Working for CNN used to be like working for any other cable news station or other media outlet. But in 2018, it was one of the targets of a serial mail bomber, who was seemingly trying to hurt people they perceived as critical of President Trump.
“There were a lot of people who were genuinely and understandably freaked out by it,” CNN.com Editor in Chief Meredith Artley said on the latest episode of Recode Decode. “[They said] ‘I didn’t know this was what I was getting into. I thought I was getting into journalism because it’s a valued profession. It’s a profession that serves the public good and has gained public trust. I didn’t think I was getting into it to be called the enemy of the people by the president of the United States and that that would result in threats, that my family is calling me, crying, wondering if I’m okay.’”
Artley said for her, the experience “underline[d] why it’s so important for us to do our jobs well.” On the new podcast, she told Recode’s Kara Swisher that the CNN Digital property used to rush to cover the president’s every tweet, believing them to be automatically newsworthy, but is now trying to slow down and do less “stenography journalism.” She also suggested that CNN and other media outlets need to do more to undo the perception that they are “enemies of the people,” as Trump has said while in office.
“In 2019, we [should] go beyond the marketing campaigns of ‘Facts First’ and ‘Democracy Dies in Darkness’ and all of that,” Artley said. “That’s great. That’s really good stuff. We need to go further now. We need to actually do better about showing our work ... Dial up the efforts to be transparent about when we get things wrong or when we change things, why have we done that. I think there’s so much of the journalistic process that audiences don’t understand and we need to lay that bare. I think that will increase the trust.”
Below, we’ve shared a lightly edited full transcript of Kara’s conversation with Meredith.
Kara Swisher: Hi, I’m Kara Swisher, editor at large of Recode. You may know me as someone who likes CNN a little better just because Donald Trumps hate it, but in my spare time I talk tech and you’re listening to Recode Decode from the Vox Media Podcast Network.
Today in the red chair is Meredith Artley, the editor in chief of CNN.com and the senior vice president of CNN Digital Worldwide. That’s a big title, Meredith. Previously, she worked at the New York Times, the International Herald Tribune and the Los Angeles Times. Meredith, welcome to Recode Decode.
Meredith Artley: Thanks for having me.
I’m sorry, I was late today because I lost my phone of all things, and I feel terrible. I’ve had Meredith waiting.
It’s tragic, it’s a tragic moment for Kara Swisher, I can tell you that because I’m married to my phone, it’s the best relationship I’ve ever had.
In any case, I’m here because I’m really interested in what’s going on at CNN and a lot of the different large websites because a lot of ... I want to go sort of into your back ... You wrote me a really fantastic email about where news is going digitally. Obviously, so much news now is digital, period. The whole business is digital.
So, I wanted to sort of talk a little bit about your background, how you got to where you got. Then, people don’t know this, CNN is the largest purveyor of news on the planet, is that correct?
How is that measured? Explain how that’s measured. I’ve seen the charts and different things.
Yeah. Well, there’s a lot of ways to measure it. There’s apples and screwdrivers in terms of how you ...
Right, I’ve seen your apples.
... how you track. That’s right, we do have our apples.
I’ve seen your apples, advertisements, yeah.
That’s right, we do have our apples. Yeah, that was a product placement there, I guess, sorry.
Yeah, listen, we get 200 million unique users a month just across digital, right?
Right. This is not on the TV business.
That’s right. That’s not on the TV business and we’re addicted to data and audiences and what do we know. The data is a proxy for the audience, right?
So, that’s kind of how we operate our day, digitally.
And this is digital sites across the world. You’re collecting digital sites across the world or just a single ... How do you look at it?
That’s right. So, there’s CNN.com on mobile and desktop, there’s the app. There’s everything we do across social, right? So, that’s just everything and off-platform too. So, YouTube, Amazon, whatever it is. So, we calculate — and things like Apple News, all of that. So, that 200 million unique users a month or sometimes it’s 22, 23 million unique users a day. We calculate this down to the hour.
I mean, there are people who are just on the team and addicted to it. That includes everything: CNN.com, CNN International, CNN Business, CNN Politics.
Just everything we do under the sun.
The stuff that’s on the television, on the cable.
That data I’m giving you is just the digital data.
Just yours. But this is not the video views that you put also, that you do also on cnn.com.
Yeah. Well, the unique users will include the video streams, right?
The video streams also. All right, talk a little bit about your background, how you got to this, got to CNN.com. You’ve had a long interesting journey in the digital news space.
Yeah. I’ve been at this for a long time.
Yeah, yeah, you have.
I’ve been at this for a really long time. So, I started at ... My first job was at nytimes.com. That was in ‘96.
Months after launch.
Who was that, Bill Grueskin, who was it? No, he was at the Wall Street Journal.
Yeah, that was ... Well, my boss was Bernie Gwertzman.
Yeah, that’s right.
Who’s incredible. Bernie was the former foreign editor of the paper, he was like the Moscow correspondent during the Cold War and I think they were kind of looking ... He wanted to know what he could do next. He was getting close to retirement age and they’re like, “Go do this web thing.”
Right. That was early, early. People don’t realize, ‘96 was super early.
It was early. The site actually launched February of ‘95, so I got there after launch.
