When former BBC boss Mark Thompson starts work as chief executive of The New York Times Co., he will become the highest-profile example yet of an emerging trend among publishers to hire leaders from outside the newspaper business.

He’s also a curious choice, as discussed in a moment. First, some background:

The idea of recruiting outsiders is a radical departure for an industry that historically was a closed fraternity dedicated to promoting and hiring from within its tightly sequestered ranks. For the many decades that newspapers chugged along reliably and profitably, this worked just fine.

But the 50 percent plunge in advertising sales in the last six years has prompted a growing number of publishers to consider hiring fresh faces to help restore the vigor of the industry in an era of unceasing and perplexing digital challenges.

Forward-thinking publishers nowadays are looking for, as one recent job posting put it, individuals with “at least five years’ experience in audience development, including substantial experience outside news audiences,” as well as “at least 10 years’ experience in news and development of news audiences,” plus “significant experience in business development and product/solution selection or creation,” and, last but not least, “demonstrated ability to engage with social media.”

While I couldn’t agree more that newspapers need new thinking, it’s hard to imagine how many candidates could check all the boxes on the above list. How likely is it that someone with 15 years of senior management experience in and out of the newspaper business would also turn out to be a totally happening social-media dude?

So, publishers plunging into the uncharted end of the talent pool need to be realistic and thoughtful about what they really want.

Which brings us back to the intriguing selection of Mark Thompson as chief executive officer of the NYT. Though Thompson readily fills the bill as an outsider to the newspaper business, he also faces a daunting learning curve in his new role as the top non-family executive at the nation’s newspaper of record.

The good news about Thompson is that he, as a lifelong employee of the BBC, is no stranger to globe-straddling, tradition-laden, and self-important journalistic institutions. He also is evidently well equipped to deal with politics in and out of the office, having endured “three chairmen, three prime ministers, and five secretaries of state” in his eight-year run as chief of the BBC, according to his announcement last spring of his intention to resign after the Olympics. Thompson’s appointment at NYT was disclosed shortly after the torch passed to Brazil, and he was scheduled to start work in November.

The other good news about Thompson is that he oversaw the development of a host of new digital and broadcast products at the BBC, while presiding over the greatest number of budget-forced layoffs in the history of the tax-supported network. Given the state of the U.S. newspaper industry, the knack for doing more with less is a highly relevant job skill.

But there are some notable deficiencies in his résumé: He never has worked anywhere else but the BBC, he never has worked in the United States, and he never has worked at a for-profit media company.

The last issue is the most significant, because the biggest challenge facing the Times and every other publisher is devising new business model(s) to replace the generations-old one that has been utterly shredded by digital media.

Although Thompson may be a smart and seasoned executive who can learn what he needs to know in the fullness of time, he doesn’t seem to be nearly as plug-and-play of a selection as Laura Lang, who was recruited from the Digitas ad agency late last year to become chief executive officer of TIME, People, Sports Illustrated, and Fortune.

While Lang never wrote a magazine article or sold a magazine ad, The Wall Street Journal reports that her 12 years at Digitas were devoted to transforming the company from “its roots in traditional junk-mail marketing” into a business providing targeted online advertising and social-media campaigns for such major corporate clients as American Express and General Motors.

In other words, Lang actually participated in the invention of modern digital advertising, the discipline to which all legacy publishers must adapt — or else.

Lang walked in the door at Time Inc. with the instincts and insights of a digital native, not to mention a thorough understanding of the needs of the customers she now hopes to serve.

For all Thompson’s abilities, it will take serious on-the-job training before he catches up to Lang. Unfortunately, that will take precious cycles away from the time he urgently needs to refurbish his new employer’s business model.

The lesson for publishers is not to avoid hiring outsiders, but, rather, to choose wisely.


Alan D. Mutter is a newspaperman who eventually became a Silicon Valley CEO and today advises media companies on technology. He blogs at Reflections of a Newsosaur (newsosaur.blogspot.com).

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