CNN Layoffs Will Lead to New Digital Subscriptions and TV Offerings

By Chanak Maduranga

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CNN Layoffs Will Lead to New Digital Subscriptions and TV Offerings
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Layoffs will once again hit CNN as the cable news channel reorganizes in a push to expand its digital businesses.

CNN CEO Mark Thompson outlined his digital vision in a lengthy memo to staff Wednesday morning, announcing plans to build a flurry of digital products, including a subscription offering before the end of the year, plans to launch other paid offerings built around lifestyle journalism and a “strategic push into AI.”

In his note, Thompson said that about 100 roles will be cut, representing just shy of 3 percent of CNN’s workforce. He will host a town hall with staff later in the day to further elaborate on the plan.

“Wherever possible, we’ve closed open positions rather than target currently occupied roles,” Thompson wrote. “However, some of our colleagues will learn today that their jobs are being eliminated or are at risk.”

CNN last had significant layoffs in late 2022 under previous CEO Chris Licht. Those cuts included major reductions at the HLN channel as well as at CNN International, along with a reevaluation of its on-air contributor deals.

However, he also noted that the company has created new roles that will help him and his team build out his digital ambitions.

Thompson was hired last year after Licht’s ouster, reorganizing the company earlier this year to be more digital-centric.

While the specifics around CNN’s first subscription offering were not clear from the memo, Thompson did emphasize that rather than the text-based experience it currently leans on, CNN will focus more on video in digital going forward.

“More than anything the CNN brand stands for news brought to you in moving pictures and sound with an onscreen anchor or correspondent acting as a trusted guide,” Thompson wrote. “In the future our digital products need to do a far better job of reflecting CNN’s massive strength in video and anchoring/reporting talent. Video will be at the heart of our future and a re-imagined video experience on every platform – from pure digital to streaming, FAST channels and more – it is essential for CNN’s future.”

To that end, CNN will also be building out its free, ad-supported streaming business with two new offerings, one based on CNN Originals, and another based on CNN en Español.

And with regard to artificial intelligence, Thompson writes that he wants to determine “how best to safely harness this emerging new technology to serve our audiences and deliver our journalistic goals more effectively and responsively.”

On the TV front, Thompson wrote that “as everyone knows, we’re living through a revolution in both news and television consumption from which our domestic and international TV channels are certainly not immune. To me, the right response to this revolution is not despair but adaptation and innovation.”

He announced the creation of a TV futures lab led by Eric Sherling, which “will not only develop and manage streaming and VOD programming for the Max platform but will lead new thinking about ways to migrate the linear news experience to other new digital environments.”

And Charlie Moore, who oversees primetime for CNN, will seek to “further develop and strengthen” the lineup, suggesting that changes will follow.

Perhaps most notable for CNN staff (even if viewers may not notice immediately) is that CNN will reorganize its newsrooms to break down walls between CNN domestic and CNN International, as well as digital and TV, text-based and video.

“Rather than separate tribes of TV and digital, international and domestic, we need to recognize that we are all journalists and storytellers first and foremost,” Thompson wrote. “We plan to provide more opportunities for everyone to learn new skills and new forms of storytelling, and more chances to move from one part of CNN to another. The new operating model for news is very different from how we work today, and we’ll take the next few weeks to transition to the new state.”

You can read Thompson’s full memo below.

Dear all,

Two weeks ago, America and the world turned their attention to a CNN studio in Atlanta. The programme we broadcast that night was one of the most consequential not just in our history but that of the whole of TV news. It was also a perfect example of everything CNN stands for. Fairness. Total professionalism. A commitment to be there for our audiences when it matters most and to live up to Ted Turner’s founding mission for this great news company.

From the day I joined CNN nine months ago, I’ve talked about the need to take this precious inheritance and future-proof it for a very different media future. Back in January I set out some big themes:

  • Follow the audience – their consumption of news has changed beyond recognition so we need to adapt and transform our services to meet them where they are today and will be tomorrow;
  • Double down on news – it’s what we stand for and our competitive advantage, but now is the time to bring all the disparate branches of news at CNN into one organization to power those future services;
  • Develop a digital strategy – one that is ambitious enough to deliver the audiences and the revenue we need to maintain our unique journalistic firepower and succeed as a business.
  • Enhance our core TV product – millions of people still find it an indispensable way of immersing themselves in news and current events, so find a clear pathway to migrate the TV experience into the digital future.

