Dan Fierman remembers where he was on April 8, 1994, the day Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain was found dead in his Seattle home.
Fierman, like many other 20-year-olds in those days, first heard about Cobain's suicide from MTV News' Kurt Loder. "It's a brand that's very personal and meaningful to me," Fierman told Adweek.
Fierman has now come full circle. Twenty-two years after that transformative event, he's now running the show, as editorial director for MTV News. Fierman is charged with revitalizing the once-dominant source for entertainment news. "If we can make this brand super relevant again, that is a huge accomplishment," said Fierman.
That won't be an easy task in today's digitally saturated world in which the likes of BuzzFeed and Vice have snatched up the audience that 20 years ago would have turned to MTV.
"MTV is a brand that's all about young voices, creators and a specific point of view, and it comes from this great heritage of music," said MTV president Sean Atkins. "And that's really what we're pushing the organization back to."
Fierman sees a path for MTV News to reinsert itself into the pop-culture conversation. Just as MTV broke out in the early '80s, it involves swimming against the current. "They're all doing the exact same thing," said Fierman of his competitors.
Instead of being part of that rat race, Fierman emphasizes to his writers that they should go beyond the story. "You become a thought leader again instead of being somebody who is pulling that big Internet school of fish," he said, adding that unlike venture capital-backed companies like BuzzFeed, he doesn't have a staff of 150 to 250 reporters. "When you are faced with those choices, they're actually what define the brand," Fierman said.
Since Fierman joined three months ago from the ashes of Grantland, MTV News has been on an aggressive hiring spree. Many of its new recruits are also ex-Grantlanders, including Brian Phillips, Marcus Ellsworth, Holly Anderson, Molly Lambert and Mark Lisanti. Alex Pappademas starts next week.
Other new hires include Wonkette founding editor and New York Times Magazine contributor Ana Marie Cox, and New York magazine Daily Intelligencer reporter Jaime Fuller. (Both are part of MTV News' political coverage.) Along with Pappademas, Refiney29's Erica Futterman, New Republic's Jamil Smith, former Spin editorial director Charles Aaron and Carvell Wallace have all joined the MTV News team.
Along with the new hires, MTV News has a Voices platform for teens to share their own stories that's run by Taylor Trudon—a millennial herself—who was pulled away from The Huffington Post last summer. "The key ingredient is authenticity," Trudon said. "There's no better bullshit detector than a teenager."
MTV News' reinvention comes amid a turbulent time for the cable network and its parent company, Viacom, as they have struggled to appeal to an audience that no longer watches television the way teenagers did a generation ago. That's why two years ago, MTV News pivoted to a digital-first strategy, investing heavily in a new tech infrastructure and building out a data-driven approach by bringing in data scientists.
"We've come up with tools and algorithms to be able to predict—at this point up to 70 percent accuracy—how content will perform across different platforms," said Kristin Frank, MTV's evp of digital. She added that MTV saw its traffic double during that first year. "We've taken that foundation now and added some editorial firepower to it," she said.
Whether it's on MTV's five networks, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr or, thanks to a new deal with Viacom, Shapchat Discover, Fierman doesn't care where he reaches people. "Frankly, a lot of people are trying to do what we have the capability of doing," Frank said.