Molding a new CNN

Jan 21, 2002  •  Post A Comment

No one could accuse former Time magazine Managing Editor Walter Isaacson of ambling through the first three decades of his professional life, which took him from New Orleans to London and then New York. But since becoming chairman and CEO of CNN News Group last year, Mr. Isaacson has moved at warp speed. He hit the ground running-in Atlanta, where CNN is headquartered, and back home in New York, the center of Mr. Isaacson’s familiar media world-to take control of the pioneering news channel that has defied all previous attempts to change its direction.
Then, just as Mr. Isaacson was beginning to put his imprint on CNN, terrorists attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Since then, Mr. Isaacson has been on a marathon sprint, changing the tires on an all-news vehicle that in recent years has struggled to convince viewers to go along for the ride between catastrophic news binges.
EM: What is it like to take over the reins of this big ship of an organization in the simultaneous best of times and worst of times?
Mr. Isaacson: CNN’s an amazing organization, and I was pleased with the depth of talent and the passion I found when I came there. All of us realized we had to simplify the management structure and then get new high-credibility talent and shows on the air. So we started with the Paula Zahn show and the Aaron Brown show, which came along even more quickly than we expected, since they both showed up on Sept. 11 without planning to.
EM: What has the old guard at CNN learned from the new? And what have you learned from the old guard at CNN?
Mr. Isaacson: I think there’s a real unity of purpose at CNN now. We realize the value of a global news-gathering outfit that can get people in every major Afghanistan city so that our coverage has more depth and intimacy.
EM: The war on terrorism has tilted the focus to one that’s easy to promote. We all know what the story has been since Sept. 11. Has that helped or hurt the teaching and adopting process?
Mr. Isaacson: One of the things we’ve done since Sept. 11 is take an organization that for 20 years was based on pure news-gathering and then just putting that news on the air as a lot of rolling newscasts, and instead we’re starting to build CNN around specific programs. We want to have the programs have a certain personality and style … and that meant getting away from a system that was driven by reports that correspondents would send in and then we’d just put them on the air, one after the other, as part of a rolling newscast. CNN has adapted very much to being more of a program-driven network as opposed to just a newscast. Sept. 11 sure gave us a lot of news, but we were able even as that was happening to create what I think is the best evening news show on television these days, which is the Aaron Brown show. And likewise, it helped us create a show around Paula Zahn that’s made her one of the world’s premier news anchors.
EM: So what might CNN look like today if Sept. 11 hadn’t occurred?
Mr. Isaacson: If Sept. 11 hadn’t occurred, it would have taken us longer to develop some of these new shows that we just leaped into feet first. But I do think we wanted to keep our focus on journalism, because all of us believe here that the world is an interesting place, it matters, and that good reporting and good journalism matter.
EM: These are hard times, though. There’s been talk about CNN finding a partner. There have been exploratory talks with ABC and CBS. What do you do to increase revenues?
Mr. Isaacson: CNN is a very secure and profitable business because it has so many networks and now online components. We see advertising picking up already, and we see a renewed sense of mission at all of our networks, especially at CNN USA. And I think we’ll be in the forefront in the future of things like online journalism, interactive journalism, news on demand as we work into a broadband world.
EM: There has been talk about retrenchment on the CNN domestic bureau front. There was another flurry of buyouts and exits in December. Given the costs of covering the war on terrorism-even if it does slow down, it’s not going away any time soon-are retrenchments more or less likely than had been in the thought process before Sept. 11?
Mr. Isaacson: All the people in this corporation, from [soon-to-retire AOL Time Warner CEO] Jerry Levin and [Co-Chief Operating Officer] Bob Pittman on down, have assured us and shown us that we will have the resources we need to do real journalism properly. But we’re still going to try to run a sensible, efficient business, and there’ll be things we cut back and things we grow. As we add a Paula Zahn and an Aaron Brown, there’ll be people who will probably leave. As we add new types of reporters to try to make different types of shows, there’ll be certain bureaus and reporters that we may shut down, and we may shift resources. But we’re not going to have any radical cutbacks, because journalism is at the core of what we do. The corporation knows that, and it turns out that we can do that in a profitable and secure way.
EM: Where does the CNN ratings compass take you? Right now you’ve got Paula Zahn and Aaron Brown and Lou Dobbs all driving ratings out of New York. You have Larry King all over the map-literally. It seems like the momentum is all in places other than Atlanta.
Mr. Isaacson: I think that CNN will have two or three centers of gravity. Atlanta will be the heart of all news gathering and the company. Programming will originate out of New York, Washington and maybe Los Angeles. And we’re not locked into any necessary location. We will do shows and news gathering wherever it makes sense.
EM: There is this feeling that to get the talent and the quality of people you want, on- and off-camera, there’s going to have to be more programming originating outside Atlanta.
Mr. Isaacson: It is true that we’ve taken the morning show and the 10 o’clock news show and put them in New York, where we can get Paula Zahn and Aaron Brown and get producers like David Bohrman and Kathy O’Hearn. We’re building a new studio in the Time-Life Building, that’s part of our plan. And in a couple years we’ll have amazing television space in the AOL Time Warner Center on Columbus Circle, so all of that is part of a plan to bring CNN to yet another level, and yes, a lot of that will be outside of Atlanta. But I do think news gathering and the operations and management is good to have in Atlanta and is particularly good to have it in a place that is not on one of the coasts. We get a different perspective. We keep that mix. I’m not arguing one way or the other. I’m saying we’ll have to keep the right mix.