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No Longer Your Father’s CNN

Sep 22, 2003  •  Post A Comment

With his most recent change of management and mandate, CNN News Group President Jim Walton has killed, run off or neutered any remaining sacred cows at the 24-year-old news network.

Until Mr. Walton’s shakeups, CNN had became so hidebound that it was incapable of preventing seven-year-old Fox News Channel from hustling right past the cable news pioneer into first place.

Mr. Walton, who took over the CNN News Group earlier this year, no longer wants the news-gathering tail wagging the programming dog. No more regarding people skills as unnecessary, if not irrelevant, in managers. No more “well, that’s not the way it’s always been done” when the regime du jour tried any number of ways to shake the dust off of CNN.

Teya Ryan, the tough-as-nails producer-turned-executive for whom an occasional kind word still can be heard if one looks for it, is gone. Bob Brienza, the Ryan henchman in charge of network programming, who had seemed to relish alienating nearly everyone whose path he crossed, has been told there is no job for him in the new CNN structure. (It was uncertain last week whether he had cleared out of CNN’s Atlanta headquarters.) Eason Jordan, who had turned newsgathering into a worldwide fiefdom that dictated what showed up on CNN programs, is now a minister without a day-to-day portfolio.

There had been unsubstantiated rumors about Ms. Ryan’s fate. There had been, for months, an undefinable feeling within CNN that some kind of shoe might drop at any moment. They had no idea how many shoes were to drop, nor that fast-rising, frequently moving local-news hero Princell Hair would be tapped to fill the biggest of the shoes. That’s because Mr. Walton had determined that only someone familiar with the challenges of programming from pre-dawn to late night for a variety of audiences and their different news needs could see the parallels in the demands of a 24-hour news network. Mr. Walton doesn’t take many people into his confidence.

Since he announced the reorganization on Sept. 15 and named Mr. Hair, 36, the new executive VP and general manager of CNN/U.S., the mood in CNN corridors has alternated between dread and curiosity about Mr. Hair.

“People are afraid that doing their job is not enough,” said one source. “Nobody knows what to expect.”

Mr. Hair will be on the new job full time in Atlanta by Oct. 1, he said in a telephone interview from California, where Mr. Hair was putting a “for sale” sign up on the Santa Clarita Valley house that had been home to him, wife Jodie and their five children for only a few months. He’s already looked over a house in the northern suburb of Alpharetta.

“The first stage will be getting to know how the organization works and watching the process,” said Mr. Hair, who plans to meet and greet and “get to know what the concerns are” in Atlanta, as well as at CNN’s “significant operations” in Washington, D.C., New York and domestic bureaus.

“I just want to hear what people have to say,” he said. Like Mr. Walton, he stated the mandate for the future is to get more people to watch CNN longer by doing more of what CNN believes it does best.

“He has never been a grand pronouncements kind of guy,” said Al Tompkins, a TV news veteran who joined the faculty of the Poynter Institute, where Mr. Hair has lectured.

Mr. Hair is described as a nice guy, a smart man, a collaborative leader. But his quiet and reserved manner sometimes leaves people feeling they don’t know what he really thinks.

“He had a pretty clear vision and image of what he thought we should be doing,” said Bill Fine, the general manager of Hearst-Argyle’s WBAL-TV in Baltimore. “He was always willing to discuss things, ask for my advice. A lot of times I felt that was courtesy, because he already had a vision.”

WBAL was Mr. Hair’s last stop before he left in the summer of 2001 to work for the third time for the most controversial of his mentors: Joel Cheatwood. Mr. Cheatwood, who has shown a fondness for bells and whistles and sensationalism for much of his local news career, was then the executive in charge of news for the 39 TV stations owned by Viacom. Mr. Hair was to be his corporate news director.

It was to have been the biggest job of Mr. Hair’s career-which began at WPLG-TV in Miami in 1990, before he left college. Instead, the job was redefined three times and ultimately rendered irrelevant due to increased autonomy at the local level. Neither Mr. Hair, who negotiated his release from Viacom in less than a day, nor Mr. Cheatwood, who is quietly waiting out the end of his contract, are expected to be replaced at Viacom.

Mr. Tomkins is one who thinks the scale of the CNN job will not be daunting for Mr. Hair, because “he doesn’t need to tell everyone what to do. He leads his leaders and gives them what they need to lead their people.”

Mr. Hair said the decision, after six to eight weeks of discussions with Mr. Walton, was “a no-brainer. This is a dream job for any news executive.”

In addition to the “How’s he qualified for this job?” question, some of the second-day coverage of Mr. Hair’s appointment at CNN focused on his having blazed through nine jobs in a handful of years.

“I think we have pretty much spelled it out as to why me, but I’m not surprised by it,” Mr. Hair said.

Mr. Hair said he didn’t leave any of his jobs before he’d learned all he could or made his mark. “There is always more you can do and you constantly challenge yourself to constantly come up with new and different ideas,” he said.

He added: “I’m confident I’m going to be here for a long, long time.”