CNN plans to cut 100 employees as network focuses on digital

The cuts will affect between 2% and 3% of the workforce.
CNN president Mark Thompson in 2023. AP PHOTO

Credit: AP PH

Credit: AP PH

CNN president Mark Thompson in 2023. AP PHOTO

CNN is making its first big cutbacks since new CEO Mark Thompson took over last fall, announcing Wednesday that 100 jobs would be cut.

That represents less than 3% of the approximately 3,500 global employees at the network, which has 37 bureaus around the world. Fewer than 1,000 of those employees are based in Atlanta.

In a lengthy memo distributed to employees Wednesday morning, Thompson outlined more details of a plan to focus the network more on its digital product. He first announced his broad intentions in January but has taken his time preparing for a major reorganization of the company’s editorial staff.

One of his key goals, according to the memo, is to “find a clear pathway to migrate the TV experience into the digital future.” This means creating a digital product “that is ambitious enough to deliver the audiences and the revenue we need to maintain our unique journalistic firepower and succeed as a business.”

He plans to create a subscription-only product by the end of the year. CNN actually launched a subscription product called CNN+ in spring 2022. It was scuttled by management after AT&T sold CNN as part of the Warner Bros. portfolio to Discovery.

Thompson also wants to pursue lifestyle-related “news you can use” offerings that “offer multiple opportunities for monetization through sponsorship, advertising and direct-to-consumer subscription.” Thompson was able to successfully work this route when he ran The New York Times in areas such as cooking and games.

While still profitable, CNN is facing serious headwinds. Fewer people are watching its primary cable network, which generates most of its income through subscriber fees and advertising. Cable operators like Comcast are likely going to seek lower rates for CNN when retransmission contracts are up next year. And it’s battling in a very competitive digital advertising arena.

“We can’t thrive as a company unless we find new sources of revenue to offset the structural pressures on legacy income streams,” Thompson wrote.

Tony Harris, a former CNN anchor from 2004 to 2010 who resides in Atlanta, said Thompson “in many ways is going back to the future. CNN used to have a digital streaming operation covering breaking news on multiple screens in the 2000s,” he said. “I’d like to see the people who created much of what Thompson is doing now get credit.”

Over the years, CNN’s news operations have worked in duplicative silos, separating digital, domestic and international operations. Thompson is merging all of those silos into one single newsroom.

The memo references CNN founder Ted Turner multiple times. Thompson wrote: “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.”

He noted that artificial intelligence will be an inevitable part of the future as CNN determines “how to best safely harness this emerging new technology to serve our audiences and deliver our journalistic goals more effectively and responsively.”

Thompson said CNN is working with various technology platforms around AI and signed “our first multimillion dollar licensing deal to unlock the value of our 44-year video archive.” CNN is also adding two new VOD FAST channels offering video on demand, one focused around CNN Originals like “Anthony Bourdain Parts Unknown” and “How It Really Happened” and the other around CNN en Español.

Many aspects of Thompson’s plans were underway when Jeff Zucker was at the helm. Zucker was fired in 2022 and replaced by Chris Licht, whose brief tenure was marked by ill-fated programming decisions that led to his departure in June 2023.

Thompson also announced a new initiative called TV Futures Lab under Eric Sherling, executive vice president for U.S. programming. The lab will develop streaming and VOD programming for Max, the streaming service run by CNN’s new parent, Warner Bros. Discovery.

Final preparations were made as roads closed early Thursday morning, June 27, 2024 near CNN Studios on the Techwood campus in Midtown ahead of Thursday night’s debate between President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump. The Copa América game between the U.S. National Team and Panama was held at 6 p.m. at Mercedes-Benz Stadium bringing thousands of soccer fans downtown. (John Spink/AJC)

Credit: John Spink

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Credit: John Spink

CNN’s footprint in Atlanta has steadily decreased over the years. The headquarters effectively moved to New York more than a decade ago. Atlanta CNN operations were recently moved to Midtown from downtown’s CNN Center, which former CNN owner AT&T sold in 2021. The last CNN employee left downtown in March.

It’s unclear how many of the layoffs might occur in Atlanta but many of the redundancies are likely jobs based in Atlanta such as assignment editors and employees in the standards and practices group long dubbed the “Row” and now renamed “CNN FactCheck.”

An unspecified number of the 100 cuts are unfilled open positions as opposed to outright layoffs.

Media critic and reporter Brian Lowry was one of the 100 or so CNN employees cut on Wednesday, July 10, 2024. CNN

Credit: CNN

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Credit: CNN

The most notable person who lost his job is Brian Lowry, a veteran media reporter and movie and TV critic who has been with CNN since 2016 and previously worked at Variety and The Los Angeles Times.

Meredith Artley, who was senior vice president of CNN Digital Worldwide from 2009 to 2022, said she believes CNN has a strong brand name that millions still turn to, especially on line. “CNN is starting from a position of strength,” she said, “with their massive digital audiences who come in big numbers on slow news days (to the degree those exist anymore) and in exponentially larger numbers when there is big breaking news.”

For Thompson to create a successful subscription driven business, Artley said, “requires the right people and teams who have deep expertise in storytelling and products, distribution, technology and sophisticated knowledge of the wide range of audiences who come to CNN on all platforms. Who gets to drive the decisions will make or break the plan. As he restructures, the best thing he can do is prioritize, not minimize digital leadership.”

Paul Levinson, a media studies professor at Fordham University, reviewed the memo and had no objections to anything Thompson is trying to do. “It draws on CNN as the original pioneer of cable news and I like the fact that he isn’t afraid to address AI, as well as the importance of verification of facts in this day and age of misinformation,” he said.

Steve Stahl, a former director of operations for CNN who worked at the company from 1984 to 2012, is more skeptical, saying this sounds like prescriptions previous leaders have made. “CNN has tried a subscription service twice and failed twice,” he said. “I would want to know how this proposed service is significantly different from defunct CNN services like CNN Pipeline and CNN+?” He added, “Always sad to see more staff join layoffs within journalism as a business.”

Dylan Byers, who aggressively covers CNN for Puck News, found the plan “big on ambition, heavy on corporate pablum, and extremely thin on details. New workflows and initiatives may sound significant to the teams inside CNN, but there is still zero elaboration on their scope and nature. There is also scant detail on the total addressable subscription market for a digital CNN, and whether the company has the sort of talent and capabilities required to build this kind of business.”

Warner Bros. Discovery, a publicly traded company, is under tremendous pressure to reduce costs and pay off massive debts across the entire company, which includes TNT, TBS, Adult Swim, Cartoon Network, truTV and Turner Classic Movies operations in Atlanta. Its debt load as of March 2024 was $42.57 billion, down from $52.5 billion in June 2022.

The company is also facing the likely loss of the NBA on TNT, which would be a potential blow to the value of that network to distributors and viewers.