Rachel Smolkin Describes How CNN Politics Became a Digital Force

"We have the wonderful experience of being a startup within a global news organization."

When CNN Politics Digital released its traffic numbers for September, they were part of the same storyline the site had enjoyed for the previous six months: month after consecutive month of CNN Politics taking the number one spot for multiplatform unique visitors in the politics category. It had even bested itself this time around, reaching an all-time high of 25 million multiplatform uniques, according to comScore Video Metrix. Its success wasn’t consigned to just one measure: CNN Politics had the highest numbers (yet again) in mobile unique vistors, multiplatform views, and video starts in the politics category.

Its competition included digital natives like HuffPost Politics and Politico, as well as cable mainstays like MSNBC. And while it may seem natural to include CNN Politics Digital in the latter category, CNN Digital executive editor of politics Rachel Smolkin doesn’t see it that way. “We have the wonderful experience of being a startup within a global news organization,” she tells FishbowlDC. “It really does feel like this operation that we’re having this great opportunity to build from scratch with a lot of really creative people on the team.”

That buildup began back in August 2014 with a planned restructuring. You know how these things go: a news org wants to turn around its fate by going in a new direction, or perhaps uses restructuring as a euphemism for layoffs and a pared-down operation, and just can’t seem to find its way. And while layoffs did come to CNN Politics, so did double-digit hires, and an ambitious plan that was met with results.

A few months before the restructuring announcement, in May 2014, CNN had hired Ed O’Keefe as vice president of CNNMoney and Politics, tasked with improving operations at both sites and jumpstarting a hiring spree. “If you’re a top talent in D.C., expect to get a call from CNN politics,” he told Washington Post’s Erik Wemple.

Smolkin, then managing editor at Politico, got a call. While happy with her position there, it “just seemed like the adventure of a lifetime to come to an organization with the firepower worldwide that CNN has and to really build a powerhouse digital community—that was the pitch that was made in our discussions, and I loved the ambitious nature of the plan, the smart people I would have to support me,” she says.

The plan included “the chance to stitch those worlds together—digital and television, to create a digital politics world where we really could cover the election intelligently and creatively and have the opportunity to integrate it with all the great work that’s going on in the D.C. bureau. [It] was just too good to turn down,” she says.

Smolkin joined CNN Politics Digital in August 2014, marking “a new era for CNN’s digital presence in Washington,” as CNN evp Andrew Morse described in a memo.

Smolkin began bringing in hires who excelled at one of journalism’s more old-school forms: writing. “It was really important for me to bring in great writers,” she says, “and that’s what I focused on, which is how we ended up with a group that’s primarily got a print background.”

As some examples, Smolkin cites Nia-Malika Henderson, who came over from The Washington Post, Maeve Reston, whom CNN snagged from The Los Angeles Times and Stephen Collinson from AFP. These are just a few of the 38 people who have come on board during Smolkin’s tenure.

That impetus stemmed in part from Smolkin’s own work history. “My background is primarily print—it’s print and digital, but the bulk of my career has been print. I think that’s part of the reason I came in feeling like in order to build this we really do need to bring in people who were strong writers—I love writing, I love creating stories for digital.”

Storytelling is one of contemporary journalism’s great buzzwords, attached now to everything from data journalism to social media. Smolkin employs that term too. And as a digital media operation, Smolkin’s team must, and does, employ storytelling in its new modes. But her investment in hiring a staff of good writers, of storytellers in one of its more traditional mediums, creates a continuity between the old and new.

“One of the things I love so much about journalism is the chance to keep evolving and changing,” she says, “but at the core of all those changes is the storytelling, and I’m convinced that will always be true. We can and should and must play with form, innovate and create. Storytelling will always be at the heart of that: powerful storytelling, smart reporting, accurate reporting, and being able to deliver that reporting to readers in a form that’s smart and engaging and hopefully wonderful.”

That includes, of course, a heavy social media presence so that CNN politics is “getting our storytelling in front of the readers, wherever they are.” It also involves CNN creating its own shareables, like its version of the Too Many Cooks parody created in March featuring 2016 election cycle contenders.

There’s no one piece of CNN Politics Digital that makes it work so well, according to Smolkin, but rather, it’s the integration of all the elements Smolkin feels are important: tech, video and social, enterprise and breaking news. It doesn’t hurt that, far from existing in its own isolated corner, cross-collaboration between the Washington bureau and the digital team is welcome.

It’s a two-way relationship, with digital staff going on television to discuss their latest work, Washington bureau staff heading to the digital side to try things out. “I think that those cultures have affected each other,” says Smolkin. “One of our video producers, Jeremy Moorhead, went with Barbara Starr on a shoot to do some really interesting pieces,” she says by way of an example. The collaboration involved a series of stories that offered an inside look into the U.S. Special Operations Command.

“What’s really fun in when people from the bureau, and this happens all the time, come to test stories they want to do for digital. I’m a big fan of putting people with different backgrounds together and seeing what results,” she says.

During our conversation Smolkin uses the word fun a lot. This feels important—a mandate that allows for, encourages, in fact, the type of play, experimentation, flexibility that allows staff to hit on what works. It’s been working so far.