Gone is CNN’s ubiquitous “Breaking News” banner, now reserved for truly urgent events. Sarcastic captions on screen: “Angry Trump turns briefing into propaganda session”, for example, are discouraged. Political shows are trying to book more conservative voices, and producers have been urged to ignore Twitter backlash from the far right and far left.
A month into his tenure as the new head of CNN, Chris Licht is beginning to make his mark on the 24-hour news network he inherited in May from its prominent former chairman, Jeff Zucker. So far, Licht Doctrine is a change from the Zucker days: less advertising, more nuance, and a redoubled effort to reach viewers of all persuasions.
Running a network is a new challenge for Licht, a lifelong producer in his 50s who has never run an organization as large as CNN. (His last employer, “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” had a staff of about 200; CNN has about 4,000.) Some CNN reporters say they wonder if they can navigate a sprawling and unwieldy global news network beyond what has been a not-good-very-bad year.
In December, host Chris Cuomo was fired for ethical lapses, prompting an investigation that ultimately led to Zucker’s ouster in February for an undisclosed relationship with a co-worker. Then in April, the network’s new owners, Warner Bros. Discovery, shuttered the CNN+ streaming platform weeks after its $300 million debut. On the same day, Mr. Licht announced the possibility of hundreds of layoffs in his first formal address to his staff.
Under the direction of Mr. Zucker, a micromanager who dictated the headlines and whispered into the ears of anchors during interviews, the network developed an “audience of one” culture. “What Jeff wants” was the mantra, and that often meant spectacle and drama. Licht is now tearing up that playbook with a markedly different management style than his predecessor.
“I’m not here to get into the weeds of day-to-day editorial decision-making,” Mr. Licht told employees on his first day. His more disinterested approach to coverage and his sweeping statements that CNN will “challenge the traditional philosophy of cable news” have left his skeptics wanting more specific direction from the top, not less.
Mr. Licht’s first moves and the mood within the network were described by multiple people with knowledge of the internal dynamics at CNN who spoke only on condition of anonymity.
Mr. Licht is aware of the criticism. “I am going to make decisions more slowly than some would like,” he wrote in a newsroom-wide memo Thursday. “I know that this organization has undergone tremendous changes in the last four months, so I am approaching this process slowly and carefully as we look at all parts of the operation.” (CNN declined to comment.)
One of the initial focuses has been morning programming, a field Mr. Licht knows well from having overseen “Morning Joe” and its successful remake of “CBS This Morning.”
Licht told advertisers that he wanted to “disrupt” morning television. Internally, he has said he wants a more engaging conversational approach, and believes CNN’s flagship offering, “New Day,” which Zucker created, lacks a clear identity, three people said.
In the coming weeks, he wants to create a list of “friends of the show” who would make regular appearances on the show, the people said. Among those being considered is Audie Cornish, the former NPR anchor who had been scheduled to host a show on CNN+.
Mr. Licht also wants to revamp the Sunday night lineup, hosting a new talk show from former Fox News host Chris Wallace, as well as a new long-form newsmagazine show.
Mr. Licht intends to reduce partisanship on air, telling advertisers last month: “At a time when extremes dominate cable news, we will be looking to take a different path.” In a recent meeting in Washington with producers and journalists, Licht said he wanted to hire more Republicans and conservatives on political shows to offer a broader range of viewpoints. Internally, he praised Dana Bash’s recent interview on gun control with Rep. Dan Crenshaw, a Republican from Texas.
In some ways, Mr. Licht is working to undo the showman tendencies that Mr. Zucker, a former “Today” show producer, embedded in CNN’s DNA during his nine-year tenure.
Zucker placed sportscaster-style microphones on pundits and encouraged political anchors like Jim Acosta to embrace conflicting reporting on Donald J. Trump, leading to coverage that could appear defensive. Large groups of partisan guests raised the morale level every night.
“It was so loud,” said Peter Hamby, a former CNN correspondent and columnist for Puck who writes about changes in cable news. “They found a new outrage every day. It made it hard for the audience to separate what was really an emergency and what was a ratings ploy.”
Zucker’s approach had benefits. CNN enjoyed its most profitable and highest-rated years under him, though viewership dropped sharply after Trump left office. Many anchors felt deeply loyal to Zucker, who defended the team against him amid attacks from Trump, death threats and even pipe bombs mailed to CNN offices. After Mr. Zucker’s departure, host Don Lemon took his leave with tears in his eyes, saying, “We lost a man who was the backbone, the glue and the spirit of this company.”
Some CNN producers and reporters have grown accustomed to expecting Zucker’s specific instructions. Mr. Licht is less inclined to micromanage, an approach that is consistent with his production philosophy in previous works. Mr. Licht has told associates that he prefers to empower MPs to make decisions for themselves, even if mistakes can sometimes happen.
On-air journalism is just one aspect of Mr. Licht’s new role; he also has to make sure the network makes money. With cable ratings down, Mr. Licht has told his colleagues that strengthening CNN’s reputation as an unbiased news outfit will help attract blue-chip advertisers.
With little experience on the corporate side of running a network, Licht brought in outside help: Chris Marlin, a friend for decades and a business executive who most recently worked at Lennar, the Florida-based homebuilder giant. Mr. Licht met Mr. Marlin, who grew up in a trailer park in Arkansas, when he was 17 at a Washington conference for high school students.
Mr. Marlin, who is combing the net for new sources of income, has proven to be an object of curiosity and concern on CNN. Some employees have taken to calling him “Fish Man”, an imitation of his maritime surname. So far, his ideas include expanding CNN Underscored, a consumer-focused shopping guide, and extending the CNN brand to foreign markets like China.
For everyday CNN viewers, the clearest sign that the network is under new leadership may be what no longer appears on their television screens.
According to a new entry in CNN’s standards guide, obtained by The New York Times, a story must qualify as “‘stop what you’re doing and watch’ the news” to secure the “Breaking News” label. hour”. Even then, the guide says, the tag should only appear on screen for an hour, unless a live story like a school shooting, a major hurricane, or the death of a world leader is unfolding.
“Its impact has been lost on the audience,” Licht wrote in his memo, adding that CNN should “focus on informing, not alarming our viewers.”
Benjamin Mullin contributed report.