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CNN Leadership Shift Marks Opportunity and Peril

New York Times columnist David Carr has suggested “The Newsroom” — Aaron Sorkin’s drama about a fictional news network — is really a not-so-subtle blueprint for fixing CNN.

If by “fixing” he means doing things better, smarter, and providing less inane fodder for “The Daily Show” (can you say “Magic Wall?”), well, yes. Whether that would cure what ails the network, alas, is entirely another matter.

WaltonThe news that CNN Worldwide Chief Jim Walton (pictured) will leave at year’s end will doubtless renew speculation about a new direction for the network, which has seen its ratings dwindle amid a polarized climate in which Fox News Channel and MSNBC have risen past it. The argument will rage again as to whether CNN needs to be more provocative and political, or if it merely needs to attack its serious, hard-news niche better.

For what’s worth, “The Newsroom” counsels a bit of both — being a true hard-news organization, but also getting past the empty he-said, they-said of false political equivalency, where every side is given equal weight, even if one is pushing a bogus argument.

Yet while doing news better would be welcome, that doesn’t address CNN’s longstanding structural challenges: That being known for breaking news can be a handicap in getting people to watch on a regular basis; that Fox and MSNBC function like talkradio, where people listen for long stretches, as opposed to CNN approximating newsradio, where people tune in for news, traffic or scores, and move on; that international news — a CNN strength — is often a tough sell, ratings-wise; and that the news audience, especially in younger demos, has shown itself to be easily distracted by fluff and tabloid stories.

In the short term, CNN can address some questionable talent decisions the network has made, but I don’t profess to have any answers to these longer-term issues. Although in the current environment, pushing a smaller but smarter audience (i.e. one that’s more upscale and desirable to advertisers) might be viable, assuming CNN can deliver on the “smart” part.

CNN execs have spoken about the need to be more “sticky” in terms of retaining viewers, and I not long ago detailed why that’s easier said than done.

I have no problem with CNN being stickier. The real concern is that in trying, it will only succeed in becoming oilier.

 

 

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