What was that about? Talk about that launch and what you guys were trying to do there.
It was incredible. We were first ... Me and a handful of others were hired because we were kids with a journalism degree and knew a little bit about the internet. They wanted someone to come copy and paste the paper onto the internet.
Right. So, some of us worked on the web, some of us worked on the AOL whole thing.
They shipped us down to learn Rainman and all that crazy stuff, right?
Rainman was AOL’s programming language.
Exactly. Early days, the technology and the journalism were really heavily intersected.
They are now too, but now digital’s so big, right? You can fit the entire New York Times electronic media company staff in 1996 on one page and it was the journalists where were the web producers and editors like I was. It was the sales team and the HR team and all of that. Bernie was amazing, but we were essentially without adult supervision.
Right. Where’d you come from? You were just a journalist? Did you just study journalism?
I studied journalism at Mizzou.
Then, you just decided this was a job you wanted to do.
Yeah, I took one of the ... I think it was ... It was one of their first classes on, “There’s the internet and there’s journalism. Maybe the two things could intersect.” We learned about all the internet service providers and Prodigy and ... All of it. So, I was a broadcast major and I really got this idea of, wow, I could actually graduate and go work for the New York Times out of school, instead of working in local market 532.
Going to some small, yeah.
It seemed like a no-brainer. It was a magnificent career path. Back then it was only the newspapers who were hiring in digital. So, broadcast wasn’t even an option, right?
Absolutely not. Right.
You were there, there were ...
I was covering it. I started covering it ‘92, early AOL and early stuff like that. I remember when the New York Times went on AOL and went on the various services.
We were doing some cool stuff then, right?
Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely.
There were some really big innovative projects and ways that we were talking with users and the chats and all of that. It was good. Listen, I sound like such an old person now and I am, but I think if anything, looking at the trajectory of my career and what I’ve learned along the way, gives me this perspective and experience that none of this is permanent that we’re going through right now.
So, when you have the conversation as you often do about what’s going to happen with Facebook, where are we going to be at in a year or two or three, etc., you just know it’s all going to keep on changing.
So, you were at the Times. You were putting stuff up on the web. There was not the New York Times, after it was not the New York Times. The Wall Street Journal was trying things too, if you remember at the time.
Early with the paywall.
Early with the paywall and selling things. There was no apps or any other way to access it besides the internet site, kinds of things. It was just an amalgamation of what was in the paper, essentially.
Exactly. But, we were doing ... We started experimenting because we didn’t have that ... Because the paper wasn’t paying attention to us, that’s what I mean by no adult supervision. We were experimenting with breaking news. We were experimenting with ...
Martin Nisenholtz was there, right?
Martin was the big boss, right. So, Martin just kind of encouraged that. We were very much a separate entity ...
Yes, you were upstairs, I remember.
We were across Times Square.
Ah! You were across the way, which a lot of them were. Yeah.
Yeah, yeah. So, we were ... That’s back when the paper was at a different location and the site was at a different location and every now and then somebody from the paper would come over to observe what we were doing. It was great! We really got to experiment and play and it’s also where I got to kind of grow up as ... I just grew up there. I was at the New York Times for seven years at digital and then later I went to Paris and worked for the International Herald Tribune, which had that Times connection.
But it was one of my favorite things, very early, their people asked me to do the schedule. “Can you please just ...” We were getting more than 10 people on the team and we needed to schedule out, so we had 24 or 27 coverage and that was a big lesson for me because of course I didn’t want to do the schedule. I came here to do journalism and play.
Right, right, to do journalism. So, you were putting stuff up on the website. Say, what was the thing ... So, then you move to the International Herald Tribune to do the same thing, because that was a paper you got in Europe when you couldn’t get any other news, you got the International Herald Tribune, which was an amalgamation of the New York Times, the Washington Post, I think LA Times was in there too.
Yeah, that’s right. So, that’s why I tell the story about doing the schedule piece because that’s what led to do the work that other people don’t want to do and learn how everything is set up and that’s how I got into the management piece of it. So, by the time it had been seven years and Bernie had left and there was an opportunity, I wanted to run the site. They were like, “No, you can’t yet. We need to bring someone at the paper.”
”We need to bring someone over from the paper because ...”
They know journalism.
In 2002, it was very clear that the website wasn’t going away, the internet wasn’t going away. It was going to grow in importance. “So, we’re going to bring in someone from the paper.” I was like, “Oh, that’s a ceiling. That’s what this feels like.”
Right, right, right.
So, that’s when this job opened up at the IHT. I was like, “I can work and live in Paris.”
Yeah, you could.
Okay, let’s do that, right? So, that was great. That was in some ways kind of a ... It was a smaller team, I wasn’t just doing journalism there, right? I ended up running the technology piece and the sales piece. Just tiny, tiny team, but that was great because I got to see life outside of the American lens and we experimented with Nokia on mobile stuff, and language and translation software. It was super, super fun and super creative.
What was the attitude still at the main newspapers? This was the New York Times because that’s one of the owners, the International ... It ended up being the only owner of the International Herald Tribune. What was the attitude of them towards digital still, even during these years? This was after the fall, right?
