Succession Watch: NYT and CNN Edition

Meredith Kopit Levien
Photo by Alexander Tamargo/Getty
Dylan Byers
February 25, 2022

In the coming months, Dean Baquet, the august executive editor of The New York Times, will announce his resignation and, barring an unforeseen disaster, pass the reins to managing editor Joe Kahn, sources familiar with the paper’s succession plans tell me. The passing of the editorial torch, which we’ve been anticipating since the fall, will surprise exactly no one at the paper of record. Baquet has long planned to step down this year and Kahn is so instrumental to the editorial leadership and such a well-known quantity that, even at a moment when nearly every news organization is putting a premium on diversity, no one is likely to balk at the appointment of a 57-year-old, Harvard-educated white man to the top of the Times masthead. Indeed, if there is anything notable about the Times succession story this time around, it’s how seamless and drama-free it is likely to be.

If the masthead shakeup is met with relatively little fanfare, it may also be because of the changing nature of the Times’ business. Historically, the executive editor has been the most important person at the Times, and the Times itself—“the paper,” in its corporeal and digital formats—has more or less been synonymous with The New York Times Company, its publicly-traded, dual-class family-controlled owner. Arguably, that is no longer the case. Today, the most important person at The New York Times Company is inarguably neither Baquet or Kahn, but rather Meredith Kopit Levien, the president and C.E.O. who has led an aggressive effort to broaden and diversify the Times Company’s portfolio, which was slash-and-burned after a near-death experience post-2008. And thanks in large part to her, “the paper” is now just one of many assets in a rapidly growing and increasingly differentiated media company that also includes games, cooking apps and shopping guides, among other services.

“The strategy is to be an essential daily habit to millions and millions of people,” Kopit Levien told me in a phone interview this month. “When you think about the breadth of what the Times has to offer a reader, listener, consumer…. The Times today is a place of ambition. We’re no longer trying to climb our way out of an economic crisis.”

The Times Company’s financial outlook was far more dire back in 2015, when Kopit Levien was promoted to chief operating officer. Shortly thereafter, she and her colleagues launched an ambitious strategy to boost revenues through digital subscriptions. But the keenest insight was to expand the aperture for what those subscriptions might include—not just news, but games, recipes, retail advice, and so on. In fact, without any noticeable gripes from the third floor newsroom, Kopit Levien quietly transformed The Times Company from a capital-N news company to a lifestyle media company with a heavy emphasis on news.

Journalism remains the company’s essential asset, of course, and its success is integral to the success of the brand overall (and, without being grandiose, it’s one of the most important institutions in our society, no matter one’s politics). Kopit Levien is also quick to point out that “news is the biggest driver” for the some 50 million people who visit the Times website every week, and that “the reason the Times has succeeded is because the first dollar in the place goes to the journalism.” But the fact that there are dollars to invest in journalism is due in large part to the aggressive expansion into news-adjacent offerings. NYT Games and NYT Cooking both boast over one million subscribers each. Wirecutter, the product review site, was drawing 12 million monthly readers before it went behind the paywall in September.

There may be no greater illustration of Kopit Levien’s savvy than the decision to buy Wordle, the massively popular five-letter word game that the Times Company acquired last month. On the day the Times Company integrated Wordle into its website, sources with access to the internal traffic measurement system told me, visits to the Wordle page in the first 24 hours were roughly equal to the total monthly audience for the Times website itself. 

The Wordle acquisition also demonstrated Kopit Levien’s M&A mindset. She found a target, moved on it quickly, and defeated others in getting to the punch. Her larger bet, of course, remains The Athletic, the 1.2 million subscriber sports media platforms for which the Times Company paid $550 million in cash. The Athletic has already brought the company to its stated goal of 10 million digital subscribers well ahead of its 2025 target date. The goal now is 15 million by 2027. But Kopit Levien thinks the company can go much, much further: “We have an average of 50 million people who come [to the Times] every week,” she said. “We want to be an essential daily habit for all of those people.”

Jen Psaki: CNN or MSNBC?

