How CNN is ‘future-proofing’ itself

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On Wednesday, CNN launched a mobile app to curate a more personalized feed of business news. Last week, it hired away a crack team of BuzzFeed reporters who’ve frequently broken stories this campaign through archival research of historical interviews and video clips. Both developments—the creation of a digital product and addition of digital talent—point to a broader change that has come into clearer focus over the past year: It’s not your father’s CNN.

Like other legacy media organizations, CNN has struggled in covering the surreal and radical candidacy of Donald Trump. Nowhere has this been more visible than its flagship cable channel, where the network’s journalists are often left to clean up after plugged-in partisan analysts. But cable is just one pillar of CNN’s sprawling global operation. The others, taken together, show an organization pushing ahead with one of the most ambitious digital expansions in media today.

Since announcing a $20 million investment in March, CNN has hired 162 staffers for its digital team (including a few dozen employees who were let go from other departments and then re-hired). The additions comprise journalists, techies, and distribution experts, among others. CNN brass expects to bring the total number of hires to 274 by the first quarter of 2017. 

“The strategy is focused on being the worldwide leader in mobile news and information,” says Andrew Morse, general manager for CNN Digital Worldwide. “That’s our mission.”

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The company’s ramp-up comes at a particularly tricky moment for digital media. The Guardian is paring down after making a bad bet on digital advertising. Startups like Mashable and the International Business Times have experienced bloodbaths this year, with cost-cutting centered on expensive news operations. There has also been rampant speculation that BuzzFeed, which has built out a particularly high-caliber newsroom, could eventually require restructuring. 

“With so many players crowding in and doing somewhat similar things, there’s going to be some losers,” says Rick Edmonds, a media business analyst at The Poynter Institute. “A very fortunate thing, from my point of view, is that I think editorial quality as a business asset is making a big return.” 

The confluence of factors may create some daylight for established outlets that still have the resources for substantial investment in new media. Backed by a deep-pocketed and deeply digitally focused new owner, The Washington Post has been reinvigorated online. The New York Times is moving forward with global expansion plans aimed at paying customers. And Wall Street Journal publisher Dow Jones has similarly made public its goal of reaching 3 million subscribers by the end of 2017. In a memo to staff yesterday, Journal Editor in Chief Gerard Baker announced a restructuring of the newsroom into separate print and digital desks. 

“The mobile culture is rapidly taking over our lives and we must ensure that our news is attuned to that culture,” Baker wrote. “We also need to work harder as a news organization to think about how content works best on digital and especially mobile platforms, and what engages our readers, including better graphics, photos, video and other features. The digital desk will be a launching point for rethinking how we present our content digitally and how our digital storytelling needs to change as our readers do.” 

CNN’s business strategy is a multi-pronged effort to diversify the company’s revenue streams, including expanded advertising options, content distribution deals, subscription offerings, and, potentially, events. The editorial marching orders are for a global, full-court press on mobile—publication through CNN sites, in-house digital products, and outside distribution networks—taking fuller advantage of its proficiency in video online.

“They’re not like the struggling newspaper that’s still trying to catch up and get into the digital game,” Poynter’s Edmonds says. “They were in it early and they have a huge audience, but things have a way of aging pretty fast….Change is a constant. You got to keep your foot on the pedal. You can’t be a success and then bask in that glory.” 

While Morse says CNN Digital is already profitable thanks to lucrative ad rates for online video, it needs to keep growing—and fast—as news consumers continue gravitating toward mobile options.

“We wake up every day and we don’t think about being digital first or TV first,” he says. “Then, we think about how to program those stories across various platforms….The CNN brand needs to be ubiquitous.”

For CNN, as for all of its competitors, there is a realization that the clock is ticking. Cultivating a massive digital audience does not necessarily translate into a sustainable digital business. CNN does boast huge numbers in this regard, averaging more than 100 million monthly unique visitors over the past three months, according to comScore. The strageic aim is to organize this audience into thematic verticals, such as CNN Money or CNN Tech. The hope is that doing so will both allow for more targeted advertising and bring new, engaged readers and viewers under the CNN umbrella. 

See the chart below for leading news sites’ trends in monthly unique visitors in recent years, per comScore:


CNN Politics has been an important case study. Politico expat Rachel Smolkin, who joined CNN in August 2014, has built out a huge lineup in Politico’s fast-twitch image. While the team doesn’t drive discussion through enterprise reporting like the Times, Post, or even BuzzFeed, it frequently leads the pack on breaking news. As a result, CNN Politics’ traffic numbers are enormous. And the vertical’s hire last week of the BuzzFeed KFILE team, led by Andrew Kaczynski, brings another certified scoop factory on board. 

“We think we can bring in in new audiences and then circulate them into different products,” Morse says of the strategy.

One such product, CNN MoneyStream, was unveiled on Wednesday. Forthcoming launches will include a new CNN app, slated for rollout within months, and a CNNGo that’s retooled for more on-demand video viewing. Morse adds that the company is eyeing new offerings for markets in Asia, Africa, and western Europe in 2017.

All those come in addition to Great Big Story, a standalone subsidiary launched a year ago that produces video features and native advertising tailored for social media. A GBS spokesman said the 40-person outfit totaled 50 million multiplatform video starts in September—the average viewer’s age is estimated at 26—and it expanded last week to both Apple TV and Roku.

CNN has established as great a reach on such third-party platforms as any legacy news organization, and its imprint particularly dwarfs that of its counterparts in cable and broadcast news. CNN Money, for example, has more Facebook “Likes” than The Washington Post. The network has brought on top talent to manage programming across such platforms.

 

This bet has obvious potential downsides. Publishers no longer control their own means of publication. Audience metrics can be incomplete or inaccurate. And the revenue equation is still a bit hazy.

“If Facebook or Snapchat want quality content, they need to work with us and find out a way to monetize,” Morse says. “Every new platform that launches, it takes a while to figure out….But we’re working very closely with each platform we’re on.” 

Then there’s the question of programming stories for different distributors, which requires adding and subtracting specific expertise as platforms ebb and flow in popularity. What’s more, the strategy puts CNN in even more direct competition for users’ attention with fluffier options. CNN needs its journalism to stand apart from not only BuzzFeed’s news content, but also entertainment fare that travels further on Facebook and elsewhere. It holds the potential to produce occasionally cringeworthy results:

Such distortions are by no means unique to CNN. Everyone is still testing out certain gimmicks that play online. Where CNN has an advantage over its competitors is that it is already a globally recognized brand with huge video production capabilities. Many counterparts are scrambling to build out one or the other.

“We’re future-proofing CNN,” Morse says. “You can’t rest on your laurels.”

Correction: Due to improper selection of comScore data, an earlier version of a chart in this article understated The Huffington Post’s web traffic. 

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David Uberti is a CJR staff writer and senior Delacorte fellow. Follow him on Twitter @DavidUberti.