Help Wanted at CNN: New Boss Must Manage Restless Journalists, Active Corporate CEO

One of the most influential and alluring jobs in journalism just opened. Now the company trying to fill the position is waiting to see if anyone really wants it.

Warner Bros. Discovery is expected to move deliberately rather than quickly in its search for a new CEO for CNN. Executives are telling staffers and TV agents that it will likely take a few months to fill the role that Chris Licht held for one turbulent year. Licht, the TV news veteran and “Late Show With Stephen Colbert” showrunner, was ousted last week after spearheading a series of programming moves and talent decisions that kept headlines about CNN circulating more often than anything else produced by the newsroom. Licht’s final error was taking part in a profile The Atlantic published June 2 — 15,000 words detailing a “Meltdown at CNN.” Numerous statements from Licht in the story and his questionable judgment in allowing a reporter such broad access marked the last straw for his corporate managers as well as CNN insiders. Erin Burnett, Anderson Cooper and Jake Tapper all lodged concerns about Licht’s ability to manage following the profile’s publication, according to a person familiar with the matter, confirming details previously revealed by The Wall Street Journal.

Warner Bros. Discovery can’t take too much time to determine its next move. The 2024 presidential election cycle draws near, even as the outlet’s ratings have fallen and its staff has been buffeted by job cuts; ratings downfalls; the shutdown of the streaming video hub CNN+; and rival companies picking up the reporters and producers who were laid off.

“They have a short period of time, and I don’t mean six months,” says Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, senior associate dean for leadership studies at the Yale School of Management. “They’ve got six weeks to work out something here.” CNN declined to make executives available for comment.

The job search will no doubt be tough. Established TV news leaders may be put off by the level of involvement in CNN evidenced by Zaslav, who has a well-earned reputation for micromanaging. What’s more, CNN’s roster of journalists is restless after three ownership transitions for what was once Time Warner in the past five years. Staffers are eager to get CNN out of the spotlight and the news it produces back in. The drama with Licht has distracted from a bevy of big scoops from reporters like Paula Reid and Kaitlan Collins, related, for example, to the latest indictment of former President Donald Trump.

To do that, the staff will have to settle down with a new leader. For now, CNN veterans Amy Entelis, Virginia Moseley and Eric Sherling will manage editorial operations, with David Leavy, a key Zaslav lieutenant, handling all other business and administrative affairs. Entelis, an internal favorite, helped CNN win an Oscar this year for the documentary “Navalny,” and stayed even as her original-programming unit faced deep cuts. People who know her say she has the respect of the newsroom and is likely to push back on Zaslav if she feels his directions aren’t right for CNN’s editorial mission.

Others who could be considered are occupied elsewhere. Ben Sherwood, the former ABC News president and Disney executive, is running a digital sports startup. James Goldston, another former ABC News president, is working with Candle Media and helped produce the Jan. 6 committee hearings. Jim Bell, the former producer of NBC’s “Today,” Olympics coverage and “The Tonight Show,” is working with NewsBreak, a local news platform. Noah Oppenheim, the former president of NBC News, has turned to writing and producing. And could there be a scenario in which Jeff Zucker — currently running RedBird IMI, a $1 billion venture capital fund interested in media, entertainment and sports — returns?

Sherwood, Goldston, Oppenheim and Bell declined to comment. A spokesperson for Zucker declined to comment.

CNN’s business is so large that some think the company requires a true corporate manager. Mark Hoffman last year stepped down as chairman of NBCUniversal’s CNBC after leading it for 17 years. While there, he expanded the business-news outlet’s international holdings and launched its digital operations. Hoffman is known to dislike publicity, however, and CNN is constantly under scrutiny. The executive could not be reached for comment.

Meanwhile, CNN has other issues to navigate. Its new morning show — a flashpoint during Licht’s tenure that led to co-host Don Lemon’s ouster — has not fared well. Executives have considered pairing Poppy Harlow, the last of the show’s original trio, with Washington reporter Phil Mattingly and CNN International correspondent Rahel Solomon, according to three people familiar with the discussions. Dana Bash just took the reins of the noontime program “Inside Politics.” There is also a crushing need to boost primetime, where Kaitlan Collins will lead a new 9 p.m. show.

With so many programming challenges and management issues, CNN offers a thorny perch at best. Only a handful of people may have the experience to run it, says Sonnenfeld, the Yale professor. “They need someone with an Edward R. Murrow sensibility married with the strategic expertise of Roone Arledge, someone who has journalistic integrity with a flair,” he says. Warner Bros. Discovery needs to fill the job without too much delay, he adds: “After a short while, people are going to want to have a sense of direction.

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