Today is a key milestone in the transformation of CNN because, after months of work by literally hundreds of you, we’re now able to set out in more detail how we plan to turn these themes into reality. In the sections below you’ll read of plans to move from today to an integrated and significantly streamlined multimedia news operation; a bold new digital strategy which includes the launch before the end of the year of CNN.com’s first direct-to-consumer subscription product; the creation of a TV Futures lab to develop formats and distribution opportunities for the linear news experience on digital platforms; plans to open up other new sources of revenue for CNN; and much else besides. Some of these plans will require investment and there will be new roles and opportunities in many areas. But we’re also closing some posts and you’ll read about those in this memo as well.

Turning a great news organization towards the future is not a one-day affair. It happens in stages and over time. Today’s announcements do not answer every question or seek to solve every challenge we face. However, they do represent a significant step forward and I hope you will read about them in that spirit.  

A GLOBAL INTEGRATED MULTIMEDIA NEWS OPERATION

CNN has historically had three separate newsrooms and multiple planning operations. We’re moving today to a single global multimedia editorial operation to take on the challenges of our multi-platform, multi-product future.

One newsroom. We’re merging the newsgathering and digital news teams that currently sit in US domestic and international news to create unified operations under a new Global News organization. These new integrated teams will report out the news, produce it and publish it with a minimum of friction and duplication. Domestic and international news desks will retain their domestic and international specialisms for now, but will work more closely together, and come together to share resources for big breaking stories. Those who previously worked as a digital news writer or editor, or news desk producer or editor, working in separate structures and performing often duplicative tasks, will join unified teams in the US and our main international hubs.

These hubs will have a single editorial head to lead news coverage from their geography. There are two work groups under this leadership – news reporting and news video. The news reporting teams will chase and publish stories whether in the form of digital stories, live stories, or traditional news alerts. The news video teams will capture and produce video stories increasingly in the spirit of capture once and produce/version for all platforms.

The news video team will chase down, originate, ingest and verify news video from all sources, whether that’s on-the-ground video shot by our own journalists, social media video needing verification, video from agencies or affiliates or other sources. They will alert incoming video to the network for use on all platforms, TV and digital. Embedded within the news video team will be a group of digital video specialists, who will produce, edit, and publish video for digital platforms. The digital video specialists will report up to Alex MacCallum’s organization but will work day-to-day alongside global news colleagues.The video team will also handle correspondents’ live shots, liaise with TV and streaming shows to satisfy their requirements and handle any TV-specific package requirements.

We’re also introducing the new role of “story manager” to run all editorial aspects of a story from beginning to publication/airing, improving editorial focus and long-term planning. This move to story-centric editorial support and management is a break from our current practice, which is to base editorial support on region or shift. We will assign story managers to all major stories and breaking news to manage the editorial execution and create more space to focus on day 2+ reporting. These leads will be placed in all major CNN bureaus around the world.

Additionally, the Row will be renamed “CNN Factcheck” and move under the Global News division as an integrated part of the reporting process, working with story managers from the start of the story lifecycle.

To ensure consistent, multiplatform coverage around the clock, we will supercharge CNN’s “Follow the Sun” model with a new fully blended editorial structure across our hubs globally. The new operating model will create an integrated newsgathering, text and video operation and place ownership of it in the hands of editorial hubs around the world.  

This will streamline workflows across newsgathering and place editorial direction closer to the story. It will better equip us to handle a wider array of platform needs around the clock and will mean we can flex news desk resources when the news cycle takes an unexpected turn. The enhanced Follow the Sun model will also create an expanded role for CNN’s Hong Kong hub in US overnight hours and make greater use of our operations in London and Los Angeles at additional hours across the day. 

We’ve created a consistent, centralized planning process to maximize coverage opportunities across platforms. We’ve introduced a new, unitary planning group for the whole of CNN to ensure we’re planning stories and deployments with the needs of every part of the organization in mind. This will give us full visibility into everything from editorial and logistics to resources and budgets. It will also allow us to seamlessly coordinate our work, and understand what teams are doing, where and why. We implemented this reform several weeks ago and have already seen significant positive results. With this change, we will be better positioned to capitalize on the news across platforms on a day to day, week to week and long-term basis.

We will streamline and standardize story-pitching. We know that stories are pitched in many different ways across teams and departments. By creating a clearly defined process and standardizing the information needed for every pitch, we will increase our ability to plan coverage, distribute it across multiple platforms, deliver better financial accountability, and eliminate some of the bottlenecks that currently slow us down.

We will embed expertise throughout the news operation, sharing skills and knowledge with multi-platform thinking to the fore. Rather than separate tribes of TV and digital, international and domestic, we need to recognize that we are all journalists and storytellers first and foremost. We plan to provide more opportunities for everyone to learn new skills and new forms of storytelling, and more chances to move from one part of CNN to another. The new operating model for news is very different from how we work today, and we’ll take the next few weeks to transition to the new state.   

