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New York Times taps head of BBC as new CEO

It took more than eight months but the New York Times (s NYT) finally has a new chief executive. The company announced today that it has hired BBC Director-General Mark Thompson to be President and CEO.

In a release issued after markets closed on Tuesday, the Times cited Thompson’s track record developing new products and revenue streams across multiple platforms. Most recently, he led the BBC’s multi-media coverage of the London Olympic Games.

The company’s announcement repeatedly touts Thomson’s background in digital media, an area that is central to the Times’ efforts to become profitable at a time when print advertising continues to collapse. It is perhaps a fitting symbol that Thompson’s arrival coincides with the first time that the Times’ subscription revenue (much of it digital) eclipsed its advertising revenue.

Thompson’s arrival may also close a tumultuous period for the Times. Since former CEO Janet Robinson departed abruptly last December, a reporter’s leaked memo described the company as a “ghost ship” and New York magazine ran a pot-boiler tale of intrigue among the family factions who control the paper. There have also been widespread complaints from the paper’s staff and readers about Robinson’s $24 million golden parachute.

The initial reaction to Thompson’s appointment has so far focused on how he will adapt to a corporate America setting. Some wags have predicted he will impose a BBC-style universal licensing and others joked that Thompson will be swapping one master (the UK Parliament) for another, Arthur Sulzberger (who remains chair of the board of directors).

More seriously, Thompson’s challenge will be to leverage the New York Times’ prestige and huge digital readership into a long-term business plan. It now has more than 500,000 digital subscribers (including the International Herald Tribune), and continues to post quarter-over-quarter subscriber increases.

The company has also been strategically divesting non-core assets in order to focus on its flagship product. This process has included the sale last week of for $270 million and the sale of a group of regional newspapers for $143 million last December.

Sulzberger’s memo on Thompson’s hiring is circulating on the internet and includes the following passages:

And importantly, under Mark’s direction, the BBC also became known as a place of constant innovation. Mark will work closely with the board and with me as we work to extend our own culture of innovation and transformation and as we continue to expand our reach both around the globe and onto new and emerging digital platforms. […]

Mark is in the process of relocating to New York from London, and we expect him to start in November. When he arrives, we will schedule employee town halls, so you will have the opportunity to meet him in person.

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