That’s right. So, this is 2002 to 2007 when I was at the IHT and I was there for a hot second when it was co-owned by the Post and the Times, to your point. Then, the Times took it over fully. I feel like it was friendlier there, frankly. I think, once some time had passed and you didn’t have to evangelize about the importance of the internet and newsrooms as much. Two was ... there was something about being outside of the US and some more just experimentation that was happening across parts of Europe, Africa, and Asia, and mobile was early there.
So, there were some interesting ways to play with what was happening internationally, and plus the people at the IHT, I just set up a bunch of blogs for, “Let’s have a Formula One blog and let’s talk about foreign affairs.” Everyone was kind of game, it was smaller and it felt like we were kind of in it together. So, that to me was like the first taste of, “I can now see what a modern newsroom might look like where people aren’t — one is digital and one is print. We’re actually kind of doing some kinds of things together and hey, that actually works.”
Right. So, you worked there and then moved back to Los Angeles to work for the Times.
Then, I got a call from LA saying, “Do you want to run latimes.com as the top editor?” and I said, “Absolutely.” So, that was ... I’d never been in LA before, I’d never worked at the LA Times. I thought this was going to be crazy, we’re going to go in the land of traffic and smog and all of that, but I fell in love with it. I was in LA Times for two years running digital there.
What was the challenges there? This was, again, a time where newspapers were still slow to get there, it seemed like. They didn’t until, I would say, five years ago.
I think that’s right. I mean, I feel like there’s so many increments and steps along the way. The LA Times was ... It was awesome because that was local. As big as LA is, it was still local.
I got to go from just global in general with the IHT to let’s see what it’s like to serve at community and that was just a really fun exercise, to use the internet for that purpose. If there was an earthquake, we would just tweet out, “Did you feel it?” Then, we’d do a story of what people felt and they’d send us photos. Some very rudimentary things, but they were actually interesting ways to tell a story that the paper had never done before.
So, yeah. There were three or four rounds of layoffs at the LA Times. There were … Sam Zell came in and out. It was complete chaos, but it was so much fun, I loved it there.
Making the stuff. What were the challenges of moving into the digital age? Because all these companies, when Sam Zell came in, the idea was that it was going to be a more digital Los Angeles Times. They were going to serve different communities. There was lots of talk about how digital was going to transform the LA Times, which it never really did.
Yeah. Yeah, I don’t know that it’s been transformed, you’re right. To me, the LA Times ... The big lesson there was ... Personally, it was a story of they want me ... They’re going to name me as one of the managing editors of the paper. They’re going to put me in the newsroom. This continued story of you’re starting to get it. You’re starting to get it. They were like, “We need you to run like the morning news meeting for the whole organization. Oh, that means we actually need the newspaper people to come in before 11:00 in the morning.”
There were some of these shifts that were so ... The things you wouldn’t see, unless you were just inside the beast, that were really important steps along the way. So, I feel like all of the story for newspapers has been this momentum that’s been slowly, slowly building and have seen it. Then, I think you’re right, four, five years ago was when it was, “Ah. No, the future is digital. It’s right here, you can see it on the spreadsheets. You can see it in the audience, in the revenue. It’s there.”
But, that broke open because of the work that was done to get there. That’s how those things work.
So then how did you end up at CNN?
I got back from maternity leave in LA. I’ve got a 9-year-old son now. There was one voicemail and a little light on my desk phone and it was from the executive recruiter at Time Warner. I was like, “Time Warner? I don’t want to go to a cable company.” Then I was like, “Oh, right, that’s CNN.”
That was always ... CNN was a brass ring job.
Why was that?
I love … Again, going back to the early days, any of the competitive data you saw, CNN was always No.1. I loved their global reach. I love that video was baked into the DNA. I love breaking news was baked into the DNA. I felt as not just a journalist, but a human, that if something happened in the world, that’s where you went. I was like, “God, wouldn’t that be incredible, to run CNN Digital?” To just do everything, all the journalism and distribution and programming that you can possibly think of, it’s always been strong. But I felt like there were more things that could be in.
So, talk about what your job is. Explain what CNN.com ... I don’t think people do realize how widespread it is because most people think of Yahoo. I’m trying to think of the news sites that people think are big. NYTimes.com. What would it be? Yahoo News, some version of Yahoo, Yahoo Finance. There’d be Wall Street Journal, there’d be ... What else?
I mean, we’re all kind of battling it out. You can look at all these different metrics.
We’ve been battling it out, not to sound overly cocky, but it’s not that close. We’ve had moments where it’s been close. In the last year or so, it’s been ... The Times, the Post, it’s great.
Washington Post, yeah.
I love to see the newspaper sites and brands resurgent on digital, that’s a really good thing. It was BuzzFeed for a while, it’s not BuzzFeed so much anymore. Yeah, it’s just ... There’s a lot of different ways to kind of slice and dice it, about just every metric, we’re No. 1 in everything. Social, millennial reach, video, time spent, it just goes on and on.
So, you are in charge of all the ... Not the reporters themselves or the entire ... Everything that comes out of CNN.com.
