“Did you enjoy that?” asks Jeff Zucker as he walks into his fifth-floor office at CNN’s Manhattan headquarters. By that, Zucker means President Donald Trump’s chaotic 77-minute press conference Feb. 16 from the East Room of the White House, which had just finished up.
In addition to claiming that his administration is running like a “fine-tuned machine” despite near-daily scandals and dustups, the president continued his assault on the news media that, a week later, would result in CNN and others being banned from a daily briefing. “I watch CNN,” said Trump. “The tone is such hatred.” Zucker, whose network has thrived of late despite (or, more likely, in part because of) its status as presidential punching bag, seems to have enjoyed that.
By the time I join Zucker in his modest office, Jake Tapper and Wolf Blitzer are offering a recap from the anchor desk in Washington. We watch it on the largest of the 11 screens mounted on the wall opposite Zucker’s desk. “It was unhinged; it was wild,” says Tapper. Then CNN contributor and Trump loyalist Jeffrey Lord appears via Skype to offer a counter from Trump land. “I’ve been listening to you, and I think we saw two different press conferences,” says Lord. “He was relaxed, he was funny, he was on point.”
Zucker gestures toward the TV: “That’s why it’s important to have these voices,” he says, deflecting a question I hadn’t yet asked about the criticism CNN has faced for giving too much unfiltered airtime to factually challenged Trump-friendly pundits. Continues Lord, “I can tell you this minute that Rush Limbaugh is exalting over this …”
At this point, Zucker picks up his phone and barks into the receiver: “What about the 57 percent of people who didn’t vote for him? Doesn’t he have to be their president, too?” He hangs up. Seconds later, Tapper poses a version of the question to Lord.
As the debate continues, Lord points to Trump’s bizarre challenge to Urban Radio Networks’ African-American reporter April Ryan to “set up a meeting” with the Congressional Black Caucus as proof that the president is determined to broaden his appeal. Zucker picks up the phone again: “Then why does he have to ask April Ryan to get a meeting?”
While CNN’s cable channel still defines the brand — and clearly fires up the 51-year-old Zucker — he and everyone in the media industry know that growth is coming from the digital arena. After decades in the TV trenches — as executive producer of NBC’s Today, then head of NBC’s entertainment division, where he greenlighted Trump’s The Apprentice (the president likes to take credit for Zucker getting his CNN job; does this bother Zucker? “Not in the least. We all know the truth, so it’s just amusing”) — Zucker is now waging a multifront war. Entering his fourth year as president of CNN Worldwide, he has to maintain CNN’s ratings and visibility against traditional cable rivals Fox News and MSNBC while also taking on a multitude of new competitors including BuzzFeed, Vice and others in the digital space.
On the TV front, Zucker and CNN have ridden the Trump wave as adeptly as any outlet. In the critical 25-to-54 demographic, CNN’s daytime audience in January was up 51 percent year-over-year (Fox News was up 55 percent); it pulled in an extra $100 million in ad revenue (counting both TV and digital) last year compared with past election years. Profit for 2016 neared $1 billion, and the short-term outlook suggests the Trump bump will lead to another $1 billion haul. “It’s going to turn 2017 into an even better year than we already expected to have,” says Zucker.
But he knows the political boom won’t last. “This is kind of crazy,” says Zucker. “I don’t think it’s sustainable.”
Nearly 10 years ago, as head of NBCUniversal, Zucker famously warned that media companies were in danger of “trading analog dollars for digital pennies.” He doesn’t say things like that anymore. In the era of social networks and mobile streaming, he knows that digital is where younger viewers — and growth — will come from.
