How CNN Raided the Competition to Raise Its Politics Game

By Mark Joyella 

In the run-up to the 2016 election, CNN worldwide president Jeff Zucker made the decision to go “all in” on politics—-on television, sure, but also online. “Our digital coverage needed to be as influential as our television coverage,” says Ed O’Keefe, vp of CNN Politics. “That’s a powerful and premium audience, at scale. We reach both the influencers in Washington, on the campaigns, and the people in our nation who are likely to vote.”

To ramp up CNN Politics in a digital space dominated by sites like The Washington Post, Politico and The Hill, CNN went on a hiring spree—doubling the size of its staff and tapping 45 journalists from 15 competitors, including Politico, The New York Times and Mic. “The goal of this team was and is simple: break news, craft narrative-defining enterprise and create smart, original premium video—all of which can have the benefit, but not primary objective, of being reverse-engineered to television,” says O’Keefe.

Thus, it was far more important for new hires to be wired into the digital space than to have extensive experience producing stories for TV. “We can teach someone to do television,” Zucker said recently. “It’s a lot harder to teach someone to be a reporter.”

Maeve Reston arrived from the Los Angeles Times. Chris Moody joined from Yahoo News. Nia-Malika Henderson previously worked at The Washington Post. In their roles at CNN, you’ll find their work on CNN Politics—and, often, on cable TV. “Chris Moody and Alex Rosen fly to Denmark, and the video takes one form on Facebook, Twitter and our mobile site and another, entirely different form when Chris talks about it with Wolf Blitzer on Situation Room,” says O’Keefe.

Henderson writes for the site and has been a part of CNN’s daily coverage following debates and town halls, and on primary and caucus dates.

But CNN’s commitment to political coverage, like that of most of the D.C. political media, is designed to continue past Election Day. O’Keefe calls it a “renewed commitment to own the political conversation,” the nonstop story that will, by January, include the swearing in of a new president—and the battles that will surely follow.

Those stories, of course, move at a pace that’s far faster than TV news. At CNN Politics, they think of it as digital first, TV soon after.

In December, comScore reported, CNN Politics had 25 million multiplatform unique visitors, tied with HuffPost Politics (though CNN accused Huffington Post of misrepresenting its traffic by including “good news” stories in the HuffPost Politics vertical) and far ahead of Fox News Politics (12 million), The Hill (11 million) and Politico (9 million).

In terms of digital video, CNN Politics was up 38 percent over the previous month and a whopping 466 percent over the prior year, with 48 million video starts—more than double that of its closest competitor, the Web-only Young Turks Network.

The traffic data, O’Keefe argues, reinforces CNN Politics’ unique power among political media. “Sites like Politico and The Hill are just that: sites,” he says. “CNN Politics is the No. 1 politics site—with a global television operation.”

This story first appeared in the March 14 issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.