USA TODAY US Edition
CNN POLITICS ‘CREATING A NEW WORLD’ OF DIGITAL NEWS
Among other things, it’s a laboratory for the integration of digital news with TV news
Think of it as building a start-up inside an established business.
About a year ago, CNN blew up its digital politics operation, a wire service-type outfit that was not exactly highprofile, and embarked on creating a digital reporting powerhouse. To run the show, it brought in Rachel Smolkin, who had been a top editor at Politico, generally thought of as the leader in the space. It went on a hiring spree, poaching top journalists from such venues as The Washington
Post, The Los Angeles Times and The New York Times, not to mention about a dozen from Politico.
Today, CNN Politics has a roster of 40, almost all of them new to the operation. That’s twice as many as it had before, a refreshing example of major growth at a time of rampant cutbacks in the media world. Those high-profile recruits are posting top-flight enterprise stories and classy video on the often surreal presidential campaign that is unfolding. And for five straight months CNN Politics has attracted more unique visitors than any of its competitors, according to comScore.
“It’s great to be #1,” says Ed O’Keefe, vice president of CNN Politics.
So why would a cable news operation, the pioneer in the field, make such an expensive plunge into the digital world?
“As an organization, a strategic imperative for us is a tremendous emphasis on digital,” says Jeff Zucker, president of CNN Worldwide. “Our future lies heavily in digital.”
What’s more, Zucker adds, CNN has long been deeply invested in politics. So an elaborate vertical on the subject made perfect sense.
From the outset, Zucker, O’Keefe and Smolkin, whose title is executive editor, envisioned an operation with three key components: breaking news, smart enterprise and analysis, and original, high-quality digital video. “At the end of the day we are a video company,” Zucker says of the latter.
Much has happened since August 2014, when O’Keefe and Smolkin sketched out the first organizational chart on a sheet of O’Keefe’s daughter’s construction paper. (Disclosure: Smolkin worked for me at American Jour
nalism Review and is a friend.) From the outset, O’Keefe says, the goal was to drive both in the “inside lane” with stories aimed at “influencers” and the “outside lane,” producing articles making sense of politics for engaged readers who are not necessarily political junkies. The mission also included fostering a digital first mentality at CNN.
To make all of that happen, they needed talent, lots of talent. Smolkin, whose background was in print journalism (at USA TODAY among other places) before her stint at Politico, went after a lot of print reporters, looking in particular for great writers. Among her showcase hires are Maeve Reston, formerly of the
Los Angeles Times, and Nia-Malika Henderson from The Washing
ton Post. In recent weeks, she has brought in two notable recruits from Politico, political reporter Manu Raju and media writer Dy- lan Byers, who will focus on the intersection of media and politics — a wide intersection indeed.
The troops have been producing interesting enterprise. A couple of recent examples include Raju on how the White House prevailed on the Iran deal and Henderson on why Republican women don’t seem to have a problem with Donald Trump.
Speaking of Trump, those fascinated by the bombastic GOP frontrunner will find no shortage of things to amuse them on CNN Politics. On Sunday, I counted 15 pieces about The Donald. Sure, Trump is a huge story, and other news outlets, USA TODAY certainly among them, have covered him heavily, sometime too heavily. But 15 stories? When I asked about this, Smolkin responded with some links showing her outfit wasn’t ignoring Trump’s rivals.
Among other things, CNN Politics is serving as a laboratory for the integration of a big digital news operation with television news.
Being linked to a cable network gives CNN Politics an enviable platform for amplifying the reach of its digital reports. On his first day on the job last week, before his orientation, Raju interviewed Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid about his recovery from a fall earlier this year, then appeared on TV to talk about it. When I was at CNN Politics’ home in Washington on Friday — which features an electronic wall called the “war room” with a dazzling array of digital metrics — I ran into Raju and Henderson, both of whom told me about going on air that day to discuss their latest. Smolkin swears she didn’t orchestrate this.
But the traffic flows both ways. CNN the TV outlet has no shortage of political talent, and such well-known political journalists as Jake Tapper, Dana Bash and Jeff Zeleny write for CNN Politics, which Smolkin likes a lot.
Building this juggernaut has been a heady experience for Smolkin, who had been a managing editor at Politico.
“We’re creating a new world,” she says. “If you look at the world of journalism, it can be an unsettled place. This has been an incredible adventure.”