So, I’ve got ... If you were to look at an organizational chart, I’ve got 350-ish people or so on my team proper and those are writers, reporters, editors, producers, who might work in politics or business or out of our London or Hong Kong teams for international. Or work on our social media teams. I have those people, but I think of “my team” because it’s way bigger than that because my job is actually to run the journalism and work with the journalists who fuel CNN digitally worldwide.
So, there’s thousands of journalists at CNN. A lot of them these days, continuing that story of integration, there’s so many people that aren’t on my team technically, but they spend 25 percent, 50 percent, 75 percent of their time working for digital.
Right. Making stuff for you.
Making stuff for digital, right? So, that’s one of the most fun things.
The thing that CNN is known for as a video, as a video company, essentially, that’s how it’s done. How is that running a website that has so well known for television?
Yeah. The plus side is video is in our DNA, right? That’s just who we are. So, the whole pivot to video conversation, we can just stand in the same place. This is where we’ve been and it’s really good.
You didn’t pivot to video.
We did not have to pivot.
You just turned around, “Oh, here we are.”
Yeah, we’re right here. So, that’s just wonderful, right? There’s different ways to think about video, right? So, there are video journalists who do video just for CNN Digital. There are video journalists who kind of specialize in doing video for social, or YouTube, or whatever it might be. Then there are video editors who pull the right moments from air or who go in and tap into the archives. We’re sitting on, since 1980, a goldmine of archive video, history of the world, right? So there’s all these different ways that we can kind of play with video.
In what you’re doing.
We’re here with Meredith Artley. She’s the editor in chief of CNN.com and the senior vice president of CNN Digital Worldwide. We’re talking a little bit about how she got to where she got, but talk a little bit about the news business now, because a lot of the way people get their news and how people consume it has changed pretty drastically in the past couple of years. Talk a little about where you think it’s going and how you all are thinking about how you deliver it to people, because obviously mobile’s probably the most important part, but perhaps. Maybe it’s Facebook, maybe it’s Twitter, maybe it’s other places.
It’s changed so much in terms of how we ... it used to be the super-popular thing to be like, let’s be where audiences are. Almost at every cost.
So let’s be out on every single social platform.
It was a trend two years ago, right?
It was a trend two years ago.
Two-and-a-half years ago.
Be where they are. That was the mantra. And we had that mantra a little bit too, and it’s a short-sighted mantra, because if you do that and you’re just where the people are and you’re not actually thinking about your owned and operated properties, it doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t grow a business that supports journalism that you exist to do. So that was where it used to be.
I think where it’s going now, especially in light of what’s happened with the social platforms, we’re gonna be way more focused. We’ve already been in this space for a while now, but we’re gonna be way more focused on what we can actually control, what we own, our sites, our apps, partnerships and relationships that we have with social platforms and other companies that are on our own terms. CNN’s so huge that we’ve got that leverage.
Right. So that’s good, and that’s a benefit that you can’t take for granted. There’s a lot of other smaller sites that are doing great work that don’t have that leverage and don’t have that benefit, and we have it and we’d better use it.
So what does that mean? It means pushing people to your website. What is the most important way people get news right now from CNN.com, right? Not from the website, typing it into a browser or is that the way?
There’s still a lot of people who do that.
That’s one of ... Everyone was saying a while ago that the homepage is dead, or people wouldn’t have homepages. That has just not been our experience. It’s so old school. People go to CNN.com, they type it in.
That’s a huge amount of audience. But there’s also, again, to the point about being addicted to what audiences do and the data, we do a lot of, okay, let’s talk about what we’re doing on SEO, or what we’re doing with Google on AMP, or what we’re doing on social that does more than cause someone to hit a thumbs up or a thumbs down.
So when you’re thinking about distributing your news, you think about your owned and operated properties then, correct?
What you want people on them ... Which of those are the most important? Is that it the app? Is it just a mobile enabled website or what do people use more?
It’s kind of like your “favorite children” question, because the app has a smaller audience but the audience is super loyal. Most of the app users are really in it. They open it often, they’re signed up for alerts, they’re super engaged. Some of the web audience, web audience is way bigger. That’s our scale. That’s our ubiquity. But some of that audience is like a one and done. It’s a fly-by.
So something, Michael Flynn gets indicted, they want to see what CNN has.
So they just, they’re not loyal to you in particular, it’s just whatever pops up first.
Some of them might come to CNN.com, which is like a good loyalty sign, but some of them might just see something in a feed pop in on whatever story it is, and be like, “Oh, I’m on CNN.”
So how do you manage to that, when you’re thinking about your writers and how to deliver news to them? What goes into the thinking behind how to catch those people? Because other people have news just like yours.
Well, the scale is super important, right? So we talk about, I think it’s a common construct these days, but we think about a funnel, right? So that wide funnel with these massive audiences, millions and millions of people a day. That’s good, we’ve got that. You got to start there. And so then what can you do to get people further down the funnel? I mean, No. 1 is you can just do really good essential and engaging journalism and do it well. That’s kind of it.
But then there are other tools and techniques. You can make sure that you’re optimized for SEO, that you are thinking about, like, if there’s a story that we see that’s doing really well, that’s a sign that our audiences are interested, maybe we should do more, right? So that might mean developing that story a little bit more. That might mean doing another piece or two, sidebars, whatever techniques to understand what our audiences are looking at and what audiences that we might get might be looking at, and then thinking about the journalism that we need to do to support it. It’s really nice.
