On the surface, Thompson, a rumpled Oxford graduate who was once a news editor at the BBC, appeared to have experience with a comparable entity to the Times, a kind of half-public, half-private media company that was, in spirit, considered less a business than a public good. Thompson, who favors a light beard and checked shirts, made his way up the BBC ladder as an executive who could carefully introduce innovation to a sclerotic institution suffering from legacy issues. At a time of austerity in Britain, Thompson rebranded the BBC as a global multimedia news provider, with an emphasis on TV-quality online video programming. His signature move was the rollout of iPlayer, a technology that let people watch the BBC online, the significance of which Thompson compared to the introduction of color television. He also implemented a five-year plan to slash 2,000 jobs.
Along the way, he was an astute corporate gamesman. As a British media source told the Observer in a 2001 profile, “He’s very good at figuring out exactly what buttons to push with people. For one person it may be money; for another it’s a program idea or promotion. He’s a very good amateur psychologist. It’s a huge strength but sometimes—when you realize he has played you—you feel you’ve been had. Markism, we call it.” As a British observer says, “The one thing he did [at the BBC] is he survived. It’s an incredibly hard place to survive in.”
Thompson’s handpicked successor to lead the BBC, George Entwistle, resigned within weeks of starting, followed by a series of scandals that rocked the BBC, which eventually led to parliamentary hearings into excessive severance payments to top BBC executives under Thompson and a roughly $150 million digital venture that Thompson said was crucial to the future of the BBC but that appeared to vaporize without consequence. Thompson, it appeared, had got out just in time.
When he arrived in November, all people at the Times knew about him was his ambiguous role in an electric British news scandal over the network’s handling of the revelations that their star, Jimmy Savile, a comedian who died in 2011, was a raging pedophile. Journalists at the network planned a documentary about Savile’s behavior; it was squashed by higher-ups and a celebratory retrospective was aired. Thompson said he had no idea his own news organization was preparing a documentary on Savile until someone mentioned something oblique about it at a cocktail party. Some senior Times executives urged Sulzberger to reconsider or delay the hire, and the board of directors held a meeting to discuss what to do. Sulzberger, however, could ill afford to reverse course. In just a decade, the Times had shrunk from being an over $6 billion company of newspaper groups and TV stations and Internet properties to just the Times itself, which was now valued by the market at a little more than $1 billion. So last October, Sulzberger announced he was “satisfied” that Thompson hadn’t known about the report on Savile, adding that the Times would protect its integrity on the matter by vigorously covering the unfolding BBC scandal. The Times agreed to pay Thompson an annual salary of $1 million, as well as a signing bonus up to $4.5 million if the company met certain performance goals.
Thompson is from a press culture where the line between news and business has never been particularly sacred, and he saw himself as a new kind of fusion executive. He told a Times executive that there was no job at the paper he couldn’t perform, including Abramson’s. “I could be the editor of the New York Times,” he said. “I have that background.”
In a memo last March, Thompson and Sulzberger stated expressly that the newsroom would be working more closely with the business side. “We are, of course, preserving the historic editorial independence of the newsroom from commercial influence,” they wrote, “but also promoting a closer partnership between the newsroom and the rest of the company as we develop our products and services.”
As part of the reorganization, the Times has created a new category of product managers in which top newsmen like Gerry Marzorati, once the editor of the Times Magazine, would report to business executives, creating conferences and other extensions of the brand.*
In our interview, Thompson showed me a chart he drew with black marker on white drawing paper that showed the “engagement curve” of the Times’ estimated 50 million readers, who range from paid subscribers on the high end to people who click on a single link on the long tail. He described a scenario in which the paper offers an array of products and subscription offerings to readers both up and down the chart, but especially the middle, where readers might respond to lower-priced Times products. Of all the paper’s efforts to reshape its business, says Thompson, “by far the most important, in my mind, at the moment, is what I hope is going to be the growing suite of paid products.”