In both a memo to staff and a story about the network on CNBC.com, CNN boss Chris Licht marked six months this week with the struggling liberal network by announcing he’s been tasked with cost cuts and layoffs as, according to CNBC, CNN’s profit “is set to drop blow $1 billion this year” and Warner Bros. Discovery is aiming to layoff 1,000 people from its 40,000-workforce.
In objectively welcome news, CNBC also revealed Licht will continue to move CNN back toward reality and away from what Licht called “the quick sugar high of ratings and outrage.”
Licht said in a memo Wednesday that he’s conducted “formal business reviews with senior staff to identify areas where we should make changes, investments, and reductions” and, as part of that, he’ll “reduce or eliminate areas that aren’t core to our mission.”
Then came the key lines as Licht said “that work will accelerate” in “the next several weeks” and, to accomplish that and “factor” in the state of the global economy, there will be “noticeable change to this organization...affect[ing] people, budgets, and projects.” All told, Licht said he hopes “these decisions” are “made by the end of the year.”
CNBC.com’s Alex Sherman had more in a piece published just prior to the memo: “CNN chief Chris Licht has big ideas, but employees are nervous, and more job cuts are coming.”
Sherman said Licht was told by “Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav to transform CNN” and “rethink their units and find ways to cut costs.” In an interview, Licht told Sherman that he and Zaslav agreed about what CNN should look like.
Not surprisingly, Licht has found winning the trust of employees to be a challenge with many still worshipping his predecessor, Jeff Zucker, who was more or less the network puppetmaster.
Thankfully, Licht has “avoid[ed]” micromanaging producers and shows and believes producers and talent are hired to — wait for — make decisions on their own. That said, he’s been firing off “strategic” “feedback” (click “expand”):
Part of Licht’s challenge as the new leader of CNN is he’s not the old leader.
Jeff Zucker wasn’t just the head of CNN. He was the driving force of the network, involved in every decision of significance on a daily basis. He ran editorial calls, worked closely with every show’s anchors and producers, and provided daily feedback. He was beloved by many employees who appreciated his attention to detail and care for their careers. CNN media reporters Brian Stelter and Oliver Darcy called him “a singular figure in American media” the day after he resigned. His closest comparison, in terms of control over a cable news network, may have been the late Roger Ailes at Fox News.
Licht is purposefully leading CNN differently than Zucker. He’s avoiding saying what he thinks about individual show choices, according to people familiar with his leadership style. Licht has said in private meetings that he’s trying to empower executive producers and show producers to make decisions by themselves. He wants employees to hear marching orders from direct managers rather than him. That’s a significant change for show leaders who have been conditioned to wait for Zucker’s blessing before acting.
“I love the control room, and I love the feeling of sending a text and seeing it show up on screen 10 minutes later, but there’s so much happening that we’ll be paralyzed if everyone is waiting to hear from me,” said Licht. “That’s just not how I operate.”
Some employees haven’t been sure what to make of Licht’s hands-off style. They fear he’s evaluating them — which he has been. But Licht’s lack of feedback is also strategic. He may only be able to get his employees to trust him with time.
There’s also a hangover effect from the sudden collapse of CNN+, which Zucker pushed relentlessly as the future of the business. Hundreds of employees were hired only to lose their jobs or reapply elsewhere in the company. The streaming service served as a north star for the future of CNN. That’s suddenly gone, leaving an employee base confused about CNN’s future.
Continuing on that theme, Sherman said Licht “wants CNN to cover stories more like a newspaper and less like Politico,” and thus “stories that an average family would discuss around the dinner table and less obsessive focus on politics.”
Sherman added that’d mean “more business, technology and even sports” and squared with “one of Licht’s major complaints with CNN in recent years,” which was that they’d “hover in outrage” and press “conversations to the extreme.”
In other words, a legitimate news outlet that covers a litany of stories with honest, sober reporting and smart analysis. We’ll believe it when we see it.
As for how they’d cover “disinformation,” Licht told Sherman the “analogy I love to use is some people like rain, some people don’t like rain. We should give space to that. But we will not have someone who comes on and says it’s not raining.”
Sherman reiterated Licht’s decision to move away from constant outrage amid a merger with Discovery and budget cuts have made for uneasiness at CNN with employees wondering anonymously what the future holds.
As for Brian Stelter’s ouster, CNBC’s Sherman says “[t]he decision was Licht’s, not Zaslav’s or Malone’s” and that Licht axed Stelter and Reliable Sources because he believed media reporting belonged on CNN.com, not in a one-hour show.
Licht himself said that he won’t deny CNN took a hit in recent years: “The brand is the most trusted brand in the world when it comes to journalism, right up there with the BBC...I think what happened a little bit here in the past was it’s easy to take the quick sugar high of ratings and outrage. So, I’m trying to do no harm to a great brand.”