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CNN’s President to Step Down, Calls for “New Thinking.” But Does CNN Want That?

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Jim Walton

Big events like the Olympics’ debut are notorious for “news dumps”–less-than-flattering announcements that might be overshadowed by a bigger story. That may not have been CNN‘s intent, but it was perhaps not a bad day for the announcement that CNN President Jim Walton is resigning at the end of the year after some 30 years with the network, leaving with a statement that suggests CNN is adrift.

“CNN needs new thinking,” Walton said. “That starts with a new leader who brings a different perspective, different experiences and a new plan, one who will build on our great foundation and will commit to seeing it through.”

He also cited much that CNN (like TIME, part of Time Warner) has to be proud of: its strong digital platforms, its international coverage and its continued status as a channel people turn to when news breaks. But CNN also has pronounced trouble, only part of which has to do with its weakening ratings next to competitors Fox and MSNBC. There was the recent bungled report of the Supreme Court healthcare decision. And there’s a general feeling of aimlessness at the network–the sense that it may do some things well, but it doesn’t really know what it’s about.

For every well-reported international story or hard-hitting Piers Morgan crusade on gun control, there are hours and hours of anodyne aimlessness. There’s a lot of well-informed cautiousness, blending politics, headline news and lifestyle segments in a blend that goes down easy in an airport waiting lounge. There’s a sense, in the network’s day-to-day coverage, that it wants the buzz of hot-button issues, but doesn’t want to do anything that will make people mad at it. This morning, CNN was promoting the question, “Where Was God in Aurora?”–not a serious, depthful look by the news organization at religion and public tragedy, but an invitation for viewers to weigh in on Facebook. Put the provocative question out there–then back slowly away.

Part of CNN’s problem is success. CNN, as a larger business, makes hundreds of millions of dollars a year–because of its international business, digital efforts and other platforms that are not driven by the high-profile domestic primetime ratings. In fact, you could argue that precisely the things that drive up primetime ratings in cable news–partisanship, polemical hosts–could jeopardize CNN’s image as a neutral news source, from which much of that money flows. (This, as I’ve said, has been a flaw in The Newsroom’s critique of a CNN-like cable channel: being bland doesn’t get you big ratings in cable, as that drama posits–just the opposite–but it can be profitable in other ways.)

But the big ratings numbers (or small as the case may be) still matter–they matter to influence, to prestige, to morale. Thus the numerous personnel switches that the network has been making, even as it points to its business success. I won’t argue with Walton that CNN needs new thinking. It also needs a voice. But is it willing to have one?

Here’s the text of Walton’s resignation statement:

“After more than 30 years at this company and nearly 10 years as the leader of this great news organization, I have decided to leave my role at CNN on December 31, 2012.

“For some time, I’ve been talking with Phil Kent about wanting to make a change, and he supports my decision. I’ve told Phil [Kent, Turner Broadcasting CEO] that I will cooperate with any transition timeline that he and Time Warner want to implement.  Phil requested that I work out the year and be available after that if needed, which I’ve agreed to do.

“I am proud of what we have accomplished together over these last 10 years – innovative programming, the development of great talent in front of and behind the cameras, expansion in digital and mobile, significant investment and expansion in international coverage, financial success and, most importantly, great and trusted journalism.  Thank you for the role you have played in our successes.

“CNN needs new thinking.  That starts with a new leader who brings a different perspective, different experiences and a new plan, one who will build on our great foundation and will commit to seeing it through.  And I’m ready for a change.  I have interests to explore and I want to give myself time to do it.

“The next few months will be filled with election news and other important events that will require all of our focus to report the news with the quality and expertise the world expects of CNN.  I look forward to working alongside each of you, as I have over the past 30-plus years, to do just that.”