An ugly week of cuts at The Washington Post, CNN and — of course — Gannett

It’s an ugly week for cuts in the media, including two news organizations that had been flying high in recent years and one that just keeps sinking lower and lower.

First up is The Washington Post, where executive editor Sally Buzbee announced Wednesday that its Sunday magazine will be shut down at the end of the year. Ten staff members will lose their jobs.

Now, you could make an argument that Sunday newspaper magazines have outlived their usefulness. The Boston Globe has kept its alive, but only because its lifestyle-oriented content appeals to advertisers. It seems like 40 times a year the cover is devoted to Your Home, Your Wedding, Your Home Wedding or whatever. But it is also an occasional outlet for serious long-form journalism. So, too, with the Post’s Sunday magazine. According to the Post’s Sarah Ellison:

Five of the 40 Washington Post stories that drew the most online readers over the past year were produced by the magazine. They include a profile of then-Senate candidate J.D. Vance, the tangled saga of several separated siblings reunited through DNA testing, and longtime staff writer David Montgomery’s portrait of the shifting political demographic in Wyoming, “the Trumpiest state in the nation,” as its voters turned on Rep. Liz Cheney.

In 2020, the magazine won a National Magazine Award in the single-issue category for the special issue “Prison.” The issue “was written, illustrated and photographed by people who have been — or are currently — incarcerated, allowing readers to hear from voices that are often invisible in the debate around prison and criminal justice,” The Post said at the time.

Can stories like these appear elsewhere in the Post? Sure, and I hope they will. But Buzbee is shutting down something that’s working. She described the cut as part of the Post’s ongoing “global and digital transformation,” and said some of the magazine’s content will move to “a revitalized Style section” that will be unveiled in a few months. But let’s not forget that this move comes not long after Buzbee got rid of the Post’s venerable Sunday Outlook section; at least that was accompanied by a return to a standalone Book World.

***

I want to think well of CNN’s newish chief executive, Chris Licht. His predecessor, Jeff Zucker, may have been beloved by the staff, but he left behind a profoundly broken institution.

Licht has made some moves that I really don’t like, such as getting rid of Brian Stelter’s “Reliable Sources” media program and, for that matter, Brian Stelter. But Licht has also talked about returning CNN to less opinion and more reporting, which I’d love to see. I found much of what Licht told Kara Swisher on a recent podcast encouraging, although I don’t think he grasps the crisis of democracy in which we find ourselves when he talks about bringing on more Republican voices. Still, Licht isn’t Elon Musk; he seems like an earnest, well-meaning executive who wants to do well but who must also negotiate some treacherous terrain, such as keeping right-wing investor John Malone happy.

Now, in a move that had been telegraphed well in advance, CNN is implementing some pretty major cuts that will claim the jobs of possibly hundreds of staff members at a media company that employs about 4,000 people. Tom Jones of Poynter has the details.

CNN is one of our great news organizations — far better than what you see on prime time every night. As Licht told Swisher, one reason he got rid of CNN Plus, among the more ludicrous of Zucker’s debacles (along with the Chris and Andrew Cuomo Show, of course), is that the excellent CNN Digital is already the most trafficked news website in the U.S., and he didn’t want to shift attention away from that asset. But it’s hard to see how Licht can move ahead with a renewed emphasis on reporting if he’s working with a drastically downsized news division. Opinion is cheap; news is expensive. And Licht is going to be sorely tempted to take the path of least resistance.

One final note: The Boston Globe’s Mark Shanahan today interviews Randolph’s own Audie Cornish about her new CNN podcast. Cornish was lured away from NPR earlier this year as part of Zucker’s push to staff up CNN Plus and has been at loose ends every since the shutdown. But a podcast? Really? How about making her the anchor of a prime-time newscast, as I suggested earlier this year?

***

Today’s the day for yet another in an endless round of layoffs at Gannett, the country’s largest newspaper chain. Poynter’s Rick Edmonds estimated that the body count could be around 200 of the chain’s 3,400 news employees.

Gannett publishes more than 200 daily newspapers around the country, including a number of titles in the Boston metro area. At one time it published dozens of weeklies as well, but many of those have been closed or merged, with virtually all of their reporters reassigned to regional beats.

Fortunately, Gannett’s withdrawal from community journalism in Eastern Massachusetts has led to a number of independent start-ups. Christopher Galvin had a good piece in Boston.com earlier this week about several of those projects. (He interviewed me.) And here is a link to a spreadsheet I maintain of independent local news organizations in Massachusetts. As you’ll see, the numbers are impressive.