On Wednesday, we broke the news that White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki plans to go into television news upon leaving The White House, and that she is being feverishly courted by executives at CNN and MSNBC. As I noted, both of these networks are desperate to add her to their ranks, particularly as they cope with post-Trump ratings declines and look to build out their nascent streaming services. And both networks will soon have vacancies at 9 p.m., with Chris Cuomo already out at CNN and Rachel Maddow preparing to exit her nightly MSNBC show in the spring. So we’re likely to see an intense bidding war play out over the next few months.

Where will Psaki land? One thing I didn’t touch on in my previous report is how Jeff Zucker‘s forced exit at CNN, and the impending WarnerMedia-Discovery merger, might play into her decision. MSNBC is a known quantity: avowedly liberal and obsessed with politics. If Psaki is looking for a place where she can talk politics and policy and push back against Republican talking points, as she does every day in the briefing room, MSNBC would be a logical home. Moreover, the network’s strategy these days seems to be built on investing heavily in franchise players, from staunch liberals like Maddow to Republican expats like Joe Scarborough and Nicolle Wallace. It’s not hard to see MSNBC building a similar brand around Psaki’s style of Obama-Biden-era establishment-friendly progressivism. 

So what can CNN offer Psaki that MSNBC can’t? Until recently, the best answer to that question may have been: Jeff Zucker. The former CNN president had a unique ability to super-produce talent and assure them that he was invested in their success—something that earned him the loyalty of nearly all of CNN’s on-air stars, as evidenced by their very public grief following his ouster. Now, however, CNN is adrift and no one, save perhaps David Zaslav, knows who will lead the network following the Discovery takeover. At the same time, there are strong signals that Zaslav and his board are looking for CNN to get back to its nonpartisan, hard news roots, which may or may not mean less room for personality-driven opinion programming.

That’s not to say that CNN isn’t still an appealing option for Psaki, and I’m sure CNN executives will do everything they can to make it so. But for Psaki, there may be at least some sense of security in going with the network that has known leadership, a clear mission and isn’t subject to the whims of new ownership. 

Is Chris Licht the New Zucker?

Finally, I was told today that Zaslav has lasered in on his top pick for Zucker’s replacement at CNN and may be ready to announce it at Discovery’s special shareholder meeting on March 11, where shareholders will vote to approve the WarnerMedia-Discovery merger. I’ve been given no solid word on who that individual is, but one name that has been added to the list of contenders is Chris Licht, the star executive producer who ran MSNBC’s Morning Joe, CBS This Morning, and now serves as executive producer of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. (Both Licht and a Discovery representative did not comment.)

Helming CNN would be a massive undertaking for Licht, a mega-successful producer who has no experience running a news organization. Moreover, it’s not clear whether John Malone and other board members, who presumably prefer a more down-the-middle CNN, would be comfortable with someone who has been running a liberal-inflected late night show. All that said, Licht’s programming talents are significant, and he’s a known quantity for Zaslav, as well as an occasional guest at Zaslav’s Hamptons home.

Meanwhile, many of the potential successors I’ve mentioned in the past seem increasingly unlikely. So far, none of the leadership inside CNN has heard from Zaslav, I have been told. So if it is indeed true that he’s moving forward with a candidate, that doesn’t bode well for them. As for Ben Sherwood, it’s come to my attention that there are a lot of ABC News expats at CNN—Amy Entelis, Virginia Moseley, Andrew Morse, etc.—who were at odds with him at the alma mater and might make noise about his potential appointment (if that even matters, this isn’t a democracy, after all), even if his C.V. as head of ABC News and then ABC television makes him more qualified than perhaps anyone else. David Rhodes remains an option, though it’s important to remember that he had mixed relations with talent and he never moved CBS News out of third place. And as for Jay Sures—well, as much as CNN talent and even some CNN executives may love him, there remains the all-important lack of experience in television news.
One other name that others have thrown out is Josh Tyrangiel, the former Bloomberg Businessweek editor who went on to helm Vice News Tonight. It’s hard for me to believe Tyrangiel has the C.V. that Zaslav is looking for, which is why you never saw his name come up in this copy. Whatever the case, we should have an answer to the CNN succession question in a matter of weeks.