Media & Marketing Partner Insights Q&A

How CNN Functions as a Digital Media Company

As part of Techonomy’s partnership with media company Turner, we are publishing a series of interviews with Turner executives. Turner, a Time Warner company, is a global entertainment, sports and news company. Among its brands: Adult SwimBleacher ReportBoomerangCartoon NetworkCNNELEAGUEFilmStruckGreat Big StoryHLNiStreamPlanetSuper DeluxeTBSTurner Classic Movies (TCM)TNTtruTV and Turner Sports.

Meredith Artley is a senior vice president and editor-in-chief of CNN Digital Worldwide, where she oversees the creation, programming and publishing of content across all CNN Digital properties.

This interview was lightly edited by Techonomy.

CNN is primarily a television company, but you are editor-in-chief of its digital operation. How much do you overlap with the TV side of the business?

In my eight-plus years here, there’s been a shift in how I and most of the leadership think about CNN. It’s not about digital or TV — it’s about the story. The story comes first, and everything else in terms of platforms and logistics and distribution, follows. It’s so very 2013 to think about defining any news organization by the platform they are on. Everything we do starts with the story, how to tell it in the best way so we do right by our audiences.

President Trump has dominated the news and been the center of much of CNN’s coverage. At the same time, CNN has been the target of Trump’s fake news attacks.  How do you reconcile the two and what do you think the impact is on the network and its reputation?

President Trump is indeed the dominant story. That’s as it should be. One of the most unconventional presidents in the history of the US — no, the world.

So many aspects of Trump — the person and the presidency — have challenged journalists. To break news, not just cover breaking news. To investigate and dig. To be crystal clear about what is fact versus what is opinion. To not give in to preconceived notions about people just because of how they voted or what their political views or beliefs are. To tell the whole story, as best we can, every moment of every day.

How has technology changed the way in which you gather and deliver the news? How have your audience’s viewing habits changed?

I’ve spent my whole career in digital news and media — The New York Times, the International Herald Tribune, and the Los Angeles Times and this dream gig at CNN. I’ve seen digital go from the side to the center of news organizations — from digital journalists not having a seat in the ‘main’ newsroom to digital journalists and digitally minded journalists being the vast majority of staff. Those shifts at CNN mirror the change in audience habits and the technologies that we and our audiences use to tell and share stories.

Some things have been consistent since CNN launched in 1980. Breaking news remains at our core. We are global — the stories we tell, the audiences we reach. We go wherever we need to go around the world to tell stories with and for audiences. Technology has made all aspects of that easier. The news gathering, the connection we seek with audiences, and our ability to reach them on dozens of platforms anywhere around the world.

How does mobile fit into the mix?

A couple of years ago we invested in a mobile team that focuses solely on mobile storytelling and audiences. That team has been the fuel behind our mobile strength. They have a publishing strategy and unique goals for mobile web and app — which are very different creatures — and are constantly iterating and testing to make our stories engaging on those devices that never leave our sides.

The best part is we have evolved further. Many teams — not just the mobile team — spend a lot of time on mobile storytelling and publishing. The video, social and alerting teams are mobile-centric. Many of our writers, producers and editors create content for mobile first. Most of our design and product conversations start with mobile. The mobile ethos is infused across the majority of the team now. That’s natural and inevitable given the expertise we have in-house — on editorial, design, product and technology — and the daily behavior that we all know as humans.

What value does CNN find in programming for platforms other than its own?

We get so many things from being distributed across so many platforms. We gain new audiences, some of them who may never come to CNN online or on-air on their own.

Teams get to play and expand their skills with new storytelling techniques that engage audiences and, in some cases, generate revenue. A chat on the messaging app Line. New formats with Google STAMP [ed.- Much like Snapchat’s Discover feature]. Audio storytelling with Alexa. New alerting techniques with Apple News. Personal, visual storytelling with Instagram.

CNN Digital Worldwide Editor-in-Chief Meredith Artley. Courtesy of Turner

Being on many platforms also means that we get to diversify our portfolio —both the audience and the revenue. This is hugely important. It means that we don’t put all eggs in the basket of, say, Facebook. So if changes to the Facebook algorithm are made, we don’t sweat it. We watch it; we pivot as needed. But it won’t crater our audience or revenue.

Our social team, led by Ashley Codianni, has done a phenomenal job of expanding and  contracting in the right ways in the right places. We recently stepped back on Snapchat, and stepped up on Instagram and Google STAMP. And all of this unfolds against the backdrop of a strong owned and operated site, and the most powerful homepage and digital presence in news.

Speaking of the homepage, do you still prioritize that in your programming?

 We absolutely prioritize the homepages. Plural because we have many homepages (CNN.com on desktop, mobile web, the app, CNNMoney, homepages, etc)

At some point in the past few years across the digital news and media industry, a narrative emerged that was anti-homepage. That the homepage was some kind of ancient albatross and the only way forward was to “be where audiences are.”

We don’t have to choose between one or the other.

Our programming team, led by Mitra Kalita, spends a huge amount of time focusing on the right language and visuals, the right layouts, the cadence of what we publish/when/where. We obsess about click through rate off the homepage. We test dozens and dozens of headlines a day to make sure stories are resonating with audiences.

Meredith Artley is a senior vice president and editor-in-chief of CNN Digital Worldwide.  

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