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CNN’s Mark Thompson Outlines Digital Future for Cable Channel, Unveils New Org Structure

Mark Thompson’s vision for CNN is beginning to take shape.

In a wide-ranging memo titled “CNN’s Future” sent to staffers Wednesday morning, Thompson outlined a new organizational structure for the company, one built “around the future not the past.”

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“We need to recapture some of the swagger and innovation of the early CNN,” Thompson wrote. “It’s time for a new revolution.

“There’s news of a fair amount of change at CNN in this memo, and no doubt more in the coming months,” he wrote. “Change is essential if we’re to secure this great news company’s future. It brings uncertainty — that I’m afraid is inevitable — but in my experience, it’s also often rich in personal and shared opportunity. As we enter this new chapter in CNN’s storied history, I’d encourage you to take a leaf out of Ted Turner’s book. Let’s build with confidence. Let’s fulfill our mission. Let’s learn some new tricks. Let’s look after each other. Let’s have some fun.”

Thompson outlined a CNN where digital is at the heart of the offering, and acknowledged that amid a rapidly declining pay-TV business, CNN “has been slow to respond to the challenge.

“Perhaps that’s not surprising: the CNN of today is no longer that buccaneering outsider but a tenured incumbent,” he added. “You still see our strength when big stories break. We still sport brilliant on-air, digital and producing talent and have one of the world’s most visited news websites. But, despite all these strengths, there’s currently too little innovation and risk-taking.”

Thompson outlined a vision that includes new types of content, such as new products, offerings and possibly subscriptions, including linear offerings that can “complement” CNN Max.

“For many people today, the smartphone is a more important device for consuming news than the TV,” Thompson writes. “Their news primetime is in the morning not the evening. Video remains key but the news video that most people under 40 watch is vertical not horizontal and, because neither we nor any other established news provider offer a compelling video-led news experience, they often find their news on generic video and social apps. Many get to know CNN reporting and CNN anchors on YouTube or TikTok without connecting them with CNN at all.”

As for CNN’s future on cable TV, Thompson writes that the channel remains “one of the jewels in our crown and I believe that linear TV will play a central and vital role in CNN’s success as far out as the eye can see.”

That being said, Thompson suggested that CNN’s linear channels will face belt-tightening:

“Even after cable consumption began to fall, there was a period of strong revenue growth from cable subscriptions in the mid-2010s and some of that unexpected bounty ended up as raised production costs that now look difficult to support given the changing economics across our industry,” he writes. “I firmly believe that financial success and sustainability fund our journalism and afford us more independence to focus on what we do best. So, in addition to quality and performance improvement, expect to see us also looking hard at how best to put our TV production machine on a sustainable footing without weakening either the calibre of our journalism or the distinctiveness of our output.”

Thompson’s leadership team will include Alex MacCallum, who will rejoin CNN as executive vp digital products and services after serving as The Washington Post’s chief revenue officer. MacCallum previously was part of the CNN+ launch team, and before that spent years working alongside Thompson at The New York Times.

He also announced that Virginia Moseley would become CNN’s first executive editor, with Mike McCarthy as managing editor. The two will lead a combined newsroom that includes linear and digital, domestic and international. David Leavy will continue as COO, with Ken Jautz reporting to him as executive vp operations.

Eric Sherling will continue to oversee programming, while Amy Entelis continues to lead talent and CNN Originals.

In fact, Thompson suggested that CNN would be reversing its strategy of abandoning original series.

“I’m a strong supporter of news adjacent content and topical entertainment and plan both to reinvest in Originals and to experiment more boldly alongside our core news offering,” he wrote.

Read Thompson’s full memo, below.

CNN’s Future

Four and a half decades ago Ted Turner launched a revolution in TV News. He took an insight – that people wanted access to news not just when it suited TV schedulers but as it happens – and the unique business opportunity of the new cable platform and created what soon became one of the world’s greatest and most trusted news brands. But no matter how much success CNN enjoyed, Ted never saw his creation merely as a business breakthrough. He believed CNN had a mission, because for him bringing timely, trustworthy and fair-minded news to audiences everywhere was also a way of making the world a better place. 

He assembled a team of astonishing talent and drive and – inspired by that mission as well as Ted’s founding insight and the amazing business opportunity he’d identified – they created the future of news on television.

The young CNN was a scrappy outsider. It took risks. It improvised. Sometimes it fell flat on its face. But story by story, it redefined how TV news covered and analyzed news. Soon audiences learned to turn to CNN first whenever something big happened. They still do. This is our inheritance and it’s a great one.

FOLLOW THE AUDIENCE

Now technology and audiences are on the move again. For many people today, the smartphone is a more important device for consuming news than the TV. Their news primetime is in the morning not the evening. Video remains key but the news video that most people under 40 watch is vertical not horizontal and, because neither we nor any other established news provider offer a compelling video-led news experience, they often find their news on generic video and social apps. Many get to know CNN reporting and CNN anchors on YouTube or TikTok without connecting them with CNN at all.

