CNN Enters the eZucker Era

More data-driven digital efforts put added emphasis on big stories 6/03/2013 12:01:00 AM Eastern

CNN Worldwide president Jeff
Zucker has yet to unveil his plans for
revitalizing CNN’s ratings and primetime
schedule, but some of the clearest indications
of his present and future strategy can be
found at CNN Digital.

“Digital is a core component of the new vision
for CNN,” Zucker said last week in an
email exchange. “In order to win, CNN has
to be available on whatever screen is accessible
to our audiences, wherever they may be.
More often than not, Web and mobile are the first access points for consumers, so they’re
essential lifelines for any news organization.”

Zucker also stressed that “it’s not separate from
TV—we’re integrating digital into every business
decision we make, and we’re thinking about every
story from a cross-platform perspective.”

One notable illustration of his approach can
be seen through recent changes to’s
home page.

Kenneth “KC” Estenson, senior VP and
general manager of CNN Digital, recalls that
Zucker was pleased with the network’s strong
digital traffic but quickly moved to improve
efforts by pumping in more resources and
pushing for a tighter news focus. “He felt like
we were not owning the news agenda and not
leading with a major story and sticking
with it,” Estenson said.

The Bold and the Beautiful

That approach has emerged as a cornerstone
of Zucker’s strategy both for
on-air and digital, where it prompted
the major overhaul of the home page.

“The home page is literally bolder,
bigger and cleaner, with one dominant
big story such as the Oklahoma tornadoes
or the Boston Marathon bombings,”
said Meredith Artley, VP and
managing editor of CNN Digital.

At the same time, the site is doing
more “counter-programming” with
lighter features and has been reorganized
to highlight social media feeds and live
TV Everywhere streams of the network, Artley
added. The digital team is also updating the
site much more rapidly, producing more content
and becoming more data-driven in the
types of stories it pursues.

Behind the scenes, even deeper changes are
being made in the way CNN approaches the
news. Each weekday, CNN Digital holds an
8 a.m. editorial meeting, which is followed by
a 9 a.m. company-wide call led by Zucker.

During that call, staff discusses the stories they
are working on and what kinds of stories have
been registering with online and mobile audiences.
“Sometimes, Jeff will stop the conversation
and say, ‘OK, this story is doing very well on
digital and that is something we want to keep an
eye on and make sure we do on-air,’” Artley said.
“It is much more numbers
driven, metrics driven.”

Throughout the day,
Zucker is also regularly
pinging the digital team
with questions about
traffic and what stories
are trending, sometimes
even making
suggestions about the
wording of a headline.

Tighter communication
between the
digital and on-air news
efforts can also be seen
in the fact that about
50 members of Artley’s
digital team are moving
upstairs into the
main newsroom.

Doubling Down on Digital

Zucker is also pushing digital in broader
ways—witness the partnership with BuzzFeed
on a YouTube channel announced May 28. Estenson
says they have been given more newsgathering
resources, and the company is spending
$15 million to improve its technology for mobile
and video content distribution. That investment
will allow CNN to make a major upgrade to its
mobile and app offerings later this year. “Mobile
continues to redefine what breaking news is and
how it gets to people,” Estenson said. “About
30% of our traffic is now coming from mobile.
Jeff has said, ‘Lets make sure digital is in a leadership
position for breaking news and trends.’”

Initial results are promising. In April, CNN
Digital Network had its highest traffic ever during
the week of the Boston Marathon bombings
and finished the month with 75 million unique
visitors, up 31% over 2012, and 2.3 billion page
views, according to comScore. Only the Yahoo/
ABC news sites produced larger numbers.

Advertisers also seem to be paying attention.
CNN’s new morning show, New Day, which is
designed to play across multiple platforms, has
already attracted three or four major sponsors
that had not worked with CNN in the past.

Over time, Zucker is also betting stronger
digital operations will translate into an evolution
in programming. “Our digital platforms give us
unprecedented insight into the stories and issues
that our audiences care about,” Zucker said. “By
listening to those channels, we get a good idea
of what topics to consider for TV.”

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Twitter: @GeorgeWinslow