CNN hires Mark Thompson as new chief executive, replacing Chris Licht

Mark Thompson, the former chief executive of the New York Times, has been selected as the next leader of CNN, parent company Warner Bros. Discovery announced Wednesday.

He will replace Chris Licht, who was ousted in June after a short and tumultuous run as the network’s leader.

“I couldn’t be more excited about the chance to join CNN after years of watching it and competing against it with a mixture of admiration and envy,” Thompson said in a statement. “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.”

Thompson, who begins in the role on Oct. 9, comes to CNN after a lengthy career in media. He spent eight years as chief executive of the New York Times Company, where he oversaw significant growth in digital subscription revenue, helping to offset losses in print circulation and advertising. He stepped down from that role in 2020, after he said that he “achieved everything I set out to do.”

Thompson had come to the Times after spending nearly his entire career at the BBC, where he served as director general.

In addition to overseeing CNN’s strategy, operations and business units, he will serve as the network’s editor in chief, the company announced on Wednesday.

“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 chief executive David Zaslav said.

Zaslav called Thompson “a true innovator who has transformed for the digital age two of the world’s most respected news organizations” and said that “his strategic vision, track record in transformational leadership and sheer passion for news make him a formidable force for CNN and journalism at this pivotal time.”

Zaslav had been similarly glowing in his praise of Licht when he hired him in the February 2022 to take over for Jeff Zucker, a charismatic and popular president who had earned the loyalty of the network’s staffers before being forced out over an undisclosed romantic relationship with a close colleague.

But Licht never found his footing at CNN, where he gradually lost the confidence of employees and then corporate management, who decided to remove him from his post and put the network in the hands of four executives — Amy Entelis, Virginia Moseley, Eric Sherling and David C. Leavy — until a new leader could be appointed. (Those executives will continue in their roles, but will now report to Thompson.)

The breaking point had been a bruising profile in the Atlantic magazine that had painted a portrait of an ineffective and out-of-touch leader. Licht had also faced backlash, both internally and externally, after CNN hosted a town hall with Donald Trump in May that quickly turned into a circus.

Zaslav had not conducted a formal search when appointing Licht and had interviewed no other candidates. This time around, Zaslav had promised CNN employees a lengthy search, which he said in early June would take “months.” That search only ended up taking about two and a half months.

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Thompson has his work cut out for him at CNN, which has lately trailed both MSNBC and Fox News in attracting viewers. In July, the network averaged 426,000 total viewers throughout the day, compared to 723,000 for MSNBC and more than 1 million for Fox News. In prime time, CNN averaged only 534,000, less than half of what MSNBC’s lineup brought in.

But, the network is hoping that a new prime time lineup — set by CNN’s interim leadership team — will make a difference.

The network is also putting more emphasis on streaming programming. One of Licht’s first responsibilities as chief executive was announcing the closure of CNN Plus, the company’s $100 million bet on streaming. That service was meant to be a life raft to a future in which the network no longer got the majority of its revenue from contracts with cable television companies.

After more than a year in the streaming wilderness, the company last week announced the late September launch of CNN Max, a dedicated, 24-hour news hub on the Max streaming service, which encompasses television content from across the broader Warner Bros. Discovery portfolio of networks. The CNN Max service will offer new programming from CNN personalities like Jim Acosta and Jim Sciutto as well as a live broadcast of some shows from the network’s regular television lineup.

At an industry conference in November 2021, Thompson had expressed concerns about the ability of television news networks in the United States to innovate and attract younger audiences. “News feels like a particularly old-fashioned style of broadcasting aimed entirely at older audiences,” he said at the event. “I live in the U.S. and [TV news] seems completely unchanged since the 1980s. I think it is in dead trouble.”

In the announcement on Wednesday, Thompson expressed his readiness to tackle the structural challenges facing both the network and the broader television industry.

“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,” he said. “Where others see disruption, I see opportunity.”

Thompson got the top job at the BBC after working for decades as a journalist, beginning as a production trainee in 1979. He helped the broadcaster transition to the digital world and forge new partnerships, and was asked to do something similar when he became chief executive of the Times in 2012. The newspaper publication was struggling to transition beyond print and had recorded a net loss of $88 million for the second quarter of 2012. By the end of the fiscal year, the newspaper had 640,000 digital-only subscribers; but, by the middle point of 2020, the Times had 5.67 million.

Upon his departure, Times publisher A.G. Sulzberger credited Thompson with guiding that “digital transformation.”

“Mark has an impressive record of finding ways to ensure cultures of journalistic excellence and business innovation flourish alongside each other,” Sulzberger said in a statement to The Post on Wednesday. “CNN is lucky to have him leading them forward. So is the public, because America needs more strong news organizations.”

Jonathan Klein, the former president of CNN U.S., called Thompson “an exceptional choice” with the skills to move CNN into a future more defined by direct-to-consumer subscriptions and new platforms than traditional television.

“He’s not a television programming wizard. He’s a very substantial, accomplished steward of strong journalistic brands,” Klein said. “If they’re looking to restore the brand, they have definitely started in the right place.”

This story has been updated.