CNN Enters the eZucker Era

More data-driven digital efforts put added emphasis on big stories
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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 CNN.com’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.”

E-mail comments to winslowbc@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter: @GeorgeWinslow

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