CNN Worldwide Chief Jeff Zucker Speaks at IESE in New York
In changing news industry, accuracy remains more important than speed
Jeff Zucker doesn’t want a fancy office. He’ll opt for a seat in the newsroom any day.
“As much fun as I’ve had being an executive, there’s nothing like being around live television and live news,” the newly-appointed president of CNN Worldwide told a group of executives at IESE Business School’s New York Center on July 12.
“I grew up in journalism. I grew up in newspapers. I grew up in a television studio and control room. I love producing and I’d like to think I have some ability at it. It’s the best way for me to impart how we should be doing things,” said Zucker, the featured guest at IESE’s Global Leadership Forum. During the event, IESE Prof. Bill Baker led an interview with him about the future of CNN and the news business.
Hired fresh out of Harvard as an Olympics researcher for NBC in 1986, Zucker began a steady ascent through the ranks of NBC, becoming president and CEO of NBC Universal in 2007. His tenure as president of CNN Worldwide began on January 1, 2013.
Baker pressed Zucker about the industry hurdles he faces at the forefront of CNN in an era marked by fast-changing technologies and business models.
Addressing how CNN content seeks to balance audience wants with needs, Zucker described the network’s concurrent coverage of the coup in Egypt and the George Zimmerman trial, a case that has been highly politicized and racially divisive.
“I think you can absolutely cover both,” said Zucker. “The history of CNN was formed in large part by the coverage of four significant events: Gulf War I and II, and the wall-to-wall coverage of O.J. and the human drama of a girl in a well, the rescue of baby Jessica. I’m not trying to equate a war and a girl in a well, but it’s about the history of CNN. Covering the important and the human drama.”
Concerned about the declining business of American journalism, especially in the form of newspapers, Baker asked about the survival of less-funded forms of journalism and how democracy might be affected by their ongoing decline.
“We’ve romanticized the piece of paper,” Zucker said. “There’s been more change in media in the past five years than there’s been in the previous 50. You cannot be above how people want to consume their news and information. If the reader or viewer does not want to consume in a certain way, then you have to evolve with it, you have to change the quality of the business model. Because at the end of the day, the consumer decides.”
Still, Zucker expressed his belief in the value of good journalism, regardless of how it is consumed. “Great brands will survive.”
The rise of crowd-sourced news and commentary will not necessarily threaten strong brands, he said.
“Everyone who has a camera and a Twitter feed thinks they’re a journalist now. I don’t think it’s the role of CNN to necessarily have to be first, because it’s not possible,” he said.
Accuracy will always be more important than crossing the breaking-news finish line first, he said.
“People come to CNN to see if it’s true,” he said. “I don’t care if we’re last on reporting something. I want it to be right.”