Meanwhile the traditional TV universe is shrinking steadily. The shift from linear broadcast to digital means that the audience for all news channels on US cable has fallen by roughly a fifth in just the past two years. TV remains an important way of reaching some loyal audiences, but the critical revenue we currently derive from it is increasingly under threat.

So far CNN has been slow to respond to the challenge. Perhaps that’s not surprising: the CNN of today is no longer that buccaneering outsider but a tenured incumbent. You still see our strength when big stories break. We still sport brilliant on-air, digital and producing talent and have one of the world’s most visited news websites. But, despite all these strengths, there’s currently too little innovation and risk-taking. Like so many other news players with a broadcast heritage, CNN’s linear services and even its website can sometimes have an old-fashioned and unadventurous feel as if the world has changed and they haven’t.

Some people in our industry privately agree with this but have concluded that catching up with today’s audiences is simply too hard and decline is therefore inevitable. Not me. I believe CNN is a brand and a trusted news source of immense potential. I believe not just that audiences still want access to news 24/7, but that they would welcome new ways of getting that news from us, and new forms of storytelling presented on new devices and in new use cases. Technology may be disrupting our traditional revenue, but it offers us many new opportunities to reach audiences and deliver the kind of quality journalism they will pay for. And I believe that the mission Ted Turner proclaimed back in 1980 is, if anything, even more relevant today. The world needs access to high quality dependable news now more than ever – and we have the brand, the unrivaled global newsgathering operation, and above all the single-minded, dedicated and talented people to deliver it.

But to succeed, we must abandon our preconceptions of the limits of what CNN can be and follow the audience to where they are now and where they will be in the years to come. We will still stand for the same things – video-led breaking news, delivered as it happens with honesty and insight – but with greater flexibility about the how and multiple new forms of monetization to complement existing revenues. We need to organize around the future not the past. We need to recapture some of the swagger and innovation of the early CNN.

It’s time for a new revolution.

CNN’S MISSION: THE NEWS

For historical reasons CNN has grown up with separate domestic and international news operations. Some – but not all – of digital news creation and curation reports into a currently TV-centric news division. Across much of news there is currently limited access or awareness of data science and digital product capabilities.

A true multimedia strategy requires a multimedia newsroom. We will combine leadership of international, domestic and digital news operations with immediate effect with Mike McCarthy and the global team now reporting to Virginia Moseley. Virginia today becomes CNN’s first Executive Editor and Mike becomes Managing Editor of CNN. We will continue to present the CNN International brand to audiences around the world, but internally we will operate as one, increasingly coordinated and united organization. The television production side of CNN International will remain under Mike as we work through future structure and operations. We will also integrate linear and digital journalism more fully desk by desk and make data science and product expertise more available to our news teams than they are now.

As far as possible we want single integrated teams to cover stories for all platforms. We know we have different audiences with different needs at different times. Nonetheless we intend to move to greater consistency of editorial approach wherever we can.

A NEW DIGITAL CHAPTER AT CNN

Only legacy media organizations use the word “digital.” In start-ups and in Silicon Valley it doesn’t need to be said because it’s so central and so obvious. At CNN we also want to move as quickly as possible to a point where it becomes redundant.

Until today, digital has been organized as a separate operation at the company under a separate general manager, most recently Athan Stephanopoulos. As I said when I announced his departure, Athan has led this operation with real flair and conviction, and I’m very grateful to him for his contribution. But given that we want every part of CNN to have a digital sensibility and digital skills, it no longer makes sense to organize digital under a general manager or Chief Digital Officer.

Today we urgently need not just drastic modernization of CNN.com, but multiple other new digital products – including linear products to complement the successful launch of CNN Max. We need new registration/customer management and, above all, new monetization capabilities to access new sources of revenue. We need new skills to add to the strong bench of talent we already have. Together with colleagues at WBD, we need to engage with GenAI and other emergent technologies. In short, we need a new strategic approach with a view to becoming an industry leader in digital rather than a follower. We need the best product and tech skills in the business, and we need great and visionary digital product leadership.

Alex MacCallum, already well known to many of you, will join us in March as EVP, Digital Products and Services, and she will lead a team more single-mindedly focused on developing the products and the subscription and other relationships with users that will make CNN once again indispensable to younger, as well as well as older audiences, and secure our economics into the future.

I can’t tell you how pleased I am that Alex is rejoining CNN. I want to give her time to develop her plans after her arrival, so it will be a while before we can share details of the new roadmap. Everyone who works in the current department will report to Alex when she arrives and until we’ve decided the final shape of this part of the company. Although I know this means a period of uncertainty for the current digital team, everyone should see today’s announcement as a vote of confidence in digital at CNN and a commitment to put our money where our mouth is.