These days, I feel like the news business is in ... most of us are in a really healthy place when it comes to the art and science. Mixing those two things.
Right. Explain that more. What do you mean?
It used to be, we’re just gonna do a story because the editor says we’re gonna do a story and that’s the end of it. And sometimes that happens, like I will do it. Zucker orders up a million stories all the time. The big boss of CNN.
“I want to see more on ...”
Yeah, fine. And a lot of times those are really good ideas, but a lot of times, what we can do now for example is, this is one of my favorite and least favorite things that happened. I will have a really good idea for like, “Let’s go with that headline. Let’s use this.” Right?
And the team will be like, “We ran it through some A/B tests, boss, and we found that these two other headlines work better than yours did.” It’s like, “Great! I’m glad we’re A/B testing... Dammit, my headline didn’t work,” but again, these are really, I’m joking, these are really good, healthy examples of how can we make sure that what we’re doing reaches people? It’s a little bit of a battle. There’s so much out there. And so we’ve got this big scale. We don’t want to be seen as this ubiquitous blah.
So in that blah, what is working today? Because I mean a lot of people talk about this idea, we’ll get into fake news and things like that, but what works with the user at this moment in time, because that obviously will change. But what is the best way to reach, say, a qualified reader with a strong story?
The thing that works, we were actually talking about it in the news meetings this morning. The thing that’s working really well these days is context and analysis, because the world is so, things are so crazy. What happened in the news cycle three days ago, you have no idea. I have no idea. Things are just moving at such a fast clip.
So this morning we have this excellent writer, his name is Stephen Collinson. A lot of times, you will see on mobile or our app or mobile web or desktop or wherever, you will see him ranking one of the big stories in the morning usually. And he does analysis for us. And you will see, it used to be a few months ago, his stories would do pretty well. They’d be doing okay. We’ve got our Chartbeat app. Can I get geeky here for a second?
Yeah, sure, please do. We have a geeky audience.
Anything over 10,000 concurrents for us is considered really good. And Stephen Collinson is getting 20,000 concurrence this morning before 9:00 am on an analysis piece about Trump’s rage-y weekend. Another one.
And that’s interesting to me, because what it says to me, especially as a CNN-er, our DNA is breaking news. If the world’s falling apart, this is where you go to let people know what’s going on. This is, we’re now seeing this huge thirst from audiences for context and analysis. So that as just a journalistic technique and marrying the art and the science together, we see that working in really big ways. It’s kind of a basic thing that, no duh, and frankly there were times, even earlier this past year where people didn’t want context and analysis, they just wanted the recent pop.
Right, what the recent news is. The recent, I want it, the refreshing constantly kind of thing.
How do you build a news and culture that’s like that, that when we are in this sort of fast-paced news culture, because it’s changed again in the last two years, for sure in the last year it’s been dramatic, the amount of shifting of the news, and when you have a constant breaking news site, you have that happening.
It’s been tough, right? I think we’ve done it. I think there are ways that we’re still kind of figuring it out, to be honest. You know the first, when Trump started tweeting, it was this conversation inside our newsrooms, and I think others as well, do we cover every tweet? We should. It’s the president, we should cover every tweet. It’s the president of the United States. It’s by definition, newsworthy. Then it became like, hold on, wait, slow down. We’re doing stenography journalism right now.
Let’s chill out.
We’re just writing down everything he says and just saying it back.
Precisely. So that’s not what you want to do. You want to just pause for a second.
So there are some moments where something is said. It could be Trump, it could be another story. We should say what we know when we know it, and then publish and then layer on the context as we can.
As you learn it.
But there are some moments where we just need to pause. We’re not ...
That’s interesting. I just did an interview with Andrea Mitchell on a podcast I did with her and Chuck Todd and Hallie Jackson, and she had the same thing, is that some, they get, this is at NBC News, that she’s the head of her show and she’s like, “I don’t want to hear his latest. You don’t even tell me his latest tweets, because I don’t want to lead with it, or I don’t want that to be the story.”
And what’s really interesting, she said, “Every time I ignore it, he says something that actually is pertinent, because he is president.” There are certain tweets or whatever utterances that are pertinent and there’s others that aren’t, and it’s really hard in this cycle of fast twitch to immediately go to the fast twitch.
Yeah, I agree.
I would assume you get rewarded for that at CNN.com, fast twitch kind of stuff.
Maybe we used to, a little bit. I mean, listen, we like to be early or first on things, that is true. But I think these days we’ve shifted into, that doesn’t mean just repeating everything that Trump or the White House says. It means, let’s just take a breath, take a beat. Is this newsworthy? If so, why? Let’s get that first version ...
But how do you then slow down a newsroom? How do you then, when you have a newsroom on this fast-twitchy-instant-publish-publish-publish cycle?
You just talk to people and tell them it’s better to be right than it is to be first, which in some cases is about the fear of getting something wrong if we push it out there too early. In other cases, these days it’s the fear of not doing our jobs as well as we can as journalists, if we’re just pushing things out there so early.
