New York Times C.I.O. Marc Frons to leave the company
Executive change often drives more executive change, and that’s what the word is today coming out of The New York Times.
This morning, S.V.P. and Chief Information Officer Marc Frons announced his departure, an amicable one that provides the Times—and its new E.V.P. for Product and Technology Kinsey Wilson—six weeks of transition time and planning.
A veteran of nine years at the Times, Frons had directed Times’ technologies through several revolutions. His departure, along with that of his deputy, Rajiv Pant (“Times C.T.O. Rajiv Pant leaves to join a 'start-up'”) marks a major turning point for the Times, at it re-envisions both strategy and resulting operational structure. Frons and Pant had have headed a group of almost 500—an indication of how central technology has become to contemporary news publishing. Frons had been a candidate for the position that went to Wilson; consequently, his move is not unexpected.
Now, Wilson will get a new crack at aligning fast-changing business requirements with technology skills, staffing, and deployment. The Times is now vetting search firms, and will soon begin looking for Frons’ successor. (UPDATE: Wilson just sent out a memo announcing Frons' departure; read it at the bottom of this article or click here to jump there.)
As summer dawns, the 59-year-old Frons says he plans to take some time off before deciding on a next professional opportunity.
Expect the level of executive change at the Times now to snowball.
It’s a small avalanche, set in place by C.E.O. Mark Thompson when he eliminated the position of Denise Warren, as head of the digital business, announcing he would begin a search for new chief digital officer and a chief marketing officer. We’ve documented Thompson’s journey (Capital: “What are they thinking? Mark Thompson's approach at the Times). It finally resulted in the appointment of Kinsey Wilson as E.V.P. of Product and Technology and Times ad chief Meredith Kopit Levien to lead the business forward.
Warren’s departure came first, and she’s just landed a major job (Capital: “With Warren, Tribune rounds out its strategy”)
with three titles at the new Tribune Publishing company. Then, the Times saw Chief Consumer Officer Yasmin Namini take a buyout, shortly followed by the exit of key paywall executive Paul Smurl for the Some Spider start-up. Now with the departures of Frons and Pant, the extent of top exec change is clear. Make or break, C.E.O. Mark Thompson—now two and a half years into his job—will have put his own top team into place.
Frons’ departure offers a chance to put in quick perspective how much publishing companies have become technology companies—despite how far many still have to go.
Kinsey Wilson offered his own take on that. "Marc has been at the forefront of digital innovation at the Times for nearly a decade—advancing new ideas and deploying new technology even as he kept the newspaper's essential systems running. His impact on the organization will be felt for many years to come."
Frons started working at the New York Times as C.T.O. for digital operations in 2006, and from his descriptions it sounds like the Dark Ages.
“We had less than 40 people and they were running an antiquated, highly customized version of a commercial C.M.S. called Fatwire, which they desperately needed to get off of,” he told me. “It was basically a ranking system with very little template control of anything and on a proprietary platform—a good proprietary platform, but a proprietary one. Just a website and maybe we had a mobile site at that point, but it was outsourced to some company in Helsinki. And that was it. No interactivity. No interactive graphics—some flash interactives, but not particularly advanced; no applications; no platform for true web development.”
Frons was promoted to C.I.O., responsible for all tech in 2012. In the nine years since, then, the technology operations—print and digital—have been consolidated, with digital now driving the business future. Recall that in 2006, when Frons started, the Times found itself midway through its first paywall experiment, Times Select, before cancelling it in 2007. The revenue engine that has sustained the Times through this decade—unprecedented digital-only and All–Access reader revenue—was enabled by the building out of the Times’ own paywall system in 2010. From a revenue standpoint, that may be Frons’ most noteworthy accomplishment.
Most consumers see the biggest changes in front of them, as the Times’ redesigned website, and most recently, its borrowed-from–NYT Now highly visual smartphone app.
Content and presentation both drive the Times’ huge audience, but Frons can preach a simple mantra: “Speed is the killer app.” Reducing page-load time has consistently topped the list of requirements in each subsequent product rev.
Lately, he has focused most on mobile, recently explaining “What the New York Times CIO is doing to make the newspaper a mobile-first company.” One big takeaway:
“Is your IT group just starting out in mobile? Here's one way to look at it. If you’ve got 30 engineers on the web and three on mobile, you’ve got to even that balance out quite a bit. If you’re spending 80 percent of your money on desktop and 20 percent on mobile, it should probably be 50/50 at least, if not tilting the balance toward mobile just in terms of playing catch-up.”
Frons pointed to a rethinking of how journalists and techies work together as the most meaningful of his accomplishments.
“We pioneered the news technology team, all the developers in the newsroom,” he told me. “We needed to create a culture where journalists and technologists were peers in the creative process of building great digital products.”
Frons is a high-level tweener. His first job: He made his bones in the business as an “environmental reporter in a town on mining interests,” for the Rock Springs, Wyo. Daily Rocket-Miner. He moved into business journalism at Business Week, saw the need for a website (and was asked to build it) and then started up SmartMoney.com. In the process, the editor became a technologist. That connection between news and technology made him a good fit for the Times’ serial revolutions.
“I believed that to be truly successful, our technology needed to be as excellent as our journalism. We needed the same caliber of people who shared a passion, and we needed to create the same kind of culture—innovative, entrepreneurial, agile—in Technology as we had in our newsroom.
“To achieve that, we couldn't do what so many others had done and outsource technology or stitch together a crazy-quilt of vendors and call it a platform. We needed to own it and build much of it ourselves. At the same time, we needed to avoid not invented here syndrome and take advantage of advances in open source software and tools, and transformative technologies like cloud computing. Nine years later, I believe we have largely achieved all of that at the Times.”
I’m writing to let you know that Marc Frons, who has played a pivotal role in building The New York Times’s digital presence over nearly a decade, has decided to leave the company to pursue other opportunities. He has agreed to remain with us until the end of June to aid in the transition and help in the search for a successor as Chief Information Officer.
Throughout his tenure at The Times, Marc has been instrumental in developing our digital strategy and securing the company’s reputation for technical excellence and innovation. His accomplishments include a number of important firsts.
He built the Digital technology organization from less than 40 when he first came to The Times in 2006, to more than 300 today, recruiting top-flight talent and advancing important innovations. He established the newsroom’s Interactive News Technology team and with it, helped usher in the modern era of tech/newsroom collaboration. He was instrumental in building technology and products for the digital subscription business; and he led the team that designed and built our digital content management system, Scoop, which is now the backbone of our combined print/digital publishing system.
Marc also built our mobile technology and product teams from zero to what they are today; recognized the need for a unified data platform across the company and recruited the first data scientists to The Times; pioneered the use of APIs for content distribution and application development; led the team that built our first content recommendation engine; and successfully launched a new Web technology platform (NYT5). Along the way, he also led a major modernization program for our corporate technology systems.
Perhaps most important, when he became CIO, Marc successfully unified two vastly different technology organizations — Digital and Print/Corporate — into one, cohesive, high functioning team and created a culture of technology innovation at The Times, with many groundbreaking, commercially successful products devised and built by software engineers. Hack days, 100% days, beta sites — all now widely adopted by many companies — were innovations he pioneered ahead of others.
With nine years at The Times, Marc is one of the longest-serving technology chiefs at any major media organization. Since he won’t be leaving until the end of June, there will be plenty of time to bid farewell and raise a glass. But in the meantime, please join me in wishing Marc every success in his future endeavors.Kinsey