CNN's Jeff Zucker trades analog dollars for digital quarters

"The truth is digital and people consuming news and information from all of our digital assets, that's the most important thing for us," the CNN president said.

Dan Farber
4 min read
CNN Jeff Zucker believes that digital is the future of CNN. Fortune

Jeff Zucker, the former NBC executive and now president of CNN, coined the phrase "trading analog dollars for digital pennies" five years ago. It represented the challenge faced by companies built around content distribution and advertising; the revenues generated from accelerating Internet usage, especially mobile, has been far less lucrative than analog and has brought added financial stress. Nearly a year later he modified his statement to "trading analog dollars for digital dimes." Speaking at the Fortune Brainstorm Tech conference Tuesday, Zucker noted further progress, updating his back-of-the-envelope calculation to "a little north of quarters" and not ruling out parity in the future.

"We're much further along than pennies, and we're further along I think than dimes, and we're probably a little north of quarters. You know, I don't know that there's 50-cent pieces, but somewhere between that," he said.

For Zucker, the analog to digital transition is meaningful. "Digital is the future of CNN, he said. "We don't care what screen you are watching CNN on, as long as you can see the red logo on whatever screen you are using to access us. And to us, mobile is probably the most important part of our future, but digital as a whole is where we're concentrating everything."

Nonetheless, the bulk of the Time Warner-owned CNN's revenue comes from distributors like Comcast, Time Warner Cable, and DirectTV.

Like the other established networks, CNN attract a younger audience, the prized 18- to 34-year-old demographic who grew up online and get their news from sources like Twitter and Facebook.

"When news happens, those same people do come to watch us on television," Zucker said, citing the Boston Marathon bombing as evidence. "In all of television, CNN was the No. 2 television network, not cable, that night among 18- to 34-year-olds, and we only lost by 2,000 viewers. They will find their way to us on television, and that's very important as we look out the next 5, 10, or 15 years.

Zucker contends that the 18- to 34-year-old demographic may get breaking news from Twitter and Facebook, but they come to CNN to see if it is true. CNN is also in a joint venture with news upstart Buzzfeed to produce a YouTube channel with original content as a way to introduce the network to a younger audience.

The royal baby birth Monday offers an example of CNN's breaking news strength. The TV numbers were quite good, Zucker said, but "more people learned about the royal baby and followed the royal baby story through all of our digital assets than will ever watch television yesterday, and that's okay. That's our future."

CNN had more than 12 million unique visitors, 85 million page views, and 5 million video starts -- up 40 percent from the same day last year, he said.

"We can't ignore the numbers that came to us yesterday on the royal baby. So, I think we have to balance both, understanding where our bread is buttered for the time being," Zucker said.

According to Comcast, CNN had 61 million unique visitors in June, second to Yahoo!-ABC News Network with 83 million. CNN's afternoon TV programming, such as Jake Tapper's "The Lead," had less than 500,000 total daily viewers in recent days.

For the royal birth announcement, CNN had 40 percent more traffic at CNN.com than the same day a year ago, Zucker said. CNN.com

Zucker, who has been at CNN since the beginning of this year, said his main challenge is making CNN essential beyond big breaking news events.

"...CNN has usually been essential in times of breaking news and people would use CNN a little bit like the spare tire in the trunk," Zucker said. "You would take it out when you needed it, and then put it back. The key for us, and the goal and the strategy, is to make sure that we are more essential more of the time. So actually, you're using that tire on the car all the time. And that's really been the goal for us this year ... to build programming with hosts and anchors that will bring people back on a more regular basis."

The network is bringing in new talent, working on revamping its prime time programming, and hiring talent to produce additional content for CNN's digital properties.

Since Zucker came to CNN, some critics have accused the network of becoming too soft and dumbing down its coverage. For example, CNN had extensive coverage of the George Zimmerman trial and relatively modest coverage of the ongoing unrest in Egypt.

"There has been no criticism of [CNN's coverage of the Zimmerman trial] since the verdict happened, and everybody recognized all the layers to that story," Zucker said. "We did recognize early on that this was much more than just a local murder trial, that there were issues of race, class, the Second Amendment, and self-defense."

The CNN president also said he wants the network to be know for its objectivity, differentiating it from more partisan competitors, like Fox and MSNBC. "Just because we are objective doesn't give us a license to be dull, and doesn't mean we can't have a point of view," Zucker said.

CNN announced that the political debate show "Crossfire" would return to the network in the fall with Newt Gingrich, S.E. Cupp, Stephanie Cutter, and Van Jones at the table.

Above all, Zucker wants to broaden the definition of news at CNN and cover stories of human interest without being above what people are talking about. "We have two domestic cable network competitors who are basically about politics all the time. What I want CNN to be about is all of the news. And all of the news is not just what's happening in Washington or in the Middle East, but it's also about entertainment and business and sports and culture and things that we all talk about, but not just equals politics," Zucker said.