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John Harwood’s brand of truth-telling is no longer welcome at CNN

Chris Licht, left, hanging out with a notable truth-teller. Photo (cc) 2017 by Arforv

The way forward for CNN was less talk, more news. Instead, Chris Licht, the new chairman and CEO, seems to have embarked on a campaign of less truth, more pandering to the Trumpist right wing of the Republican Party.

Last month Licht canceled “Reliable Sources,” CNN’s long running media-criticism program. That led to the departure of its host, Brian Stelter, who had emerged as an outspoken defender of the press and the First Amendment in the face of Donald Trump’s attacks on the media as “enemies of the people.”

Then, on Friday, came another blow. In analyzing President Biden’s Thursday night speech, White House correspondent John Harwood told the simple truth about the state of our politics. Within two hours, Harwood announced that he was leaving CNN. As Dan Froomkin reported, “A source with knowledge about Harwood’s situation told me that Harwood was informed last month that Friday would be his last day, even though he was on a long-term contract. ‘He used one of his last live-shots to send a message,’ the source told me.”

Here’s what Harwood said in what turned out to be his last appearance on CNN (click through to Froomkin’s post to watch the video):

The core point he made in that political speech about a threat to democracy is true. Now, that’s something that’s not easy for us, as journalists, to say. We’re brought up to believe there’s two different political parties with different points of view and we don’t take sides in honest disagreements between them. But that’s not what we’re talking about. These are not honest disagreements. The Republican Party right now is led by a dishonest demagogue. Many, many Republicans are rallying behind his lies about the 2020 election and other things as well. And a significant portion — or a sufficient portion — of the constituency that they’re leading attacked the Capitol on January 6th. Violently. By offering pardons or suggesting pardons for those people who violently attacked the Capitol, which you’ve been pointing out numerous times this morning, Donald Trump made Joe Biden’s point for him.

I was willing to give Licht some room after he replaced Jeff Zucker, who transformed CNN’s prime-time bloc into an endless stream of Trump-bashing and who had presided over and enabled the Chris Cuomo scandal. Zucker was said to be popular with the troops; given how bad much of the programming was, I didn’t think it was necessarily a bad thing that they were unhappy over his departure.

But Stelter and Harwood’s departures signal that Licht’s goal is to move CNN back to the center at a time when there no longer is a center. Eliana Johnson reported for the right-wing website Free Beacon that Licht has been sucking up to Republicans with the message “We want to win back your trust.” But as Harwood pointed out, you can’t have that kind of balance at a time when the Republican Party has devolved into “semi-fascism,” as Biden put it recently, by refusing to abide by the clear results of the 2020 election and indulging the insurrectionists who stormed Capitol Hill on Jan. 6, 2021.

The biggest unanswered question is how much of this is being driven by John Malone, a billionaire investor who owns a large chunk of CNN’s new parent company, Warner Bros. Discovery. As Peter Kafka recently wrote in Vox, Malone has been quite explicit in saying that CNN should be more like Fox News, but he’s also denied that he’s had anything to do with the recent changes at CNN. Then again, does he really have to say anything? Licht knows who’s calling the shots.

In the early days of the war in Ukraine, we all learned something we might have forgotten — CNN is a great news organization, with skilled, courageous reporters around the world dedicated to bringing us the news. It was a stark contrast to the hours of talk the network foists on us every evening. More news would be an admirable direction to pursue.

The danger, instead, is that CNN is going to stick with talk, give us some weird amalgam of small-d democrats and insurrectionists, and try to convince us that they’re now balanced. Who is this supposed to appeal to? It’s not going to attract current Fox News viewers. It’s hard to see who this will benefit other than MSNBC, which has stuck with its prime-time liberal talk-show lineup and which will probably attract some share of disaffected CNN viewers.

More: Following Zucker’s departure I offered five ideas for GBH News on how CNN could reinvent itself. So far, Licht has taken me up on exactly one of those ideas — strangling CNN Plus in the crib.

Jeff Zucker’s folly comes to an end as Discovery pulls the plug on CNN+

Imagine a newspaper that required you to be a paid subscriber to the print edition if you wanted to read the paper online, and that you had to pay an additional fee for that privilege. If you weren’t a print subscriber, you wouldn’t be able to read the paper on the website, even though you were paying for digital. The only online content you’d be able to access would be repurposed programs and lite features. Needless to say, no one would sign up for such a terrible service.

Well, that’s exactly what CNN+ is. Or was. The New York Times reports that the network’s incoming owner, Warner Bros. Discovery, has pulled the plug on the weeks-old service. I’m surprised. I thought this would drag on for at least a few months. But I guess the decision was made to close it immediately rather than wait for the inevitable.