BUILDING A BILLION DOLLAR PLUS DIGITAL BUSINESS

CNN is already the largest branded digital news destination in the world. As well as amazing reach, we have many millions of deeply engaged loyal users. We plan to take the journalistic firepower, user-experience and commercial potential of CNN Digital to the next level with strategic commitment, significant fresh investment, an injection of specialist expertise and plenty of creativity and experimentation. We will develop new digital products with a special focus on digital experiences worth paying for.

First, we will create best-in-class, subscription-ready products that will provide need-to-know news, analysis and context in compelling new formats and experiences, starting with CNN.com’s first subscription product launching before the end of 2024. We want to build on CNN.com’s reach with a new focus on engagement and frequency – how long our users spend with us and how often they return – by improving the quality of the product experience and giving users powerful reasons to come back to us more often.

We will reimagine watching, reading and listening to our journalism in a holistic way that meets users’ changing needs and expectations across the day and week. And we will work harder to tell them not just what’s happening now, but what it means and what’s likely to happen next. 

Second, we will lean more heavily into video in our digital products. Our products today are primarily reading experiences. We have a huge stable of loyal users who love reading CNN and we will continue to meet their needs. But more than anything the CNN brand stands for news brought to you in moving pictures and sound with an onscreen anchor or correspondent acting as a trusted guide. In the future our digital products need to do a far better job of reflecting CNN’s massive strength in video and anchoring/reporting talent. Video will be at the heart of our future and a re-imagined video experience on every platform – from pure digital to streaming, FAST channels and more – it is essential for CNN’s future. Migrating our video-based onscreen talent onto our branded platforms and the wider digital news ecosystem is potentially a key differentiator for us and will also be a focus for early experimentation and development.

Third, we will aim to help our audience and customers “live a better life,” as Ted Turner promised on our founding day in 1980, by creating a growing stable of “news you can use” offerings anchored by lifestyle and features areas where CNN already has brand permission and is competitively positioned to win. Such products offer multiple opportunities for monetization through sponsorship, advertising and direct-to-consumer subscription. We are currently assessing existing areas of digital strength like consumer advice with CNN Underscored and health, as well as other less established categories to decide which areas to develop further.

Finally, we want to reclaim the “pioneering spirit” Ted Turner talked about at our founding and regain a leadership position in the news experiences of the future. This effort will include a strategic push into AI to determine how best to safely harness this emerging new technology to serve our audiences and deliver our journalistic goals more effectively and responsively. We will work closely with the new ideas labs being created in both the News and TV organizations. We will also aim to develop the sophistication of our data science to improve our understanding of our audiences, the quality and value of our digital advertising product and to drive our new digital subscription businesses to greater growth.

THE FUTURE OF TV AT CNN

Ted Turner founded CNN in 1980 as a TV news company, and TV will always be a central part of the CNN offering to America and the world. There are some stories and moments of drama which can only be fully appreciated and shared through live TV and streaming, as our presidential debate demonstrated so powerfully two weeks ago.

But as everyone knows, we’re living through a revolution in both news and television consumption from which our domestic and international TV channels are certainly not immune. To me, the right response to this revolution is not despair but adaptation and innovation.

Our experimentation with formats like 5 Things on Max and now CNN.com is a good recent example. A second is the changes we made at the start of this year to our US morning programming, introducing a line-up that’s delivering better audience performance with lower production costs.

We’re announcing today the creation of TV Futures Lab reporting to Eric Sherling. The lab will not only develop and manage streaming and VOD programming for the Max platform but will lead new thinking about ways to migrate the linear news experience to other new digital environments. The lab will also partner with Digital Products and Services and other parts of CNN to develop and programme other experimental new services.

In his new role overseeing primetime, Charlie Moore is now actively working with Eric, our top EPs and other CNN colleagues to find ways to further develop and strengthen our domestic primetime offering. Our recent journalistic performance has been outstanding, from major election set-pieces to the Trump trial to a flurry of exclusive interviews and features. I’ve asked Eric and Charlie to explore how to build on that, increase audience competitiveness and also keep a close eye on production costs.

We’re already modernizing other aspects of production, using technology to reduce expense, develop new revenue opportunities or to deliver a better service to our viewers. We are streamlining the way we produce the news ticker that appears on the bottom of the CNN screen, launching new FAST channels for CNN Originals and CNN en Español, and recently aired an experimental programme on the Trump Trial that used AI to turn the court transcript into an almost instant audio dialogue.