People want to know CNN’s take on things. If you are a consumer of news, at some point you will be, I want to know what CNN has to say on it. So at some point, while there’s still this mentality of, let’s get it out, let’s get it out, there’s also this recognition in this fast twitch cycle, as you say, that, hold on, everything’s moving really fast. It’s not gonna matter an hour from now, a day from now, a year from now, if we were like No. 1 or No. 2. What’s gonna matter is that we did our jobs well and we got it right.
Right. Except if you’re the leader and this is how you grow, is there a pressure from within CNN to do that, to get bigger? Because the more you do, I assume the more people come to your site. Or that’s not true?
Listen, growth is good, right? There’s a pressure to continue to grow the audience and do good work that that audience wants, and that grows the business, all of that stuff. But I don’t think the path to that is more caffeinated, constant publishing. I think it’s just smarter, high-quality work that’ll break through.
One of the things we’re talking about is you do still have these relationships with social networks. You have big ones. Describe which ones you have now and how you look at them, because everybody was striking these big instant publishing deals or different things with either Google or Facebook. Typically Google or Facebook. That’s pretty much the two ways. And Twitter, I guess. Talk about each of them right now, how you look at them, how do you look at them as entities?
The umbrella on that is we look at everything we’re doing there as something that is nice to have and that we do by choice, and that we don’t put our eggs in the basket of any of these networks. They don’t really care about us. It’s not our business model. And they don’t share the values that we have. So just in general, it’s not ...
What do you mean by that? What do you mean they don’t share the values?
They’re not journalists. And we saw this with Facebook in and out. You could talk about this for a long time and I know you have. This idea of you can’t even get them to say that they’re a media company. So they’re not thinking about what’s appropriate, what’s not appropriate, upholding some basic standards of democracy or other free governing principles elsewhere in the world. It’s just a different mindset. And we’ve seen the problems with that in the news cycle, left and right.
And so I think there was so much, since the model for news has been in such a tumultuous state ever since forever. For a long time, I think there was just this hope of like, “Ah, this is it, this is where I can get those audiences. Let me be where they are.” And then what, it becomes is a volatile thing where people were spinning up editorial and business strategies based on something that they didn’t control. Right?
Right. And like the old AOL days.
Totally like the old AOL days.
So what then is left? So you have Facebook. Which still matters. Facebook, Twitter, same thing.
They all matter to some degree, but nowhere near as much as like the same ...
CNN has a big presence on Twitter, for example, as do your CNN personalities. And your CNN reporters.
Yeah, I mean, you know, Twitter. I mean, yes.
Yeah, Twitter. It’s Chinatown, Jake.
Yes. And @CNNBRK has been the No. 1, it’s like this monster account that’s been around forever, that’s essentially an alerting service of what we know when we know it. And that’s fun and that’s great. And we do some great things, by the way, there’s an incredible social team and other people around CNN that lead the strategy of what we’re doing in these places. And it’s good. We learn a lot. Is it the thing that we’re going to stake our future on? Absolutely not.
So yeah, Twitter is important to us. It’s important to us for breaking news. There’s a little bit, there’s some monetization that’s happening there, a little bit with Twitter. Facebook, yes. We have the Facebook Watch thing we do with Anderson and others. That show has been a hit, and that’s been great. And that was a deal. We got money, we are paid money for that.
Right. They paid you. I wonder if you’d do it without the money they paid you.
Yeah, probably not. I mean, we might, we’ve experimented on Facebook for ages without getting ...
Without getting paid, and I think the experiments are good in that we learned something, we learned something about, maybe it’s vertical video. We learned something about audience engagement on a certain topic on that platform. But yeah, Facebook Watch, that’s Anderson Cooper, that’s our star talent. We’re not gonna just do that for free.
No, not at all.
So yeah. So Facebook, they’re moderately important, the Facebook Watch show was a highlight. They’d been problematic in so many other ways, just again in the news cycle.
We did have a deal with Snapchat. We had our own show on that. That was fine, but then it turned out that there were a lot of things that we weren’t getting in terms of information about our audiences, and I think the revenue deal, I didn’t drive that piece of it, but I think it wasn’t as promising as we thought it was going to be. And so we were like, we’re going to take a pause, we’re out. And then now we’re kind of playing with them in some corners in some ways, but that’s how I think it should go, right? We’re open to partnering with platforms, with companies that want to play.
What about VR? Do you think that, you said the Cheddar thing was kind of kooky, with Magic Leap.
We’ve done some good. We had some fun VR stuff. It seems like it’s, I mean, what do you think about it? I think it’s such a high bar for someone to do all this stuff.
Oh, not yet. It’s games. I think it’s games. I just was playing a bunch of games with my kids, and it’s fine. If you have a 9-year-old, your 9-year-old would like it. Like a pirate game or something like that, but for news? No.
Yeah. I just don’t see.
Yeah, the equipment still is subpar for what the experience ...
Yeah. It sounds promising.
Eventually, you’ll go home and put on some glasses at night and watch TV that way. Yeah, sure.
There was a project recently about, okay, I’m gonna feel bad that I can’t remember who did it. Maybe the Guardian published it, but like what it’s like to be in a detention cell, right? Solitary stuff like that.
Oh yeah, that kind of stuff.