THE FUTURE OF TV AT CNN

In many ways, media companies are families and, just as in a family the first-born child can sometimes look round and wonder why it’s their younger siblings who are now getting all the attention, it’s only natural for someone who currently works on the TV side at CNN to ask themselves whether I’m ever going to turn to them.

Don’t worry. At their frequent best our domestic and global TV schedules are one of the jewels in our crown and I believe that linear TV will play a central and vital role in CNN’s success as far out as the eye can see. It’s also been great seeing new audiences find classic linear TV and new programming in meaningful numbers on CNN Max during big moments like our coverage out of Israel, our Iowa debate and our New Year’s Eve programme.

But we have work to do here too, especially in domestic cable. After a difficult, transitional period last year, we now have a promising new primetime line-up. But that still needs time to bed in, even as we look for other opportunities to improve audience flow and boost performance elsewhere in the schedule.

We also need to address the long-range economics of TV at CNN. Even after cable consumption began to fall, there was a period of strong revenue growth from cable subscriptions in the mid-2010s and some of that unexpected bounty ended up as raised production costs that now look difficult to support given the changing economics across our industry. I firmly believe that financial success and sustainability fund our journalism and afford us more independence to focus on what we do best. So, in addition to quality and performance improvement, expect to see us also looking hard at how best to put our TV production machine on a sustainable footing without weakening either the calibre of our journalism or the distinctiveness of our output. I’ll continue to work with EVP, TV Programming, Eric Sherling, his colleagues and our excellent line-up of Executive Producers on all these challenges.

TALENT

I also passionately believe that outstanding and high-profile talent will continue to be a central thread in the CNN story, while recognizing that we have much more to do to find pathways for our top names to multiplatform audiences. Anderson Cooper’s brilliant podcast All There Is shows the way.

So I’m delighted that Amy Entelis will be working with me as EVP, Talent, CNN Originals and Creative Development. I’m a strong supporter of news adjacent content and topical entertainment and plan both to reinvest in Originals and to experiment more boldly alongside our core news offering. Amy will now have even greater authority to lead on talent decisions for CNN in addition to continuing with her robust award-winning portfolio of CNN Originals work. Ramon Escobar, SVP Talent Recruitment & Development will continue working with Amy. Lisa Reeves will continue as SVP, Talent Negotiations working closely with Amy and the rest of the Talent team.

REVENUE AND OPERATIONS

As I said at the most recent WBD global town hall, at CNN we need to change from being farmers to hunters, and to go out and seek new audiences and new sources of revenue if we’re to prosper. In the past we haven’t always gone the extra mile to squeeze every bit of value from the outstanding news and other intellectual property we create. No longer.

With that in mind, Stacey Wolf is taking on a new role as Group SVP, Head of Business Partnerships and Negotiations, reporting to our COO, David Leavy. Additionally, we will appoint a second new leader at CNN, also reporting to David, in the new role of SVP, Business Development and Commercial Strategy. We hope to fill this role in the next few weeks. Both these roles will be focused on growth to be achieved by striking new and better deals, acquiring or helping to create new businesses and unlocking and scaling new sources of revenue.

David will play a key role himself in coordinating and helping to drive the process of change and development at CNN. So too will Ken Jautz, who will continue to report to David in his role as EVP, Operations but directly to me as he supports two of our most important change projects: the transition to a full multimedia news operation and the development of a sustainable TV production and broadcast model for the future. I’ve also asked Sam Feist to work alongside Ken in these change programmes, while continuing his existing role in Washington.

Additionally, under David’s operations group, Karen Bronzo will continue to lead marketing for CNN as well as the WBD US Networks, Nick Cavaliere will lead our research and data analytics team, Emily Kuhn is being promoted to SVP, Communications and will lead the global communications team, and Phil Nelson will continue to lead CNN International Commercial, working closely with David and our domestic sales partners.

Adam Cohn, EVP and CFO, Alaka Williams, SVP, People & Culture, David Vigilante, EVP and General Counsel, will all join my leadership team alongside Alex, Amy, David L, Eric, and Virginia. So too will Johnita Due, EVP of Integrity and Inclusion, managing our Standards & Practices and championing DEI at CNN.

There’s news of a fair amount of change at CNN in this memo, and no doubt more in the coming months. Change is essential if we’re to secure this great news company’s future. It brings uncertainty – that I’m afraid is inevitable – but in my experience, it’s also often rich in personal and shared opportunity. As we enter this new chapter in CNN’s storied history, I’d encourage you to take a leaf out of Ted Turner’s book. Let’s build with confidence. Let’s fulfill our mission. Let’s learn some new tricks. Let’s look after each other. Let’s have some fun.

Mark Thompson
January 2024

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