This is why he’s plowing resources into CNN Digital. The web and mobile platforms’ basic structure is built around such subject-specific verticals as CNN Politics, CNN Money and CNN Tech, sub-brands that have helped make CNN the No. 1 digital news brand, drawing an average of 105 million multiplatform unique viewers a month in 2016, according to comScore. That outpaces Yahoo News (93 million), The New York Times (85 million), The Huffington Post (80 million) and BuzzFeed (77 million), though this data does not include traffic from content published directly on social networks such as YouTube, Facebook and Snapchat, where many digital-native brands focus their efforts. In terms of the biggest draws, digital and TV track closely: CNN’s top three digital stories in 2016 were the Pulse nightclub shooting (37 million page views), the election night live blog (32 million) and the Brussels terror attack (22 million).
Overall, digital profit at CNN was close to $150 million in 2016. With global digital ad revenue poised to surpass television as early as this year, Zucker’s mandate is to grow CNN’s digital revenue into a $1 billion business in five years. “We have hired some 250 new people in digital over the course of the last year,” says Zucker. “I would actually argue that outside of the Silicon Valley pure-digital plays, this is the most successful legacy media company in digital without question.”
You’ll have to forgive him if this sounds a bit Trumpian.
CNN’s legacy position is both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, despite the president’s “fake news” designation, it enjoys, like The New York Times, a powerful reputation for truthfulness and integrity that helps differentiate it from the digital herd. On the other hand, many younger viewers are not automatically won over by those credentials and prefer the less tradition-bound approach of millennial-focused Vice and BuzzFeed. “The other companies are coming from a different place,” says Paul Verna, senior analyst at eMarketer. “They’ve been able to grow a little more nimbly and have that sort of renegade brand. CNN has always had to walk a bit of a tightrope because they can’t afford to stray as far from the traditional journalism model as the companies that don’t have that baggage.”
Indeed, in January, BuzzFeed lured 44.5 million millennial unique visitors compared with 35.8 million for CNN.com. The average age of CNN’s TV audience is 58; at CNN.com, it is a full decade younger but still ancient compared with digital-only brands.
Zucker is attempting to connect with younger audiences by launching stand-alone companies that are funded by CNN but have their own independent digital identities. The first is Great Big Story, created in 2015 as a source for video storytelling. The company’s 40 staffers work out of an office in lower Manhattan, 3 miles from CNN headquarters but mere blocks away from BuzzFeed. The pieces on GBS are notable for high production values and revolve around millennial-friendly themes: adventure logs, esoteric food, the environment. Its top two stories since launch were about mountain climber Kyle Maynard — who has no arms or legs because of a birth defect — scaling Mount Kilimanjaro (22 million views) and Tokyo sushi chef Yutaka Sasaki, whose specialty is poisonous fugu (nearly 19 million views).
GBS is the brainchild of Andrew Morse, CNN’s executive vp editorial and GM of digital operations, whom Zucker hired away from Bloomberg in 2013. Morse and his former Bloomberg colleague Chris Berend, now CNN’s senior vp digital video, have positioned GBS as an alternative to the gonzo aesthetic of Vice and the empty calories of BuzzFeed’s puerile — if popular — Try Guys. As yet, it has lagged far behind those rivals, racking up just 537,000 YouTube subscribers compared with Vice’s 7.6 million. But January was Great Big Story’s best month ever with more than 100 million cross-platform video views. Most promisingly, the GBS audience’s average age is just 28.
The next big iteration of CNN’s stand-alone strategy will be unveiled in March, when it will debut a live daily 5 p.m. digital show hosted by Casey Neistat, a 35-year-old filmmaker and street artist who developed the video-sharing app Beme and amassed a rabid fan base on YouTube (6.5 million subscribers) with his video diary. (He’s also featured in a new Samsung ad campaign.) In November, CNN outbid its rivals and purchased Neistat’s 11-person Tribeca-based company for about $25 million.
