowing they were really No 2; b) that it would be better for Sulzberger if that person who did ultimately take the job was unqualified for it; and c) that Sulzberger still has needed to find someone for the job who was not a joke, or nonentity – someone with some sort of stature (even imported).
Accepting the inherent limitations and dysfunctions of the position, Thompson is quite an inspired choice.
Thompson also speaks to Sulzberger’s overarching vanity, or motivating delusion – his idea that the New York Times Company will somehow free itself from newsprint and become something other than a newspaper (even as it has sold down most of its non-newspaper interests).
“Our future is on to video, to social, to mobile. It doesn’t matter what we’ve done. It broadens what we are going to do,” Sulzberger told the Times’ reporters covering the story of Thompson’s selection, unmindful, as he seems to have militantly become, that the company is in none of those businesses. Sulzberger’s entire statement is unspecific, if not downright panicky, but the “It” in Sulzberger’s sentence construction “It broadens what we are going to do” seems to mean Thompson.
On Thompson’s part, he has a job that he doesn’t have to do because it doesn’t exist, which would be frustrating to most chief executives, but which might be quite ideal if you are settling in a new city and country and, at the same time, trying to figure out a long-term strategy for yourself and for your industry (even trying to figure out what industry you are in). It’s the ultimate sabbatical or listening tour.
And as the chief executive of the New York Times, imagine the dinner party invitations. In that regard, Thompson may be the most important man in America with the least amount of responsibility. Quite a way to travel.
Now, one would think that Thompson, fresh from the BBC, an organization as politically fraught as any and regularly laid siege to by its many enemies, would have analyzed the shifting currents of power at the Times. If so, Thompson would know that Sulzberger’s days are numbered. This, of course, could be bad news for Thompson. Or, played adroitly, very good news.
On the other hand, I find Brits in the media business who come to America are strangely innocent and wide-eyed. They think we know what we are doing here. But they are great gossips and learn fast.
So, Mark … lunch?