By Maria Saporta
When the new president of CNN Jeff Zucker addressed the Atlanta Press Club on Monday, he emphasized the importance of Atlanta to the 24-hour news organization.
“I know that people know that I’m the first chief executive of CNN not based in Atlanta,” said Zucker, who lives in New York and had spent nearly his entire career with NBC. “I did not make my first luncheon with the press club of New York. Atlanta will continue to be the home of CNN, and Atlanta will continue to be the backbone of CNN.”
Zucker did say that CNN does have a lot of programming based out of New York, and that is not going to change, but he went on to say that he is in Atlanta on a regular basis. And he added that we live in a virtual world.
“Nobody knows where I am anyway,” Zucker said.
His talk to the Atlanta Press Club was Zucker’s first since he began his new job “exactly three months ago today.” Zucker, who also hasn’t given interviews since it was announced he was going to CNN, said he wanted to be sure to give his first talk in Atlanta to show “how important Atlanta is to this organization.”
But Zucker also made it sound as though it was inevitable that he would end up at CNN. In fact, in October of 1996, Zucker was supposed to have interviewed with then-CNN President Tom Johnson for a job in Atlanta. And then he was diagnosed with colon cancer when he was only 31 years old, and he canceled that interview.
“That story has never been told,” Johnson chimed in from the audience.
Then Zucker said how incredibly lucky he is to have found his way to CNN 17 years later.
“If you love news, and if you love journalism and if your love television that leads you to one place, and that’s CNN,” Zucker said. “From my standpoint, it was always in my head. It was something I always thought about.”
Today, CNN is in its 33rd year. And Zucker said it can be defined by its three decades. The first was defined by Ted Turner’s revolutionary idea to create a 24-hour cable television news network. The second decade was defined by CNN’s ground-breaking Gulf War coverage. And its third decade was defined by its coverage of 9-11.
“What will define the fourth decade?” Zucker asked. “That’s part of why I was really attracted to CNN. What will CNN be and how will it be defined in its fourth decade?”
The challenge today is that so many people are now getting that news and information on their mobile devices, so they already know what’s going on before they turn on the television to watch CNN.
“It’s what excites me, and it’s what scares the heck out of me,” Zucker said. “I do know the CNN brand remains incredibly strong, vibrant and well respected. People come to CNN whenever a big story breaks out.”
Zucker compared CNN to a “spare tire in the trunk” that is only used when you need it. “How do we make it more essential — one of the four tires on the car? I don’t have all the answers or even half the answers at this point.”
But he did say that CNN has to remain non-partisan. “There’s plenty of room in the middle,” Zucker said. “Just because you’re in the middle doesn’t give you the right to be boring.”
Zucker went on to say that CNN is planning to make more documentaries and original programming. He said the competition is not just the other news organizations but other channels with non-fiction content, such as the History Channel and the Discovery Channel. “We’re in a world where we have a lot more competitors than we’ve every had,” Zucker said.
During the question and answer portion, Zucker was asked about CNN’s commitment to international coverage. Zucker said that he is committed to putting on at least one hour of international new a day between noon to 1 p.m.
In a particularly sensitive exchange, Zucker was asked about the recent departure of two African-American CNN brands — Soledad O’Brien and the Roland Martin — and whether the network was committed to diversity.
Zucker said that CNN had just hired five correspondents and four of them were “diverse.”
Long-time television anchor Monica Pearson called out from the back of the room how many of them were black. Zucker answered that two of them were African Americans.
Asked about CNN’s seemingly non-stop coverage of the Carnival Cruise ship debacle and the criticism that followed, Zucker attributed that to jealousy from competitors who were now as prepared to cover the “human drama.”
In a couple of answers, Zucker seemed to hint that big changes were afoot for CNN’s morning show and for the Piers Morgan hour saying that it was hard to follow the success of the Larry King Hour.
Asked about the ability to monetize digital assets, Zucker said: “That’s an ongoing struggle that consumes us every day. How do you monetize digital is the biggest question that every media company faces.”
As he ended his talk, Zucker said: “I couldn’t be more excited to be at CNN. There’s no greater journalistic brand in the world. It remains the heart and soul of Atlanta.”