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July 10, 2024, 2:59 p.m.
Business Models

Are you willing to pay for CNN.com? Prepare to be asked before year’s end

The cable news network plans to launch a new subscription product — details TBD — by the end of 2024. Will Mark Thompson repeat his New York Times success, or is CNN too different a brand to get people spending?

Paying for CNN is not something people are used to.

Let me rephrase that: Directly paying for CNN is not something people are used to. For decades, an overwhelming majority of American households paid for cable or satellite service, and an opaque slice of that monthly charge — around $1 or so — found its way to Turner, Time Warner, AOL Time Warner, AT&T, Warner Bros. Discovery, or whatever other corporate daddy ran the place at the time.

That was only one slice of the revenue pie, of course — add in advertising, licensing, international, and so on — but it was the most reliable piece, the one that felt like a tax on modern American existence. It all added up to a really good business — one that threw off a little over $5.2 billion in profits in the 2010s.

But that revenue line is evaporating, quickly. The number of U.S. cable subscribers has fallen from 98.7 million in 2016 to 58 million in 2023, with projections — optimistic ones, arguably — putting that number at 40 million by 2028. That’s a lot of monthly $1 charges gone. Add in a steep ratings decline (and an accompanying ad collapse) and the future looks very fuzzy.

The comparative chaos at CNN in that reality’s wake has been well chronicled. Into the CEO chair last fall went Mark Thompson, fresh off a strong run at The New York Times and the most successful member of the alleged “British invasion” of American media. After a few months of settling in, Thompson this morning announced his big strategic plan; here’s Oliver Darcy:

Mark Thompson, the CNN chief executive appointed last year to modernize the news network, unveiled a set of sweeping changes to the iconic outlet Wednesday, announcing plans to build a billion-dollar digital business, experiment with artificial intelligence and overhaul key newsroom structures.

The far-reaching measures, which Thompson described to staffers in a memo as a “key milestone in the transformation of CNN,” will result in about 100 employees, or about three percent of the workforce, being laid off. Those employees, Thompson said, will be eligible for severance packages.

Since his appointment last year, Thompson has been candid about the challenges facing CNN, stressing to staffers that swift and dramatic steps are necessary to reorient the television-focused news organization for a digital future.

You can read all of Thompson’s memo here. Much of what he outlines — unifying distinct news operations, streamlining planning processes, becoming more multiplatform — seems thoroughly reasonable, if at times painful. (The changes will lead to the elimination of roughly 100 jobs.) But most interesting is the plan for “BUILDING A BILLION DOLLAR PLUS DIGITAL BUSINESS” via new subscription products. Here’s Thompson (emphasis his):

CNN is already the largest branded digital news destination in the world. As well as amazing reach, we have many millions of deeply engaged loyal users. We plan to take the journalistic firepower, user-experience and commercial potential of CNN Digital to the next level with strategic commitment, significant fresh investment, an injection of specialist expertise and plenty of creativity and experimentation. We will develop new digital products with a special focus on digital experiences worth paying for.

First, we will create best-in-class, subscription-ready products that will provide need-to-know news, analysis and context in compelling new formats and experiences, starting with CNN.com’s first subscription product launching before the end of 2024. We want to build on CNN.com’s reach with a new focus on engagement and frequency — how long our users spend with us and how often they return — by improving the quality of the product experience and giving users powerful reasons to come back to us more often.

To any doubters, Thompson can point to the incredible digital subscription engine he and Meredith Kopit Levien built at the Times, now at around 10.5 million. Phase 1 of that was driven by its best-in-class news product, Phase 2 by a broader bundle of psychographically aligned offerings. Direct subscriber revenue is obviously appealing. And it’s difficult to evaluate the specifics of a CNN.com subscription product that doesn’t yet exist. (Echoes of The Washington Post’s “third newsroom,” perhaps — a strategic statement with plenty of blank space.)

But I don’t think it’s wrong to be skeptical, at least initially, about the prospects of a CNN.com subscription product. (And the others that will presumably follow this one — once a bundler, always a bundler.) Yes, CNN.com reaches a huge audience; by some measures, it’s the most popular news site in the world. But are those readers committed enough to the CNN brand to convert to monthly paying subscribers?

First, its most recent attempt at going direct-to-consumer, CNN+, was a truly monumental flop. Yes, CNN+ was a video-first streaming play, not the sort of digital news subscription the Times and others offer. But its theory of success was built on similar ideas — that CNN’s content was unique enough, that its brand was powerful enough, that its personalities were appealing enough for people to commit to it with real money, even at a low price point. Even with “hundreds of millions of dollars” in upfront costs and marketing efforts, it was drawing fewer than 10,000 users a day when it was put out of its misery. Today, what was once positioned as the future of CNN is now just another channel inside the Max app on your TV. (For me at least, CNN on Max currently ninth in the app’s “Brand Spotlight” carousel — snug between Shark Week and those Waco house-fixer-upper people.)

Second, the boom times for digital news subscriptions seem to be, if not over, ebbing. The Times has established itself as the space’s American winner; it is to general-interest digital news subs what Amazon is to online retail or Google is to search, a massive gravitational force that makes being No. 2 a lot like being No. 10. Look at the Post, a paper that has managed to lose half its digital audience and whose digital subscriber count peaked in January 2021. Look at Gannett, whose digital subs count peaked a year ago and has been flat-to-down since. Or look at this year’s Digital News Report, which showed the share of people who say they pay for digital news flat for the past three years. Is the CNN digital brand — as huge as it is — distinctive enough to get people to add another subscription to their credit cards?

Finally, CNN has been down this road before. Remember 2017, the last time CNN was going to build a “BILLION DOLLAR PLUS DIGITAL BUSINESS” via CNN.com subscription products?

After investing in digital “verticals,” or distinct web brands, focused on business and politics and acquiring an online-video startup, CNN is gearing up for another big step: the launch of tiered subscription offerings for its digital news business as early as the second quarter of next year.

A proposed premium offering will give subscribers access to special content on topic-specific verticals, such as CNN Money and CNN Politics, built around network personalities. A second option will provide additional, though less specialized, content across all of CNN’s sites. Pricing hasn’t been finalized.

The move is part of a broader five-year plan to develop new revenue streams and reach $1 billion in digital revenue by 2022…“We have to find more subscription products,” Mr. Zucker said in an interview.

Those products never reached the market — even though 2017 was a significantly more opportune moment than now. I suspect that’s because testing found limited demand for those personality-driven verticals. (Also, remember NewsCo?)

CNN journalists do a lot of great work, and I wish these efforts well. But my strong suspicion is that the drivers of cable news success, of free web success, and digital subscription success are too distinct from one another for CNN’s brand to carry over at scale.

Photo of Mark Thompson by Art Streiber/CNN.

Joshua Benton is the senior writer and former director of Nieman Lab. You can reach him via email (joshua_benton@harvard.edu) or Twitter DM (@jbenton).
POSTED     July 10, 2024, 2:59 p.m.
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