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Where does CNN go from here?

Tim Alberta’s big story in The Atlantic about CNN boss Chris Licht — “Inside the Meltdown at CNN” — is making quite the waves in the media industry. That includes inside the walls of CNN itself.

The Atlantic story detailed many of the things that have not gone well during Licht’s relatively brief time as CNN’s leader (he took over a little more than a year ago). Ratings continue to tank. Morale is low. His revamped morning show is a mess, including the firing of Don Lemon. And there was the complete dumpster fire of the Donald Trump town hall.

Oh, did I mention that morale at CNN was low?

During a Monday morning editorial call, Licht addressed the CNN staff for the first time since the profile in The Atlantic was published. Reports are that a humbled Licht apologized for doing the one thing journalists should try to avoid: becoming the story.

He reportedly told staff, “I know these past few days have been very hard for this group. And I fully recognize that this news cycle and my role in it have overshadowed the incredible week of reporting we just had and distracted from the work of every single journalist in this organization. And for that, I’m sorry.”

Things were already shaky at CNN, and it got worse with the article in The Atlantic. Licht appeared to have given Alberta unfettered access. The details in the story, including Licht’s leadership style and thoughts on how things were done before he arrived, angered and hurt CNN staffers.

The Washington Post’s Jeremy Barr wrote, “Internally, there has been considerable backlash to revelations about Licht in the story and to quotes he gave, including criticisms of the network’s coverage of the coronavirus pandemic. A veteran producer at the network who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to comment described Licht’s decision to participate in the profile, which Alberta spent months working on, as ‘a massive self-inflicted wound.’”

An unnamed on-air person at CNN told Barr that the article was “a debacle” for the network and Licht.

Licht appears to now understand the damage the article did.

He told the staff, “As I read that article, I found myself thinking, CNN is not about me. I should not be in the news, unless it’s taking arrows for you. There are parts of that article and characterizations made, where I don’t recognize myself. But there are those of you who do. … This experience has been tremendously humbling. And to those whose trust I lost I will fight like hell to win it back.”

Might it be too late for that? Former CNN media reporter Brian Stelter, who was pushed out by Licht last August, wrote a story for New York Magazine and talked to several at CNN who made it sound as if Licht won’t be able to come back from this. “He’s done,” one told Stelter.

And the ratings can’t be helping. As The Associated Press’ David Bauder wrote, “CNN’s prime-time viewership averaged 494,000 in May, the Nielsen company said. That’s less than half of what MSNBC gets, and down 16% from April. An accelerating trend of cord-cutting isn’t helping cable networks hold viewers, either.”

Yet after everything, Licht seems to have the backing of the person who matters most: his big boss, David Zaslav, the chief executive of Warner Bros. Discovery.

In a statement for The Atlantic story, a statement that has also been given to other media outlets, Zaslav said, “We set a high bar for ourselves and while we know that it will take time to complete the important work that’s underway, we have great confidence in the progress that Chris and the team are making and share their conviction in the strategy.”

In his piece for New York, Stelter wrote, “The network is at an inflection point, and Zaslav will determine its future. He has been vocal — much more in private than public — about how he wants CNN to evolve. Some say this reflects his passion for the brand; others say it amounts to inappropriate interference. Licht has told deputies that he has defended CNN’s editorial independence. Many CNN staffers feel the news operation isn’t broken and thus doesn’t need Zaslav or Licht to fix it. Zaslav, who seems not to agree, has channeled his views through Licht, sometimes loudly enough that others could overhear him doing so over the phone.”

It should be noted that last week, David Leavy — a longtime right-hand man of Zaslav — was named COO of CNN Worldwide. Technically Leavy will report to Licht, but might he actually be there to give Zaslav a set of ears (and a voice) on the inside? Leavy starts in a couple of weeks, but Stelter reports he’s already working the phones and listening to staffers.

In a story for Vanity Fair, Joe Pompeo wrote, “On Monday, I got on the phone with some sources who are plugged into the thinking at the top to try and get my own read on where Licht stands. For what it’s worth, I didn’t come away from those conversations thinking that he’s definitely a goner; it may just be too early to gauge one way or another. As one source put it, ‘This doesn’t have to be fatal at all.’”

Pompeo points out that the best strategy for Licht is to fix the programming and increase the ratings, while Leavy focuses on the culture and employee matters.

Maybe Licht’s mea culpa on Monday was a kind of reset. Because let’s face it, if Licht was ever going to do a reset, now would seem to be the time. The future of the network — and certainly his role there — could depend on it.

Editorial members of the Austin American-Statesman’s Austin NewsGuild picket on Monday. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

Hundreds of unionized Gannet workers walked off the job Monday. As my colleague Angela Fu wrote, “Fed up with CEO Mike Reed’s leadership and delays in contract negotiations, they staged a series of strikes as part of the largest labor protest in the company’s history. Most of the strikes are one-day work stoppages and involve journalists at some of Gannett’s largest newsrooms: the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, the Austin American-Statesman and The Palm Beach Post. Workers at The Arizona Republic and The Desert Sun will stage multi-day strikes, and journalists at The Indianapolis Star are withholding their bylines in lieu of a work stoppage.”

Fu reported that, in all, about two dozen newsrooms participated in the one-day walkout.

Fu added, “The walkouts coincide with Gannett’s annual shareholder meeting. Ahead of the meeting Monday, the NewsGuild launched a campaign that urged shareholders to withhold their vote for Reed. Because Reed didn’t face any challengers, shareholders would have to unanimously withhold their votes for him not to be reelected as a director.”

Fu has plenty more so be sure to check out her story.

So Elon Musk’s business plan for Twitter appears to be going in the wrong direction. The New York Times’ Ryan Mac and Tiffany Hsu reported Monday that “Twitter’s U.S. advertising revenue for the five weeks from April 1 to the first week of May was $88 million, down 59 percent from a year earlier, according to an internal presentation obtained by The New York Times. The company has regularly fallen short of its U.S. weekly sales projections, sometimes by as much as 30 percent, the document said.”

That’s bad and the news gets worse. Mac and Hsu wrote that, based on their reporting, the crummy performance is not expected to improve anytime soon. They added, “Twitter’s ad sales staff is concerned that advertisers may be spooked by a rise in hate speech and pornography on the social network, as well as more ads featuring online gambling and marijuana products, the people said. The company has forecast that its U.S. ad revenue this month will be down at least 56 percent each week compared with a year ago, according to one internal document.”

This all adds up to a giant good luck to Linda Yaccarino, the former NBCUniversal executive who started as Twitter’s CEO on Monday.

Have feedback or a tip? Email Poynter senior media writer Tom Jones at

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