CNN’s consistent yet stealthy drive to assemble a heavyweight media reporting team came to a head yesterday, when it announced it had recruited Politico’s powerhouse media scoop hound Dylan Byers, who will also cover politics for the network.
Newsrooms like CNN, Politico, and The Huffington Post are giving greater attention to this coverage area. More than ever, the evolving industry is rife with far-reaching hard news and big-picture features, many of which resonate with audiences beyond journalist Twitter. Think Rolling Stone and Brian Williams. There’s an argument to be made for the public service value that comes with covering the media, but newsrooms also have their eyes on possible financial gains.
CNN’s push started almost two years ago, when it hired Brian Stelter, the young media reporter who had earned praise and a beefy social media following at The New York Times. He stepped in as the full-time host of the Sunday morning media show “Reliable Sources,” reporting and writing for the Web during the week. A year later, CNN executives decided to pluck two rising media reporters from Business Insider and Talking Points Memo, along with a digital producer from Fox Business Network. June saw the formal launch of CNN Media, a visually distinct arm of the financial website CNN Money. Byers seems to be the feather in CNN’s cap, rounding off a team of four reporters, a producer, and an editor.
This is a beat with big personalities. It’s a beat with big controversies. It’s a beat with big ethical questions.
“We saw the opportunity in the white space,” says Ed O’Keefe, vice president of CNN Money and Politics. “CNN is going through this transformative change at the same time as everyone else. We needed to not only be a part of that conversation, but take back some of the responsibility in reporting on our own industry.”
Coverage of the media–which includes film and TV at CNN–holds meaning for readers beyond industry insiders. The media beat overlaps with politics, business, technology, pop culture, and entertainment. “This is a beat with big personalities. It’s a beat with big controversies. It’s a beat with big ethical questions,” Stelter says. “They’re reasons why these stories are very clickable.” Not to mention the fact, Byers adds, that people distrust the media–and everyone wants to read about what they don’t like.
That all makes O’Keefe and his colleagues think media reporting is a sound bet for business, and the numbers appear to agree. In July, CNN Money welcomed nearly 24 million unique multiplatform visitors, an in-house record. In the past year, roughly 17 percent of that crowd clicked on stories published by CNN Media, according to information provided by the company. Big stories, like Brian Williams’ dethroning at NBC, typically account for more than a quarter of the site’s traffic.
CNN Money is in a dogfight with financial reporting institutions like The Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg, O’Keefe says, and the media team knows how to throw a punch. CNN considers the squad–and Stelter’s reputation–a selling point for advertisers.
Gabriel Arana, senior media editor for The Huffington Post, says his vertical is one of the more popular corners of the monolithic website. Byers is leaving his media blog at Politico, which he says delivered an “immense” amount of traffic that surprised both him and his editors. Neither reporter provided hard numbers, but Politico, at least, must see some value in the coverage. The beltway-based operation introduced a beta run of Politico Media early last month. Six reporters in New York alone are chasing both small and large stories for the fledgling vertical. Digital game changers like BuzzFeed have also spun out solid media pieces.
It’s easy to write about and criticize happenings in journalism, but as with any beat, it’s difficult to dig up new information, Stelter says. “One of the things that struck me is just how hard it is to get people in the industry to talk about anything,” HuffPo’s Arana adds. That means companies that aspire to do hardcore media reporting must make strong investments.
That CNN now has two of the ecosystem’s biggest predators in Stelter and Byers points to good things for its digital and TV brands. Sure, it represents a challenge for the company’s media-focused competitors, but it’s a good sign for media reporting in general. If high traffic numbers come to bear, other news outlets might choose to bankroll more media coverage. The uncertainty surrounding this shifting industry certainly warrants the attention.Jack Murtha is a CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow him on Twitter at @JackMurtha