That kind of stuff is truly experiential.
Yes, yes. But you have to get everybody with one of those devices wearing them. You have to go home and put on glasses. Everyone has to go home and put on the glasses every night. That kind of thing.
It’s a high bar.
It’s a high bar, which if the glasses are easy enough or if it’s a surround, sort of like in a “Black Mirror” episode where you’re in the room and all the screens are everywhere. Sure. Why not? That’s how you would get your news, and experiential stuff is kind of cool. I’ve seen some really cool stuff done with experiential, but it’s just, it’s still not ... Print works really well, you know what I mean?
Yeah, it does. It’s a good technology.
Yeah, it’s a good technology. Not print, not stuff you printed out, but text. Text on a screen or whatever seems to work really well. Video works really well. Audio obviously works really well for us. It’s always like there’s nothing new under the sun but I do try to think, “Where is news going? How does news gathering ...” Well, obviously news gathering changes over time, you know, how people bring stories to people and how quickly they do is one thing.
The other part is how much, if I was running a huge organization like yours, I wouldn’t even know what to think of where it’s going, how it’s going or where it’s coming from or how people gather news or how you do things. It’s certainly not in the way they’ve done it in the past.
When you talk about news gathering that brings to mind thousands of journalists who are, the way that they literally go out and get and capture the news has completely changed. I guess it’s happened to print as well. The infrastructure has gone from these massive pieces of equipment and expensive and only a few people know how to operate them to everyone can do it. You need to be a good journalist and know how to tell the story and who to talk to, but the technology is no longer a barrier, and that’s been a wonderful thing for news.
Yeah, but has it changed the way we tell stories, and that’s the thing. When you’re at a big organization like yours, I would think you change more slowly, but maybe not.
I think it’s changed… It’s given us a broader menu. It’s not like the TV package is the end-all be-all for video. There’s so many different ways to use images, still and moving, with text, with motion graphics, with whatever it might be to tell a story in a super-compelling way. That’s the fun part about being a journalist these days is there’s so many different ... You can be just an expert in a particular format. You can be like, “I know vertical video. I know this about mobile. I know this about AR/VR,” or whatever it might be. It’s gotten so diverse in terms of the different ways to tell a story.
So the challenge is — and this really is the fun piece — okay, we have this story to tell. How many different ways shall we tell this story? What is the best way to tell it? Right? There might be something really quick right now that we can do on a social network or a quick take or put something in a newsletter or a video and that might grow into a beautiful interactive narrative series that we can do that will go across basically everything CNN does, including TV. So there’s a lot of that work and exploration that’s just happening across all of CNN.
I want to finish up talking about how you got dropped into the backdrop of anti-news news. You work for an organization that’s been attacked. It’s been ... pipe bombs, everything else. The whole organization, not just CNN.com, but the entire organization. You’ve all been the focus of this idea of attacks on the news and “fake news.” What is that like, working in that environment now?
You had Maria Ressa on not that long ago. She’s amazing.
She is. She’s at Rappler, in the Philippines, for those didn’t listen. She’s a journalist who is undergoing a great deal of stress from the murderous regime who runs the Philippines.
Exactly. And she said it really well, that this is in some ways the toughest time to be a journalist and in some ways it’s the most important and invigorating time to do it. I think that’s true and well said.
The thing about the bomb threats was, it’s one thing if you’ve worked in journalism for a while and worked in bureaus or been out in the field. Certainly if you’re a war correspondent or anything like that, certain kinds of journalists get used to living with these threats and they deal with it.
Right, and dangers.
And dangers and they deal with it in all kinds of ways, right, and that’s tough. It’s another thing if you are relatively new at CNN, like it’s one of your first or second jobs and you’re in the newsroom and there’s a threat.
And you have to leave.
And you have to leave. So we’ve got a very diverse mix of staff, in every single sense of the word. People processed it differently. There were a lot of people who were genuinely and understandably freaked out by it. “I didn’t know this was what I was getting into. I thought I was getting into journalism because it’s a valued profession. It’s a profession that serves the public good and has gained public trust. I didn’t think I was getting into it to be called the enemy of the people by the president of the United States and that that would result in threats, that my family is calling me crying wondering if I’m okay.” So yeah, those things were tough this year. I think at the end of it it kind of underlines why it’s so important for us to do our jobs well.
Where do you imagine the news business going with the attacks that go on continuously across the globe? Obviously, Maria and others were on the cover of Time magazine, which was kind of nice to see. How do you think about the news business amid that threat, when it’s continuing ... Do you see it continuing or do you think people will be like, “That’s enough. We value the press. This is just a political attack meant to disable us, essentially.”
I think we’re in a moment in time. I think it’s going to abate. I think we’ll be ... I don’t know how long this is going to last. I don’t think it’s going to be over in two to three months. I think we’re going to have to live with this for a little while, but I think it’s just a moment. Again, looking through all the cycles of history after having experience and some knowledge of how these things can go, you get old enough and you can think about those things. I think we are definitely in a moment and it will pass, but it’s a hard moment.
I’m doing this work. I’ve been working on this report that’s going to come out at the start of the year. The Knight Foundation and the Aspen Institute have this group of people. We’re working on trust and media and democracy and exploring that topic. There’s been a lot of studies done and conversations we’ve had with smart people around the nation and the world about what’s happening at this moment.
