CNN Plans Launch of Digital Subscription Product by End of 2024 Amid Newsroom Layoffs

CNN is finally gearing up to compete more aggressively in the digital future, where rivals have already staked out ground.

The Warner Bros. Discovery-backed news outlet will launch a new subscription product on CNN.com before the end of the year, according to a new memo from CNN Chairman and CEO Mark Thompson, and debut two new free ad-supported digital offerings, one based on CNN’s original series and productions, and another based on its Spanish-language service. The moves come amid an overhaul of CNN’s newsroom that will result in the elimination of 100 positions.

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“We plan to take the journalistic firepower, user-experience and commercial potential of CNN Digital to the next level with strategic commitment, significant fresh investment, an injection of specialist expertise and plenty of creativity and experimentation,’” said Thompson, who didn’t offer granular details about the new subscription concept. “We will develop new digital products with a special focus on digital experiences worth paying for.”

The memo, like similar ones the news leader has issued in the recent past, was broad and, in some cases, vague. But it reveals his continued efforts to push CNN, a mainstay of traditional television into a new age even as news junkies increasingly turn to non-traditional video sources for both quick-hit information and in-depth reportage. The maneuver is crucial. Unlike many of its rivals, CNN has yet to develop a sustainable digital-video product. And while it experiments, competitors NBC News, CBS News, ABC News and Fox News have launched content offerings that can be found everywhere from Amazon’s Fire portal to YouTube.

In some ways, the new concepts echo one of CNN’s biggest recent initiatives: The company in 2022 debuted CNN+, a subscription-based streaming hub that executives said represented the best way to capture die-hard viewers with a mix of lifestyle and news programming that relied on personalities including Wolf Blitzer, Kate Bolduan and Kasie Hunt. Within a month of its launch, the service was shut down by CNN’s new parent corporation.

The new product seems to be narrower in scope — it will be offered via CNN’s popular website, not as a separate streaming hub — and could also serve as a trial balloon. Thompson laid out a vision of “creating a growing stable of ‘news you can use’ offerings anchored by lifestyle and features areas where CNN already has brand permission and is competitively positioned to win. Such products offer multiple opportunities for monetization through sponsorship, advertising and direct-to-consumer subscription.” He also noted that “we are currently assessing existing areas of digital strength,:” including “consumer advice” and health “as well as other less established categories to decide which areas to develop further.”

Thompson, who joined CNN as its new leader in 2023 after logging stints at the BBC and New York Times Co., has vowed to push the journalism unit into new digital frontiers, a bet that he can help build new revenue as CNN’s flagship cable network suffers from the defection of traditional TV watchers to streaming. CNN’s subscriber base is projected to fall 5.6% to 66.3 million in 2024 — an election year — according to estimates from Kagan, a market-research unit of S&P Global Intelligence. According to Kagan, CNN ended 2023 with 70.3 million subscribers.

To accomplish his goals, Thompson said in his memo he will reorganize CNN’s newsgathering structure and eliminate about 100 positions — about 2.8% of CNN’s employee base of 3,500. “Our priority throughout this process will be to treat them and every other CNN colleague with the respect, dignity, and the support you all deserve, including severance packages, career counseling and assistance with job placement,” he said.

CNN will break down divisions between U.S.-based and international news teams, as well as those that may exist between digital, text and video production. “Rather than separate tribes of TV and digital, international and domestic, we need to recognize that we are all journalists and storytellers first and foremost,” Thompson said. “We plan to provide more opportunities for everyone to learn new skills and new forms of storytelling, and more chances to move from one part of CNN to another.”

Thompson also laid out some goals for CNN’s TV operations, where he has recently been willing to cut costs. In February, CNN eliminated its regular morning program, “CNN This Morning” in the belief that the production outlays required to compete with MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” and Fox News Channel’s “Fox & Friends,” along with the usual array of broadcast news mainstays, were no longer worth the price. CNN also launched the short-form news program “5 Things,” which has been streaming on Warner’s Max service, and will expand it to CNN.com

But that won’t be enough. Viewership for CNN’s current primetime lineup has sunk to some of the lowest levels in the network’s history. Charlie Moore, a longtime producer for Anderson Cooper, has been assigned to “find ways to further develop and strengthen our domestic primetime offering,” Thompson said.  In a bid to devise new programming concepts, CNN will launch a TV Futures Lab that is charged with developing and managing programming for Max, but also with devising ways “to migrate the linear news experience to other new digital environments,” Thompson said.

CNN’s top executive offered a nod to the original architect of the news company, noting he hoped current staffers could help “reclaim the ‘pioneering spirit’ Ted Turner talked about at our founding and regain a leadership position in the news experiences of the future.” Turner, however, had what in hindsight appears to have been a much easier task of building something that had not previously existed. Thompson must try to preserve Turner’s original product while launching many others top help CNN capture the full potential audience for its programming in a very complex environment.

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