Former BBC chief can lead The Times Co. back to glory

The former BBC director general has his work cut out for him.

“Work here for five years, go to a high-circulation regional newspaper, then try The New York Times in about 10 years.”

That was more or less the advice that I, as an aspiring and ambitious young reporter, received from a few mentors when I graduated from college. It wasn't all that long ago, but it illustrates the enormous changes that have occurred in the media world in the past decade and the regard in which senior journalists held The Times.

It's why a lot of reporters will be secretly rooting for just-appointed New York Times Co. CEO Mark Thompson. The former BBC director general has his work cut out for him. There are the company's well-documented financial hurdles as print ad revenue has shrunk dramatically, and digital has failed to make up the difference. There's also that expensive new Midtown headquarters and the newsroom's protests over contract negotiations. 

That's to say little of the changes in the media landscape. Nowadays a star reporter is just as keen to launch or work at an outlet with a space-age name – TechCrunch, BuzzFeed, or Mashable to name a few – as the Old Gray Lady. I'm not saying The Times is chopped liver – far from it – but “The Times Effect,” in which the newspaper would run a story and the rest of the country's media outlets would follow, isn't what it used to be.

At the BBC, Thompson took a well-respected media organization with international reach and reportedly grew its digital revenue from practically nothing to almost 13% of its total. Under his watch, BBC International's website reached profitability in 2011, about two years ahead of schedule and he was at the helm when the BBC introduced its innovative iPlayer. 

Thompson has a unique chance to change The Times' culture. He'll have to take what The Times does well – in-depth journalism, international and investigative coverage, and compelling magazine-style writing and packages – and truly bring it into the digital age. And he'll have to do all that without the benefit of millions of dollars in taxpayer funding. There won't be a silver bullet or an app that will instantly simplify today's complicated media revenue models. My money is on Thompson truly transforming The Times into a digital-first national media company with stable financials and setting an example that the rest of the country's media outlets can follow.

Frank Washkuch is the news editor of PRWeek. He can be contacted at frank.washkuch@prweek.com.

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