One of the things that I think is the leading theory — and it’s been said before — is this idea that there is this complete lack of trust in institutions and those institutions include the news media, media writ large, governments, businesses, that this whole infrastructure of these institutions that many of us growing up kind of had faith in these institutions and would rely on them or maybe would aspire to work for them. Now so many of them have failed people.
That’s resulted in this dark moment that we’re in, to some degree, where there’s been this decaying of trust on a large scale. And that’s when you get these people who are like, “None of this has worked for me and I don’t care if the system burns down.”
I think one of the things we will see in 2019, in thinking about, you asked where this was going, I know one of the things that is really important for me, for CNN Digital, and I think that everybody else at CNN would agree with me on this, is that in 2019, we go beyond the marketing campaigns of “Facts first” and “Democracy dies in darkness” and all of that. That’s great. That’s really good stuff. We need to go further now. We need to actually do better about showing our work.
Showing who we are as journalists. Dial up the efforts to be transparent about when we get things wrong or when we change things, why have we done that. I think there’s so much of the journalistic process that audiences don’t understand and we need to lay that bare. I think that will increase the trust.
Showing how we do it.
Showing how we do it. I mean, you’re good at this. You kind of are like showing your process on the podcast all the time.
But you don’t always see that.
Right. You don’t always see how they do it. If you had to predict where news will be gotten from five years from now, where would you think?
Where news’ll be gotten from?
Where people will consume their news on. Still the mobile device?
Yeah. Yeah. I think so. I think it just has to get more and more convenient. We see now, you can see it in every ... whether it’s network television or cable television, the numbers of people sitting down to watch TV in that traditional model is declining. Then it kind of raises the existential question about what do we mean by when we mean TV? What do we mean when we are talking about video? How can we make it as easy as possible to get news that’s relevant to people wherever they are and whatever device they’re on, in a way that supports ...
Right, the business.
The business. That’s the key thing. That’s the pivot from, “Let’s just go on all these social platforms and see how it happens, see how it works.”
Do you see a new one emerging?
Not yet but I think there will be, don’t you?
I don’t know. I keep, I’m asking everybody. I’m not asking this out in the middle of the dark, because I literally don’t know what’s next. It seems like Facebook and the others are declining in some way. Do you know what I mean? It’s just not the way ... It’s exhausting. I just don’t know how people are going to ... Maybe you’re right. It goes back to, they’ll come to the individual sites that are the strongest and they will go back to their old practices. I don’t know.
I think the brands matter so much.
Innovation needs to continue. Oh, by the way, did you hear who got off Facebook today?
Really? What did he do? Oh, no.
He said he’s not on Facebook anymore.
Oh, no. Thank you for that news. I lost my phone, so I did not find this out. But I myself am not on Facebook so I don’t ... I mean, I’ve used Facebook, of course, but I don’t use it. I’m not off of Facebook. Oh because he’s mad, is he mad at them?
Yeah, he made some kind of, it was a good statement about how he doesn’t feel like it’s an appropriate place to be.
Oh, wow. Good for Walt.
There you go.
There you go. Well, what are you going to do now? CNN’s going to stay on Facebook for now.
CNN will stay on Facebook. For me, personally, I’m not, it’s just ... the second I’m out there dealing with that, I’m not dealing with the work that we need to do at CNN.
My last question is news cycle speed. How do you deal with it? You must be on high alert all the time. Nothing is not news, right?
It helps ... Nothing is not news and the internet is infinite.
As sometimes people like to think. It helps to have a global team of journalists. We all have each other’s backs. There are moments where someone might be like kind of last minute, like, “I need to step out of this one. I’m good. I need to step away from this mass shooting coverage for a little while. Okay, you guys got it?”
That’s what I’m saying, one thing after the next, after the next, after the next.
Yeah. We thought the midterms, we were so focused on doing a good job covering the midterms and all the complexities of doing that just because of the story of the midterms and then add on the complexity of all of CNN’s digital platforms and all these journalists around the world, and we did it. It went really well. And we were like, “Yay, we can take a break.” And then Pittsburgh, the synagogue, and then the California wildfires.
Yes. That was one of those this weekend. There were six at a time.
Yeah, yeah. I don’t know why things have sped up so much. It is not all politics, but they really have. Sometimes, it’s really exhilarating and sometimes you’re like, “I need a break.” For me it means right now, my outside interests are pretty limited. I’ll get there one day. I’ll have some rich creative life.
Moment of quietude.
One day. I kind of prioritize quiet time and going to bed early and getting some sleep and if people need me because something big happens, I’m there. We kind of trade off with each other, me and the rest of the leadership team. It’s good. We have each other’s backs.
I can’t imagine the news cycle at CNN, because you’ve got to cover everything.
I can ignore most of the things.
There’s a lot.
I just have Facebook all the time to whack at. Anyway, Meredith, thank you so much. We’ve been here with Meredith Artley. Thank you for coming on the show. She is the editor in chief of CNN.com and the senior vice president of CNN Digital Worldwide. Thank you for coming on the show.
Thanks for having me.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.