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CNN “Gut Punch” Of Layoffs And Cost Cuts: What Happens Next?

Deadline 12/2/2022 Ted Johnson
© John Greim/LightRocket via Getty Images

UPDATED: The hundreds of layoffs at CNN this week were, as CNN boss Chris Licht predicted, a “gut punch,” but the question for staffers — and viewers — is what will happen next.

For viewers, the changes may be apparent in a number of ways, particularly at HLN, where the Robin Meade-anchored Morning Express is ending and Meade, whose first day on air at HLN was Sept. 11, 2001, is departing along with staffers. Instead, CNN will replace the morning show with a simulcast of CNN This Morning, the relaunched version of New Day. HLN, which was formerly the newscast-dominated Headline News, had shifted for the rest of the day to largely a format of true-crime shows, something that resembles Warner Bros Discovery sibling network ID. So it wasn’t a complete surprise that ID would take on responsibilities for the true-crime block.

Licht has indicated that, as the network undergoes cuts, he wants to minimize the impact on newsgathering. Nevertheless, a number of reporters and correspondents lost their jobs in the downsizing. 

One of the most recognizable was Martin Savidge, the longtime anchor and correspondent in Atlanta, who noted that his days at the network go back to Ted Turner’s ownership. Others who were let go include Dan Merica, national political reporter, who wrote on Twitter, “End of the line for me at CNN. But certainly not the finish line. It’s been a great 12-year run – thanks primarily to some outstanding colleagues – and I’m looking forward to what is next.” CNN Business digital correspondent Paul La Monica also said that he was part of the layoffs but would keep working until early March, and senior tech writer Rachel Metz, the last remaining digital reporter in the Bay Area, said that she “taking a beat to breathe” after learning the news. National political reporter Brandon Tensley who wrote about race and politics, also said his position was being cut.

Frank Pallotta, media reporter for the network, confirmed that he also was laid off, writing on Twitter, “Unfortunately, I was laid off by CNN yesterday, but looking back, I’m thrilled that I got to spend a decade covering something I love: the inner workings of Hollywood.” Others who are leaving include Alison Kosik, Alexandra Field and Sonia Moghe, according to the network’s Oliver Darcy. Behind the cameras, copy editor and control room Ethan Harp wrote that he was part of the downsizing.

Among the executives exiting are Rick Lewchuk, who has been senior vice president of creative marketing and brand standards. John Antonio, senior vice president of programming at CNN U.S., announced that he will resign as a way to save other positions in his group, per Darcey and confirmed by a source.

“Friday almost always brings me joy and relief. Today, however, my heart is heavy for so many of my CNN colleagues and friends. We are like a family. It has been a painful week,” CNN anchor Ana Cabrera wrote on Twitter. She also is departing the network, sources say, although it was unrelated to job cuts.

An exit that got a lot of social media buzz was that of political analyst Chris Cillizza, lured from the The Washington Post five years ago, as he had authored the popular blog The Fix. He took that to CNN, in what then-CNN chief Jeff Zucker said was meant to add “more destination bylines to our digital properties,” per the Post back then. Cillizza took his signature quick spin to CNN with The Point, a newsletter and podcast.

Licht has talked of a focus on the network’s core mission and shedding areas that are not part of it. Preceding the layoffs was a scaling back of CNN Original Series and CNN Films. Those projects were not just a feature of the Zucker era but also a central part of the short-lived streaming venture CNN+, which shuttered just three weeks after the close of the merger of WarnerMedia and Discovery. That $43 billion combination is driving cutbacks across the entire portfolio, with top execs pledging to deliver at least $3.5 billion in cost savings.

Viewers already have seen a shift from the Zucker-era approach, which was heavier in opinion and point of view, and latest cutbacks are reinforcing those changes. The network layoffs included significant cuts to its deep well of paid contributors. A signature aspect of Zucker’s CNN was the prevalence of panels of talking heads offering nonstop takes on a single topic of the hour, often on Donald Trump during his presidency. The New Yorker‘s Susan Glasser confirmed to the Post that she was among those who got a notice, and Darcy reported that Preet Bharara, the former federal prosecutor who was a visible voice on justice issues during Trump’s term and afterward, also was cut. A source said that in some cases the network is buying out contracts or not renewing other ones.

In a staff memo, Licht said that the network would rely more on CNN’s own journalists rather than outside voices for the analysis. Those who remain as paid contributors will be “subject-matter experts that expand and diversify the viewpoints we bring our audience.”

The layoffs, some of the most significant in the network’s 40-plus year history, are devastating for those who were given their departure notices and add a new level of anxiety at the company and the industry as a whole. The network now faces the challenge that many other news organizations are facing: restoring morale and a sense of common direction with smaller staffs. Just this week, Gannett went through a round of layoffs, and the Post announced that it was ceasing publication of its weekly magazine. NPR announced a hiring freeze amid expectations of a budget shortfall. For journalists who were laid off, that makes it especially hard-hitting, as they are entering a tougher hiring environment.

Jonathan Klein, former president of CNN/US and now co-founder of sports streaming platform HANG Media, said that “these sorts of events force organizations to focus on what they can do better than anyone else.”

He recalled that when he was executive VP at CBS News 25 years ago, the network went through a round of layoffs, and the focus turned to what the network did best, including 60 Minutes, which remains a top program.

“Winning is what brings back morale,” Klein said. “When the hearty band of survivors believes they can still kick ass, it lifts spirits immensely. They can still kick ass and they will, and that will revive the fortunes of the company.”

Next week, Licht plans to have a town hall meeting to talk about all of the recent changes and the strategy going forward. CNN has seen a ratings falloff since the 2020 presidential election, even if there were some signs of growth last month with the midterms as the focus. The network’s new morning show hasn’t taken off in the ratings, although it is battling in a hyper-competitive environment of hardened viewer habits. The network also has to fill its key 9 p.m. ET primetime slot, which has lacked a regular presence for almost a year in the wake of Chris Cuomo’s departure. One of the bright spots for CNN has long been its top performing website, and Licht emphasized that they have been investing significantly in digital, with a goal of boosting user engagement.

Last month, on Kara Swisher’s podcast, Licht talked of earning the trust of CNN’s workforce and of getting people on board with changes and new priorities.

“This is a group of people that will follow me to the end of the earth if they believe that I know what the hell I am doing and that there is a plan,” he said. “For me…I want to expand the global dominance of CNN, by doing things: Engaging with the people who are already coming to us, more, particularly on digital, and then creating a nimble news organization that can weather any storm but not only survive but thrive, and using that currency to attract new audiences.”

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