Klein’s 1st Year: Quality, Differentiation, Figuring Out The CNN Mission

By Brian 

Wednesday, April 6, Washington, D.C.

It’s the Radio & Television Correspondents Association dinner at the Hyatt. I spot Klein in the hallway and strike up a conversation. We enter CNN’s after-party to get a drink. (He grabs a beer; I opt for a Coke.)

Back in the hallway, I asked him for a judgment of the network’s success since he took over. (One week before, CNN touted the net’s “viewership gains” in a press release.) He suggested that March was the first month his efforts were evident in the ratings. Whenever CNN produces a great product, the ratings follow, he said.

Then I asked him about a rumor that Miles O’Brien could move to American Morning. He dismissed it.

Tuesday, May 31, Atlanta.

We’re inside the Omni Hotel attached to the CNN Center at the network’s World Report Conference. Klein is on a panel titled “Trust as the New Truth.” Near the end, he says that in his first six months as CNN president, the one decision he would take back “would be the one to go ahead and cover Michael Jackson at all. [We should have said] ‘we’re just going to sit this one out.'”

The network could have covered the opening of the trial and the verdict, and “packed up the tent” for the rest of it, he said. “We are going to hold you to that next time,” panel moderator Christiane Amanpour said. “Please do,” he responded.

Afterwards, I told Klein I loved his remarks about the Jackson trial. “I figured you’d blog that!,” he laughed.

I waited for him to finish talking to Amanpour about upcoming G8 summit coverage. Then I asked about a rumor on another blog that anchor Carol Lin was leaving CNN. He pulled out his BlackBerry and pointed to a message titled “Rumor.” Lin had e-mailed Klein: “There’s some ridiculous rumor that I’ve resigned. Do you know something I don’t?” (No, Klein didn’t.)

August 1, 2005. New York City.

Klein arrived at the 58th Street entrance to the Time Warner Center at the same time I did — 8:33 a.m. He wheeled a suitcase through the revolving doors and walks through the lobby to his office. Half an hour later, the morning editorial meeting began. Klein’s dark blue BlackBerry vibrated about every 90 seconds.

After a trip to the 10th floor cafeteria, we sat down in his office. Several books laid near a window overlooking Central Park. Ken Lindner’s “Crunch Time: 8 Steps to Making the Right Life Decisions at the Right Times” was placed next to CNN correspondent Satinder Bindra’s book “Tsunami” and one titled “Suess-isms.”

As Klein answered questions, he asked a lot, too. “What’s our mission?…What is a CNN story?…What tools do we have?…What advantages do we have that we can make the most of?…What’s our voice? What’s the viewers’ expectation when they’re watching?” And: “What’s the right direction? That’s the big question.”

He used the word differentiation many times. “We have to set our own course that is purposefully not what everyone else is doing,” he said. He talked about story selection and story execution: “When every channel has the same thing on it, that tells you there’s an opening there. An opportunity to provide something else. Over time, the people who provide something else tend to be rewarded.”