The privately owned New York Times has appointed BBC DG Mark Thompson as the President and CEO to lead them to the digital age. It is the kind of ‘outside the box’ thinking only a private company can try; no public company would reach so far from ‘the norm’.
For, while Thompson may come from ‘the box’, he is the ultimate outsider to this job. He is from outside the newspaper industry. He is from outside the country (this does matter; the NYT is something of a cultural icon – like the BBC – and how would we feel about an American coming to run that?) But most importantly, he is from outside the P+L. Apart from a brief period running Channel 4 – another public broadcaster – which at the time was, relatively speaking, on EZee Street commercially, Thompson has spent his whole career at the publically funded BBC.
Maybe the idea is others do the bean counting while Thompson does the ‘vision thing’. But that hasn’t really been his style either. Make no mistake, he has proved a very adept administrator of large projects – the Salford move, the Olympics – against the background of cuts and a ‘gun to the head’ licence deal made within days of the arrival of a new and hostile government. And he has skilfully managed a transition to a BBC that realises it mustn’t park its tanks on every media blade of grass just because it can.
He never had the charisma of Greg Dyke (and that’s OK – flamboyance on a grand scale would be bad in a recession), but, more to the point, he never had the ‘vision’ of John Birt. Birt is something of a bogey man in British broadcasting, and he did carry a lot of sometimes unappetising intellectual baggage and an addiction to systems and processes. But he was the man who led the BBC online before many (and in particular newspapers) took it at all seriously. If the BBC were a private company, Birt would be the CEO who would be credited with making it the unassailable and massively profitable beast it would now be. Thompson has been a good custodian of that online legacy, he has not stood in the way as iPlayer, etc has been created, but it is mistaken to say he lead the BBC’s digital charge.
Maybe a completely fresh perspective with no experience at all is what the newspaper sector needs; Heaven knows it needs something. Having eschewed Birt’s vision until it finally realised he was right, newspapers than massively over-compensated and grasped the Internet in a suicidal bear hug; baring everything they had to it for free. Now they are trying to repair that damage in the context of many equally good news providers – like the BBC – stealing all their clothes.
It will be interesting to see if the old enemies of Thompson and Rupert Murdoch can bury the hatchet. Difficult, as Murdoch hates the NYT almost as much as he hates the BBC, but now both are in the same game; finding a way to save the newspaper business.