On Friday, incoming CNN chairman and C.E.O. Mark Thompson spent the full day at Hudson Yards headquarters for about eight hours of presentations and meetings with CNN’s chief digital officer Athan Stephanopoulos and other members of the network’s digital team. This was just one of several appointments on Thompson’s calendar as he prepares to formally take the reins of David Zaslav’s news network on October 9. He’s had meetings and conversations with dozens of the network’s top executives, producers, and on-air talent in recent weeks, paid a visit to the Washington, D.C., and Atlanta bureaus, and also attended this week’s News & Documentary Emmys, where CNN picked up nearly a dozen awards—a rare and important victory for a network that is suffering from historically bad ratings.
For some at the organization, however, Friday’s digital meeting felt particularly loaded with import. While most of Thompson’s meetings have focused on the flagship linear product, he has also telegraphed in private conversations that he is committed to a long-term transformation of CNN’s business model, presumably based on the playbook he ran as C.E.O. of The New York Times Company—a foundation of subscription and annual recurring revenue, that gives rise to a multiplicity of other revenue streams. Thompson’s strategy might seem quixotic for a business that still relies on cable carriage fees, but many at the Times thought he was batshit crazy a decade ago—and look how that worked out.
Anyway, that plan, which Thompson says will take several years to complete, would try to break CNN free from its linear-first mentality and turn it into a digital-and-streaming-first news brand that also happens to produce a linear feed. And at a roughly 3,500-person company populated with linear veterans and digital natives alike, such a vision can inspire different feelings in different people.