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How CNN ventured beyond TV and Trump to grow the world’s largest news audience

Covering the most powerful media companies to the smartest startups, former Independent media editor Ian Burrell examines the fraught problem of how news is funded today. Follow Ian @iburrell.

Founded as Cable News Network in recognition of a then revolutionary medium, CNN will enter its 40th year distributing its content across 40 diverse platforms, from smart watches to VR goggles, and laying claim to the world’s largest audience in news.

CNN reveals that its reach is now 263 million across digital platforms that include its mobile and desktop services, its app and its CNNgo live stream. On television it is available in 475m homes and hotel rooms, as CNN US, CNN International and CNN en Español. It has a host of branded channels run by partner companies, including Japanese language CNNj, India-based CNN News-18 and CNN Money Switzerland.

On social media it has 150 million followers across its various verticals on Facebook (63 million), Twitter (76 million) and Instagram (more than 10 million). It is on messaging apps from Asia-based Line to Kik and Snapchat. Its Anderson Cooper Full Circle show goes out daily on Facebook Watch. CNN has 5 million followers for its YouTube channel and is available on the Roku streaming service.

It is on the Samsung Gear VR platform, Spotify’s music streaming service and Stitcher internet radio. It’s on the Apple Watch and the Samsung Watch wearable tech. It is available via Amazon Echo (Alexa) and Google Home voice-activated virtual assistants. It’s on Apple TV, Samsung TV, Android TV, Sling TV, Amazon Fire, Instagram Stories, Twitter Moments and iTunes.

While president Donald Trump derides CNN as “fake news”, almost on a daily basis, the network is poised for further investment following its acquisition by the world’s biggest telecoms company AT&T, as part of the $85bn deal to buy the media conglomerate Time Warner last year.

Executives from CNN International set out to The Drum the news giant’s strategy for editorial and commercial growth during 2019.

Tech-driven reporting

For Andrew Demaria, VP of CNN Digital International, shifts in technology are having profound effects on the way the network produces live coverage of breaking news, the thing CNN became world famous for after Peter Arnett’s game-changing commentary from Baghdad during the opening bombardment on Iraq in the 1991 Gulf War. “2019 for us is about getting more innovative around our storytelling and how we continually evolve our breaking news and live coverage, which is our bread and butter and the thing we really excel at,” he says.

Today’s news consumers expect instant alerts and live streaming on breaking stories, even if they are away from their office or home. CNN has had to take its legacy reputation to mobile, where it realises more than 60% of its traffic, rising to more than 80% in some countries, such as Nigeria. Demaria’s publishing strategy is “mobile-first”.

When a big story breaks, CNN’s first response is to create a specific WhatsApp group to involve all interested internal teams in the planning of coverage. News alerts are posted on CNN’s myriad digital platforms and a live blog (known internally as a “DLE” or Dynamic Live Experience) is created, including relevant social media content cleared by CNN’s social team. If available, CNN pictures from the scene will be live-streamed on all appropriate platforms. Digital audiences are driving the need for fast-response analytical pieces from specialist correspondents, such as Middle East expert Nick Paton Walsh or Berlin-based Atika Shubert.

The growing importance of mobile phones and breaking news explains why Demaria picks out Apple TV as being “more and more relevant” as a partner. “The relationship is a really interesting one going forward and definitely one to explore further.”

Speaking in London amid the news frenzy ahead of Brexit, Demaria says CNN’s standing as a global operator can help it be distinctive in local markets, including the UK, where it has enjoyed 40% growth in traffic since 2015 when the EU Referendum was called. “I think it’s the international perspective that we can bring to a UK audience which is dominated by a very often parochial or biased local media – we can provide something different that helps perhaps complete the picture for that audience,” he says. “My mission is to deliver that story not only to our UK audience but to Australia, Europe, the US or wherever people might be.”

CNN was founded by the media visionary Ted Turner in 1980 as the first 24-hour news channel and is part of Turner Broadcasting System, which merged with Time Warner in 1996.

