Multichannel News national editor Steve Donohue spoke to Cable News Network executive vice president and general manager Teya Ryan recently about how the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks affected the news business. An edited transcript follows:
MCN: Are viewers losing interest in the news?
News viewership is up about 15 percent across the board for everyone. Has it died down since the week right after Sept. 11? Of course, and that makes sense. But overall, interest in the news is up significantly. We're in a time of news awareness, where people realize that what happens globally affects their lives at home, in their neighborhood, and any time you have something where people feel their personal lives are affected, they're going to turn to the news.
MCN: How do you keep them interested? You've added several new personality-driven shows.
We were on that road before Sept. 11. We had already hired Paula Zahn and Aaron Brown; we had brought Lou Dobbs back. So I don't think you can say that CNN took that direction as a result of 9/11. But what it did do was confirm that our strategy was correct, which was that we stayed with journalists — credible, legitimate journalists. That's what we're all about. We're all about the journalism.
We didn't go become a talk network. We didn't move off the concept that reporters are the heart and soul of what we do.
MCN: Do you think you've lost some of the traditional viewers? You used to run
The World Today
several times a day, and now it's difficult to find a traditional newscast on any all-news network.
I don't think we have. Our numbers are up.
MCN: There used to be some comfort in being able to turn to CNN at the top of the hour and be able to get more than just headlines.
I think that we are. Even if you look at [Connie Chung Tonight], unfortunately, a lot of the news right now is about the world of kidnapping. But that's the news. We're not making this stuff up. And I think certainly from Aaron's show [Newsnight With Aaron Brown], while he may go in-depth, he has an international news roundup, he does a national roundup, he looks at the top issues of the day, he does a whip at the beginning — so I don't think we've backed away [from news]. We may have changed the face of how it's put together, but I think you can get a sense of what happened that day by watching CNN.
MCN: How has Sept. 11 affected the way you're structured?
I don't think it had an effect in terms of the way we're structured. If anything, it encouraged that we were going in the right direction. I think the way it's changed is perhaps in our viewership was not as interested in international news before 9/11, and I think now there is real interest in international news. I think it's genuine.
I think people need things explained to them — this is a complicated world we're in right now. We want the best people around the world doing that, from Nic Robertson to Christiane Amanpour to Sheila MacVicar. What's changed more is what our viewers are requesting of us, which certainly is greater international news.
MCN: The other thing that CNN has done is add more commentary to traditional news programs.
It certainly is not a mandate. I think those that we feel comfortable with doing it are going to do it, but I think that the world has changed in the sense that passions run high on the news right now, and certainly Lou [Dobbs] has some strong feelings about things, and he has the credibility within his field so that he is a trusted guide, and I think it's valuable to hear what he has to say.
MCN: In some places on your schedule — say, Connie Chung vs. Phil Donahue and Bill O'Reilly — CNN seems more focused on the fight for second place.
I don't think it's a fight for any place. Would I want to win my time slot every night? Absolutely. You betcha. But I'm not going to do what I think I have to do to win the time slot, if you're referring to Fox [News Channel]. I'm not going to become any less of a news show than we are. I'm just really proud of what we're doing — not even in comparison to anyone else. We're going in the right direction.
That show [Connie Chung Tonight] is exactly what we want it to be. I think it's servicing our audience in a fabulous way. I think between Aaron [Brown] and Larry [King] and Connie, you have a pretty good lineup, and yet you can get your news.
MCN: CNN is no longer projecting when you'll take first place back.
I didn't make those projections when I came on board, because my feeling is that the real goal here is to be the best journalists that we can be. That's the goal.