A few months ago, I blogged about Chris Licht leaving Stephen Colbert to become the CEO of CNN. It's not often a programmer or manager can begin to redefine an entire industry with just a move or two.
But that's precisely what Licht may be doing – not just on his own cable network, but across the new media spectrum. The odds are good that some of Licht's decisions will even filter down to how we think of radio news. That should serve as a news flash for many public radio programmers and commercial radio news directors as they try to get their collective heads around the new guard rails of media news coverage.
In one fell swoop, CNN is serving notice they are slashing the hype, the bombast, and the overheated narrative that has accompanied cable news since Donald Trump rode down the escalator at his eponymous tower in Manhattan back in 2015.
What's behind Licht's thinking? The new boss has heard complaints from “people inside and outside” CNN about the overuse of the “Breaking News” handle, not to mention its ubiquity across most TV – and radio – networks and local stations. If everything is “breaking,” than nothing stands out or captures the consumer attention.
My first job was working for the Frank Magid research company in Marion, Iowa. Frank gained fame for turning around also-ran local TV news shows, vaulting them quickly to top-dog status in markets from New York to Nome. The company relied on punchy phrases like “Action News” and “Eyewitness News” for his TV news clients, handles that initially had impact on viewers. But when you hear it tens of thousands of times, these positioners lose whatever pop they once had. After a while they become wallpaper.
In the case of “Breaking News,” however the collateral damage has been even worse. The phrase is like “crying wolf.” You hear it, and you can't help but wonder what's the big deal. But when it precedes multiple stories an hour, several of which aren't cataclysmic or especially new, you not only tune out. You turn off.
But for Licht, his decision isn't just about subbing out positioning statements. He's attempting to recast how his struggling network selects, gathers, presents, delivers, and promotes its news product. Word from Axios is that more change is in the wind at CNN, including a round of layoffs. It's no secret the network is reeling – from the embarrassing ouster of anchor Chris Cuomo last year to a morning show that simply isn't competitive to the swift demise of CNN+ just weeks after it launched. That should send a message to the CNN old guard that Licht is as serious as a heart attack about the mindset change his new network will have to make.
But it's a deeper reading between the lines of Licht's recent staff memo that has potentially sweeping implications for CNN's competitors, as well as radio news departments, networks, and stations. If Licht's instincts are correct, consumers are tired of the hype, the snark, the partisanship, and the vitriol.
In the Trump Era of news coverage, many once-credible journalistic organizations have lost their respective compasses. Across news platforms, what once constituted straight-ahead coverage and a recitation of facts has been summarily replaced by opinion, eye-rolling, and cutesy commentary – often at a loud volume.
According to Axios, the new emphasis is on de-emphasizing partisan shows, and championing traditional journalism.
Here's part of how Licht reportedly boiled it down for CNN's rank-and-file. It is not necessarily in the order he wrote it, but CNN's new head honcho has crafted a mission statement for 2022 that would suit a variety of news organizations:
“(CNN is focused on) informing (and the truth). The tenor of our voice holistically has to reflect that.
“We are truth-tellers, focused on informing, not alarming our viewers.
“We must be vital, relevant, and respected – and how we show up for our audiences, in every story, in every part of the country, and around the world, matters…The tenor of our voice has to reflect informing (and the truth).”
Most of the journalists I know would applaud Licht's first key move. On CNN's “Reliable Sources” program that aired yesterday, host Brian Stelter covered his own network's “Breaking News” shrinkage, noting that it has already elicited overwhelmingly positive reactions from the viewing audience. Many inside CNN concur the “hair on fire” positioning had simply gone too far.
In the public radio community, Licht's marching orders won't go unheard either, especially by the powers that be. It's no secret that at the highest levels, as well as in local markets, public radio's newsrooms and upper management have experienced a schism that has yet to be repaired, much less addressed and resolved. There are fundamental differences between both sides that have caused tension, fear, and loathing throughout the system. Terminations and resignations have been plentiful.
A key question facing public radio organizations such as NPR and the BBC, as well as hundreds of local stations, is about how to strike a balance between providing up-to-the-minute coverage of school shootings, wars, pandemics, and other developing stories or whether their journalists' time and effort are better spent providing perspective and thoughtful coverage, even if it occurs a day or so later.
Whether or not public radio's news directors find that “sweet spot,” even self-described “news junkies” often express a need for escape and relief from the incessant pounding of the news cycle, intense and overwrought coverage, and the omnipresent feeling of gloom, doom, and disaster that waits just around the corner. The last few years have simply been wearing, even for those who pride themselves on being in the know.
We've seen this news burn-out perception grow in our Public Radio Techsurveys. And the 2022 version of that study goes into the field this week, a chance to take stock of the current state of affairs.
Chris Licht is looking these current conditions right in the eye. While he asks his troops at CNN to be patient as he assesses the network's overall situation, his initial moves already strongly suggest he has a firm understanding of this moment.
We won't need a screaming, fire engine red chyron to tell us how he is reimagining the news. We'll see it and hear it with our own eyes and ears.
Hopefully, news directors across the spectrum will be paying attention.
Thanks to Peter Kuper for the timely cartoon. You can check out his work here.
For information about PRTS 2022, click here.
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