NYT’s choice of Mark Thompson as CEO signals changes ahead for company

At risk of stating the obvious, newly named New York Times Co. chief executive Mark Thompson is notable for who he is not: a veteran Timesman or Timeswoman.

His predecessors at the helm of the company, Janet Robinson, Russell Lewis, Lance Primis, Walter Mattson, were. Likewise, a long string of New York Times top editors, from Jill Abramson to Bill Keller to Howell Raines to Joseph Lelyveld.

By reaching outside the organization — along with its decision to bring two technology executives to the board — the company has signaled that it will charge ahead on digital, and perhaps shake up some other long-established ways of doing business.

But Thompson is also a curious choice because of several other things he isn’t: American, for one. Or a veteran of newspapers, or of the high-pressure environment of a publicly-traded, commercial news business.

The message seems to be that his recent experience overseeing successful digital initiatives, such as the BBC’s much-admired Olympics coverage, will travel well to Midtown Manhattan.

But the BBC’s legacy business is television, one of several businesses from which the 21st-century Times Co. has disentangled itself — along with radio, regional newspapers, the Red Sox and (soon) About.com.

I would be surprised to see any big move back into television. But digital video is an important area of potential expansion, one that Times rival The Wall Street Journal has aggressively developed over the last 18 months. There, Thompson’s experience could be quite helpful.

Contrary to others, I don’t see a big international play as a logical move. This has historically been a money-losing area for both the Times (with the International Herald Tribune) and the Journal. Quality newspaper organizations in London and other European capitals typically lose serious amounts of money, even if they’re ahead of the curve on digital transformation like the Guardian.

On the other hand, the segue from the IHT of old to a more contemporary international model is not complete. Thompson can help there, and if the Times’ ambitions for worldwide clout grow, what better model than the BBC for moving from a potent national brand to an international presence? (Both Thompson and Chairman Arthur Sulzberger Jr. used the term “brand” in the press release announcing Thompson’s hire.)

Reports from across the pond — the AP’s and paidContent’s — say Thompson has been no slouch as a cost-cutter in the massive BBC bureaucracy. Forceful trimming is sure to be part of the Times’ immediate future, considering its ad losses, debt and pension-funding pressure, restive unions, and no dividend for family heirs.

I began with the thought that observers would have seen it as complacent if the Times had promoted a senior executive, such as Scott Heekin-Canedy, James Follo or Denise Warren. But assuming they fit into the new executive suite roster, they can provide continuity, attention to the mothership and some digital credibility as part of the team that birthed the Times’ digital subscription plan.

There may be specific changes in the offing (sell The Boston Globe?), but guessing just what those will be verges on wild speculation. An outsider selection like Thompson typically entails a good deal of waiting-and-seeing.

Wall Street seemed to agree that it is way too early to pass judgment on whether the appointment propels the company in the right direction.  Shares of New York Times Co.  stock ended the day up, but just by 1.4 percent.

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