The BBC has long been its biggest competitor for audience in global news. The British broadcaster claimed last June that its global audience had grown to 376 million (including World Service, a non-commercial platform). CNN points to Comscore data for 2018 (which covers 24 key markets), showing the US-based outlet with 157 million users and the BBC a whisker behind on 156 million. The GlobalWebIndex (GWI) last year surveyed people in 39 markets and found 41% to be CNN users, with 28% accessing BBC World.

CNN’s competitor set is changing, as digital pure-play news companies falter in their global ambitions, and old rivals grow. “You have seen the expansion of more traditional outlets that started as legacy (media) with a newspaper, like The Washington Post and New York Times, looking more international,” says Demaria, who wants CNN to further explore potential editorial partnerships where it shares its content on the platforms of other media companies.

He points out that digital news providers, such as BuzzFeed, have struggled recently because of their over-reliance on social media for distribution. “CNN Digital has been around for a very long time and has an incredible audience base,” he says. “That puts us in a great position where we don’t need to be solely dependent on a Facebook or another FAANG."

The extraordinary thing about CNN’s proliferation across digital platforms and devices is that half its traffic still comes directly to its own platforms, rather than being referred from elsewhere. “We are one of the last sites that people still type in the URL for,” says Rob Bradley, VP of digital commercial strategy and revenue at CNN International Commercial. He recognised the BBC as one of the only other news outlets to have similar “clout” in direct traffic.

Commercial competition

Bradley accepts that the commercial market for new outlets has gone from “a water pistol to a fire hydrant”, with new competition from social platforms and data companies. On one recent pitch, CNN found itself “on a conveyor belt for a day with 40 other companies we were pitching alongside”.

He is expecting to get an extra edge from the input of AT&T. “Having [the support of] such a huge tech company, a consumer faced company, we can get excited about what that will mean from a product perspective and a technology-empowered data perspective for CNN. We are going to get more insight over the coming months and years.”

Bradley says that – unlike other news outlets who over-leveraged in social media – CNN “never took our eyes off the prize” of its owned and operated platforms. This core audience has allowed it to experiment on emerging sites and technologies. “We do not make money out of all of those [external] platforms, I wish we did, but we have to be there because we have to understand them and be where users are. Perhaps it might be 30 next year, perhaps 40 the year after. But by being there and by understanding them we can make them work for us.”

CNNIC makes great use of Launchpad, an audience-tracking tool unique to the Turner media family (which also includes film, children’s and sports channels and a stake in streaming service Hulu), that “visualises and builds tribes of users across the platforms where we have audiences”. Much of its advertising focus goes on the vertical channels CNN Business, CNN Style, CNN Travel and CNN Sport.

Bradley has built a new five-strong consultancy team CNN Reach, to advise brands on content and distribution strategy. CNN’s London-based in-house branded content studio, Create, which was set up 15 years ago, works on 60% of all campaigns, including recent work for Lexus on ‘Pioneering Spirits’ and a kimono-focused piece for Japan Airlines ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

CNN has its headquarters in Atlanta and been stigmatised in its home market by president Trump but its brand identity is as a global news outlet. “The biggest opportunity for growth for CNN Digital is outside of the United States,” Demaria emphasises.

Some of its biggest recent editorial successes have been delivered by Sudan-born journalist Nima Elbagir, with her world exclusive exposé of Libya’s underground slave markets. The broadcaster has been campaigning against modern slavery since 2011 through its CNN Freedom Project.

Elbagir also reported last year on the children who are forced to work in mining cobalt (used for car batteries in the west) in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

For a year CNN has run the ‘As equals’ project with the European Journalism Centre, exploring the sensitivities of gender equality in the developing world, from Haiti to Yemen. A series examining China’s growing influence on Africa from an African viewpoint was another digital hit.

While credible coverage of the White House is a priority, CNN’s global audience demands more than the wall-to-wall Trump diet served up by some American networks. “If I was just to rely on Trump,” says Demaria, “I would not get anywhere near my traffic goals.”

Read more from Ian Burrell's column, The News Business, and follow him on Twitter @iburrell