Zucker, who learned about Neistat through his children, approached him two years ago. He took his son Andrew, then 16, to the meeting. “Jeff says to me, ‘You know, we have a huge news operation here; it’s a global enterprise,’ ” recalls Neistat. ” ‘But my son says that you’re the only person who matters in media.’ “
Andrew got a selfie with Neistat. Zucker offered Neistat a TV show on CNN. “He didn’t want to do anything with television,” says Zucker. “He had no interest. But I kept watching him, and he kept growing, and so I said, ‘Well, OK, we don’t want you for television, we just want you for us.’ “
CNN also is expanding its relationship with current stars like Anthony Bourdain, whose profane and sardonic Parts Unknown series, which debuted in 2013 on CNN, marked a turning point in the network’s approach to unscripted programming. The new deal with Bourdain includes the launch of a mobile-first company called Explore Parts Unknown, which will produce original longform journalism, video, photography and interactive content. There is also a six-episode digital-only series starring Bourdain set to launch congruently with the upcoming season of Parts Unknown. Bourdain describes the new venture as an opportunity to “go as far as we can, go as weird as we can, as deep as we can and as smart as we can.” (On the possibility of Trump one day appearing on the show, Bourdain says: “President Trump is not a person who, in my 30 years of watching him as a fellow New Yorker, has ever exhibited anything resembling curiosity about anything outside of himself. I could most charitably say I can’t really see him as an engaging subject. The world he lives in seems very, very small.”)
The mood inside CNN these days is clearly competitive. Morse, who previously worked with Vice executive vp content, news Josh Tyrangiel at Bloomberg, has tacked to his office wall a printout of a story from last spring in which Vice founder Shane Smith predicted a “bloodbath” for traditional media companies. A Smith quote that referred to Tyrangiel, affectionately, as “a f—ing angry young man who wants to shove it up their asses” is traced with yellow highlight. It is a reminder, says Morse, that “everybody likes to take shots at CNN. The president of the United States likes to take shots at CNN; our competitors like to take shots at CNN because they are envious of CNN, because it’s hard to be all over the world and it’s hard to go to the places that we go to, and it’s hard to do what we do. Our competitors like to say we’re old and we’re out of touch and we’re not nimble. That is such an antiquated statement; it’s so five years ago.”
But when I ask Morse who he views as his primary competition in the digital space, he ticks off a laundry list that includes NowThisNews, Politico, the broadcast news divisions and, yes, Vice and BuzzFeed. How does CNN differentiate itself in the digital world? “We are decidedly not in the clickbait business,” he says. “We don’t do cat videos, we don’t do waterskiing squirrels. The bread and butter is the news.”
Zucker — who dismissed Vice and BuzzFeed over the summer as “native advertising shops … we crush both of them” — no longer likes to discuss them. “I haven’t talked about Vice for a long time,” he says, preferring to put CNN in the company of The New York Times, though he considers some of the Grey Lady’s modernization efforts behind the curve. “The New York Times is dabbling in video,” he says. “What the New York Times is doing in video, we do on CNN.com. Great Big Story is really a very different animal.”
CNN executives also believe they are comfortably ahead of their cable-news rivals in the digital space. Fox News, which has been the dominant cable news network for 15 years, has a highly engaged following on social media. But digital innovation has happened in fits and starts at parent company 21st Century Fox. Rupert Murdoch, who has been running Fox News since the ouster of Roger Ailes in 2016, has acknowledged the need to innovate. And in December, the Murdochs installed the company’s first-ever chief technology officer. “It has taken most legacy TV brands a long time to acknowledge the importance of digital,” says Morse. “Now that they’ve acknowledged it, it will take some time for them to develop a strategy. The Murdochs have tried; remember Myspace? But while Fox has a deeply engaged TV audience, they’re really just getting started in digital because Ailes didn’t care.”
Analysts note that CNN, of all the basic cable brands, is the one with the most multiplatform potential, especially in mobile. “Most cable networks can’t put their content everywhere without a paywall,” observes Rich Greenfield, media and tech analyst at BTIG. “You can’t just show The Americans for free on Facebook because you feel like it. You have all your distribution relationships that make that impossible. CNN will use written content and clips and photos to create a robust mobile experience without live feed being available. It’s something that’s really unique to them. They are in a far better position than other cable networks.”