We’ve also reinvested in CNN Originals with outside partners and other long-form programming to strengthen weekend primetime, capitalize on non-news advertising revenue opportunities and to develop new franchises and formats.

NEW SOURCES OF REVENUE: FROM FARMERS TO HUNTERS

CNN is one of the world’s most successful multi-platform global news brands, but we can’t thrive as a company unless we find new sources of revenue to offset the structural pressures on legacy income streams. To address that challenge we’re investing in new revenue, commercial and business affairs capabilities, drawing on pre-existing CNN expertise – including the highly entrepreneurial CNN International Commercial team – as well as top external talent. Our new revenue group is targeting the immediate near-term (0-6 months), medium-term (6-12 months) and over the long-term.

We’ve already achieved some significant wins this year, for instance engaging with multiple technology platforms on how best to partner around AI, and signing our first multi-million dollar licensing deal to unlock the value of our 44-year video archive.  

To augment our core CNN Headlines FAST offering in the US and internationally, we will launch two more dedicated FAST channels later this year built around content from CNN Originals and CNN en Español to give us a suite of four FAST services to reaching digital streaming consumers. We believe that AVOD can be a growth driver for CNN alongside our established domestic and international core TV services. 

Other focus areas include: an assessment of the best way to monetize the value of CNN’s digital audiences to advertisers; the development of CNN’s features, lifestyle and other news-adjacent content to provide advertisers with more premium environments beyond hard news; working out how best to grow CNN’s streaming and VOD footprints; and other long-term opportunities for growth.

CULTURE AND COMMUNICATION

One of the successes of the transformation process was the creation of a “Culture Committee” made up of representatives from pretty much every department, bureau, and demographic across CNN. The committee not only drew on the insights in our recent Pulse Survey but connected with 350 people around the globe to identify areas of CNN’s culture that themselves need change. Some of the news was good – optimism in CNN’s future and belief in our mission is high almost everywhere despite the pressures our business is under. But there were tougher messages too – about bureaucracy, lack of opportunity, a culture that can sometimes stifle open debate, and management and communication that sometimes fall short of the mark.

We want to do everything we can to open this company’s culture up to talent, opportunity and new ideas, and to foster an environment in which everyone feels valued and able to give their best. For that reason, I’ve accepted the recommendation of the committee to focus on five key priorities for cultural change, which they are actively working through proposed solutions and action around:

One CNN

A new emphasis on collaboration and communication across platforms, regions and teams.

Lead with Transparency and Empower and Respect Our People

Clearer goals, more consistent feedback and career support, more transparent and candid communication, better training of management, greater accountability for leaders.

Invest in Continuous Growth and Learning

Provide more and better professional development opportunities, build on Mastercraft and create other new programmes to expand skills, wherever possible open vacant positions to competition and create more chances for employees to move laterally and widen their experience.

Actively Seek Out Diversity and Champion Inclusion and Community

Diversity of background and thought will help CNN engage new audiences at home and abroad – so let’s embrace DEI more fully and work to foster a CNN community based on fairness, openness and respect.

Value the Full Employee

Breaking news and a rapidly changing business can add up to a lot of pressure, so let’s do a better job supporting colleagues, safeguarding well-being and mental health and recognizing the special challenges of working across geographies and cultures.

IMPACT ON JOBS

In addition to some new posts and opportunities we have opened up at CNN, we’re also announcing some staff reductions across the company today. Wherever possible, we’ve closed open positions rather than target currently occupied roles. However, some of our colleagues will learn today that their jobs are being eliminated or are at risk. The number of colleagues potentially impacted is around a hundred out of a workforce of more than 3,500, but I don’t underestimate the impact this news is likely to have on everyone affected and want to thank them for everything they’ve done for this great news company over the years. Our priority throughout this process will be to treat them and every other CNN colleague with the respect, dignity, and the support you all deserve, including severance packages, career counseling and assistance with job placement.

NEXT STEPS

There’s a lot to take in with these announcements, which is why my senior colleagues will share more information with you area by area and why we’re holding a global Town Hall later today. Even if you can’t join us live, do submit a remote question or come to another Town Hall in the coming months, or email me directly with questions or ideas.

As I said at the start, hundreds of you have been involved in developing the plans we’re outlining today. I hope that, wherever you work at CNN, you’ll feel that you can help ensure we implement them successfully,

Mark

Chanak Maduranga

passionate journalist behind 'USA News Now 24', dedicated to delivering timely and accurate updates on US affairs. Committed to journalistic integrity and informing audiences with credible news coverage.

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