New president pushes CNN to rethink news


Published: Sunday, January 16, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 16, 2005 at 1:39 a.m.
Jon Klein, who took over as president of CNN last month, has wasted little time shaking things up at the staid cable channel. He canned the long-running political shout show ''Crossfire,'' dissed the tabloid trial coverage so ubiquitous on TV and plans to overhaul much of the network's approach to covering news.
Top priority for Klein is rejuvenating CNN's evening lineup. While he says there are no plans to replace talent including Paula Zahn, Anderson Cooper, Larry King and Aaron Brown, he wants to revamp some of their shows so they focus on dramatic storytelling. The push is designed to starkly differentiate CNN from News Corp.'s Fox News, which has built a big lead in the ratings race and has made inroads with advertisers.
Klein happened to take the reins of CNN's U.S. operations just as a huge story broke that played to the strengths of the Time Warner Inc. network. CNN's blanket coverage of the tsunami disaster boosted ratings substantially and has won strong critical notice. The channel had its top anchors and reporters on the scene days before the other networks sent their big guns. And while CNN is often seen as having a bloated infrastructure compared with its lean rival Fox News, for once that paid off as the network was able to take advantage of its huge international presence in covering the disaster.
''He is taking a very active role in story planning and the overall direction of the network,'' says Judy Woodruff, CNN's longtime political reporter. She notes that while ''management has always had the ability to weigh in on those calls, Klein is more aggressive about it.''
Covering breaking news has always been CNN's strong point. The challenge has been luring viewers during slower news cycles. CNN has struggled to develop brand-name programs the way Fox has that keep people coming back after a crisis has passed. That inability to score consistent ratings has led to numerous executive shake-ups at the channel over the last five years.
For almost 20 years after its launch in 1980, CNN held a monopoly on 24-hour news and made founder Ted Turner's reputation as a visionary. But Fox News produced engaging opinion shows, then launched a brutal marketing assault on CNN, daring it to compete on Fox's turf. CNN found itself reeling in search of a strategy.
Klein aims to articulate a strategy that is not too close to Fox News but also not a droning plain-vanilla news channel. In an interview at CNN's New York offices, Klein says the news channel needs to offer viewers an ''emotional ride'' rather than generic reporting. "CNN had been very diffuse for a long time and tended to cover everything on the same note,'' he says. ''We're not just a video wire service; we have to break through the background noise.''
Unlike most of his predecessors, Klein appears to have a theatrical sense of how to send messages that ripple through the media. ''CNN created a void by their silence,'' Klein says of the network's previous low-key approach to dealing with competition. In contrast, he has publicly criticized Fox News for talking about the news rather than covering it.
To make CNN stand out, Klein is imploring his hosts and producers to shy away from relying on talking heads to discuss news and instead find human-interest pieces that provide ''storytelling.'' He adds, ''It is a programming instinct rather than simply a news-gathering instinct, and both of those aspects are critically important in covering the news.''
During its blanket coverage of the tsunami, the network quickly produced a documentary about the impact on children there and aired it in prime time last week. A CNN staffer noted that before Klein arrived, such a piece would have taken a few weeks to produce and would likely have been buried on a Saturday afternoon.
Klein's big news-coverage obsession is homeland security. ''It is our No. 1 story,'' he says. One of his first acts was to order up a 25-part series of segments and a two-hour special called ''Defending America'' that will fill CNN's airwaves leading up to President Bush's inauguration next week.
As for ''Crossfire,'' not only did he get rid of it, but he says he agreed with comedian Jon Stewart, who famously appeared on the show last year and blasted it for being little more than a forum for screaming, partisan hacks.
" 'Crossfire' was just a half-hour in the afternoon but it was a symbol of something, and what they have made very clear is the mission of CNN is to be a network based on journalistic reporting,'' says Walter Isaacson, a former CNN chairman who now heads the nonprofit think tank Aspen Institute. Says Klein, "Just as I'm opposed to a five-second sound bite because it rarely reveals anything, I'm opposed to a series of five-second sound bites piled on top of each other so you can't hear any of them.''
Klein also is hoping to do away with the heavy reliance on sensational trials as a source of programming.
Klein says he believes viewer interest in major stories drops after day two - and this includes high-profile murder trials.
''Yes, they care about the verdict, but they don't care about anything else,'' he says.
Covering every little detail from a trial shows ''a lack of imagination'' and CNN has to try to be smarter in covering stories that will "spark with our audience,'' he says.

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