And CNN will have instant access to 130 million mobile customers when the proposed sale of parent Time Warner to AT&T clears a Justice Department regulatory review. Of course, CNN Critic in Chief Trump has threatened to quash the deal, and Murdoch may be conducting a whisper campaign to ensnare it in the FCC’s crosshairs. “That doesn’t surprise me,” says John Martin, CEO of Turner, CNN’s parent within Time Warner. “I don’t know with any legitimacy what argument Rupert could make that this is going to be bad for consumers. Between AT&T and Time Warner, the companies are incredibly confident that this is going to be approved and it’s going to be approved this year.”
Zucker, known throughout the industry as a masterful poacher of talent, has been relentless in his search for original voices to augment the success of Bourdain and others. In the fall, in the heat of the presidential campaign, he hired away BuzzFeed’s entire KFile team, which had broken several major stories, including Trump’s appearance in a soft-core Playboy video. In January, that team had the scoop on former Fox News personality Monica Crowley’s brushes with plagiarism, which torpedoed her nomination to a top National Security Council post.
Another recent addition is comedian and social commentator W. Kamau Bell, whose show United Shades of America premiered last spring on CNN (the debut episode had Bell interviewing hooded KKK members). Bell, who will launch a new series on the Great Big Story platform this summer, notes that while Trump may dismiss the network as fake news, the standards and practices apparatus at CNN holds even his show to a high bar: “We can’t just say random facts. They’re like, ‘Where did you get that from?’ So the pressure to make things smarter is always a good pressure, and I’ll take care of the making things funnier part.”
Hiring creative people and giving them the autonomy to execute their vision may seem obvious, but for a news brand, it often can feel perilous. The industry is littered with provocateurs who flamed out; YouTube star PewDiePie and Breitbart‘s Milo Yiannopoulos are only the most recent examples. “You have to know who you’re getting into business with,” says Zucker. “Anthony Bourdain and Kamau Bell and the producers at Great Big Story and Casey Neistat, they know that there is an implicit trust there, right? We’re not going to interfere in your creative process, and you’re not going embarrass us, and we’re good.”
Continues Zucker: “I think this is the untold story of CNN, really. When people think about CNN today they think about our television coverage, politics and Donald Trump. And I get it; I’m not suggesting that’s wrong. But I think there is a much bigger story going on at CNN.”
As much energy as Zucker is devoting to CNN’s digital future, it is impossible for him to stay away from his first love — television news, which remains quite popular in the White House, too. When Jake Tapper booked Kellyanne Conway, Trump’s senior counselor, for an interview Feb. 7, the same day Vice President Mike Pence had to cast the tie-breaking vote to confirm Betsy DeVos as secretary of education, they had no idea an interview with someone as ubiquitous as Conway would become a viral hit — especially one that lasted 25 minutes and 19 seconds, terminal by cable news let alone digital standards. But the forceful back-and-forth during which Tapper challenged Conway on “the sprays of attack and … falsehoods coming from the White House” has been watched nearly 1 million times on CNN.com, and 25 percent of digital viewers watched the entire 25-minute video.
Of course, Zucker was watching the interview as it happened, making sure the control room knew to let it run long and blow through the commercial breaks. “He was telling my executive producer, ‘Keep going!’ ” says Tapper, “because only Jeff really has the power to do that.”
In Tapper’s view, the president’s escalating war with the media and the politicization of basic facts are a wake-up call. Thanks to Trump, the beleaguered Fourth Estate in general and CNN in particular are rediscovering their core public-service mission amid a fire hose of content and criticism.
Says Tapper: “I feel like people in the media are really seeing themselves, seeing ourselves, as a check and balance, the watchdog, and that’s always supposed to be our role. Let’s keep it going for the next 50 presidents.”
Natalie Jarvey contributed to this story.
This story first appeared in the March 17 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.