How to Fix CNN

Leading with kindness may be key to a comeback for the troubled network.

It was often said of CNN, years before the mess it’s currently mired in but well after Fox News and MSNBC’s ratings surged on the back of frankly partisan commentary, that it was the network Americans turned to in times of breaking news crises. The latest cable news ratings make clear that CNN’s troubles have voided even that claim. 

Coverage of Donald Trump’s federal indictment last week drove a primetime ratings surge of 29.5% across CNN, Fox News and MSNBC. But MSNBC was the clear winner, with a 53.5% spike to an average 1.489 million viewers that saw it dethrone Fox (1.484 million viewers) for the first time in 120 weeks. CNN enjoyed a 32.5% bump, but again languished in a distant third place, with 672,000 viewers. The network failed to land a single broadcast in the top 20 for the week ending June 12. 

The three CNN vets currently running the newsroom–Amy Entelis (EVP, Talent and Content), Virginia Moseley (EVP, Editorial) and Eric Sherling (EVP, US Programming)–can take some solace in that uptick. Fox viewership grew just 10.9% for the week, and if indictment coverage continues to draw in viewers, CNN could use it as a springboard for an election cycle comeback. 

Still, CNN remains adrift and in deep trouble. And Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav has said that the hunt for Chris Licht’s permanent replacement could take months, leading to more uncertainty at an organization that desperately needs a reprieve from it. 

There have been many thorough accounts of what went wrong at CNN under Licht, including Tim Alberta’s withering examination in the Atlantic that likely hastened his dismissal. Here’s what the network should focus on as it recruits a new leader, and how through kind management that new leader can right the ship. 

CNN has enviable resources and a reputation that, while tattered, is salvageable. Among the many reasons Licht undermined his own ability to lead the newsroom was his botched articulation of what, exactly, CNN needs to change. If his, and Zaslav’s, true intention was to cut down on advocacy journalism in favor of objective journalism, he should have been very careful to avoid even the perception of demeaning the work of CNN’s deep roster of talented journalists. 

But his criticisms of their COVID-19 and Trump coverage did just that, confusing the matters of content and its delivery. Leadership should focus on the desired change being a tonal one, especially since many staffers agreed with Licht that the network should “play it straight.”

I’d suggest future critiques be as apolitical as possible (admittedly a high-wire act); to make clear that CNN will still vigorously expose lies (from the right, left and center); and that this new direction, or return to form, has the potential to make CNN stand out against the competition rather than mimic it.

Underscore CNN’s history as the place people go to be informed during a crisis, not to be riled up, or placated, by tribalism. Remind people, often, of their calling as journalists—and that they’re in one of the best organizations on earth to heed that calling. I’m confident that doing this would strengthen a collective sense of purpose at the network that will help lift it out of its current funk.

It’s also important to balance criticism of the bad with praise of the good. The outstanding work of Clarissa Ward, CNN’s Chief International Correspondent, should be held up as often as possible as an example to follow. Not all journalists will be running into war zones like Ward, of course, so I’d also urge executives to cite Erin Burnett, Anderson Cooper and Jake Tapper as inspiration for where the network wants to go.  

The downfalls of star anchors Chris Cuomo and Don Lemon were chaotic and embarrassing. But with turnover drama hopefully abated, now could be the time for a new chapter. What are these staffers doing right? And how might their distinct approaches be emulated? 

My long career in media has taught me that restoring morale in organizations where it’s cratered requires a positive approach that appeals to a company’s mission, points out what it’s doing right and asks for more of that. I have yet to see this approach fail, and don’t foresee it happening at CNN.

Looking beyond content, the business overseers must be seen. The Warner Bros. Discovery merger led to a reorganization and rethinking that have clearly been bumpier than expected and led to a breach between the newsroom and business wings that’s glaring even by the standards of news outlets. 

How can Zaslav restore confidence in his leadership? Do what Licht didn’t. Engage with staffers rather than silo himself away from them (a different story for an executive overseeing so much more than CNN, but efforts can be made) and provide clarity that’s been missing. I’d also suggest assuaging newsroom fears more honestly. Ratings do, in fact, matter. Instill faith that they can rebound with a return to meat-and-potatoes journalism. 

Whether they actually can is a question hanging over CNN and other outlets. I’m still hopeful that there’s an appetite in America for topnotch journalism without partisan bells and whistles, but concede that recent broadcast and digital numbers haven’t bolstered that optimism. Then again, media attempts at unifying rather than stoking divisiveness have been few and far between. 

I’ve written that the post-Trump era might yield less bombast in the media. The pandemic was also an opportunity for journalism to demonstrate its important role in emitting facts to a worried audience craving them. Tragically, even the gravest public health crisis in a century wound up politicized. And Trump is still moving ratings in the direction executives like. 

Between the indictment and election, the timing is unfortunate for CNN to successfully shift course. Then there’s the sea change affecting the entire media sector. Live broadcast audiences are in freefall as people move to streaming. Instagram and TikTok have upended not just the viewing habits of Millennials and Gen Z, but the aesthetics of what they watch, calling into doubt the seemingly immutable format of nattily dressed anchors broadcasting from a decked-out studio. CNN+, the network’s failed attempt at streaming relevance, is already an afterthought. Athan Stephanopoulos, CNN’s Chief Digital Officer, has promised to deliver $1 billion in digital revenue over the next several years. It’s critical that he succeeds.

On the broadcasting front, CNN must find a way to attract new cable news audiences and not chase the Fox and MSNBC diehards. An experiment in straight news programming in primetime, currently in limbo, could do this, and restore CNN, with its exceptional journalism apparatus, to ratings and reputational prominence. But a kind management style will be needed to reanimate staffers and let such programming shakeups bring some good news.