Cord-cutting is real, and CNN — like all content providers dependent on cable — needs to find a way to respond. This wasn’t it. Nice going, Jeff Zucker. I’m sure Discovery isn’t going to give up on coming up with a post-cable strategy for CNN. Wiping the slate clean was necessary for that.

One positive development coming out of this fiasco is that the new owners are reportedly planning to slot an actual newscast at 9 p.m., the old Chris Cuomo hour, according to Sara Fischer of Axios. Perhaps the anchor will be Audie Cornish, lured away from NPR to be a key part of CNN+.

Drip, drip, drip

Then-New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Photo (cc) 2014 by Diana Robinson.

Tatiana Siegel reports in Rolling Stone that Jeff Zucker and Allison Gollust may have been advising Andrew Cuomo at the same time that Chris Cuomo was driving his own career into a ditch by doing more or less the same thing. She indirectly quotes a source familiar with the workings of an investigation into Chris Cuomo’s behavior:

The source says the investigation suggests Zucker and Gollust were advising the governor at the beginning of the Covid pandemic in ways not dissimilar to what led to Chris Cuomo’s dismissal. As Andrew sparred on a daily basis with then-President Trump over Covid messaging, the couple provided the governor with talking points on how to respond to the president’s criticisms of the New York crisis. They also booked the governor to appear on the network exclusively, which became a ratings boon for CNN, with Chris Cuomo doing the interviewing. Cuomo and Gollust’s conduct, too, would appear to mark an ethical breach for executives acting on behalf of an impartial news outlet.

The source does not appear to be claiming that Zucker and Gollust were advising Andrew Cuomo on how to handle the sexual-harassment allegations that eventually led to his resignation as governor; that came later. Still, the behavior described by the source is wildly inappropriate. Much more to come, no doubt.

Scandal aside, Zucker gave us Trump and presided over a ratings collapse at CNN

Jeff Zucker. Photo (cc) 2013 by Fortune Live Media.

Something doesn’t make sense about Jeff Zucker’s sudden departure from CNN. He and his paramour, CNN executive vice president Allison Gollust, are consenting adults, and they’re both divorced.

There was an aha! moment Wednesday when we learned that Gollust had previously worked as Andrew Cuomo’s communications director. But that turned out to be a brief stint a decade ago. Maybe leadership concluded that Zucker had put them in an untenable position with regard to Chris Cuomo’s legal case against CNN. Or maybe Chris has something else up his sleeve. I suspect we’re going to find out more.

Meanwhile, let’s look at the record. Zucker is widely seen as a successful chief executive of CNN, well-liked by the troops. But what exactly were his accomplishments? He rode a Trump-driven rise in the ratings, the same as everyone else; ratings have collapsed since the end of the Trump presidency. Zucker accomplished little journalistically, especially in prime time, which has devolved into three hours of liberal talk shows that are not as good as those on MSNBC. Anderson Cooper, a significant asset, is badly misused.

More than anything, though, Zucker is the man who morphed Donald Trump from a failed real-estate developer into a media star, first through “The Apprentice” and then by giving him hours and hours of free air time during the 2016 presidential campaign. It’s all Trump all the time for Zucker, whether he’s for him or against him. And that’s the oxygen upon which Trump thrives.

What’s next for CNN? Its digital-streaming service, CNN+, debuts soon, and unless you think the public has been drooling with anticipation at the prospect of paying for CNN Lite, it has all the hallmarks of a disaster in the making.

My advice is to try reporting the news — especially during the key 8-to-11 p.m. time slot. Sadly, I’m sure that will go unheeded.

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Questions remain after the fall of the House of Cuomo

I’ve heard three questions come up since CNN suspended, then fired, Chris Cuomo for his inappropriate involvement in his brother Andrew’s defense against charges that he’d sexually harassed and assaulted women. I don’t know the answers to any of them. But they’re worth framing as we think about the extraordinary events of the past week.

1. Why did it take so long for CNN to act? The original bad actor in all of this was CNN head Jeff Zucker, who allowed Chris to host Andrew on his show when Andrew, as governor of New York, was winning widespread praise for how he had handled the early stages of the COVID pandemic.

It may have struck many people at the time as a harmless diversion during a very dark period. You may recall that Chris himself contracted the virus. But it was unethical, and in the months to come we learned just how unethical. Remember, Andrew ended up being accused not just of groping women but of grossly mismanaging the pandemic as well.

Then the drip, drip, drip started, as we learned that Chris had advised his brother and taken part in meetings as the sexual-misconduct scandal became increasingly serious. Zucker may have worried that suspending or firing one of his stars would have only called attention to his own role, so he let it go.

The revelations that were reported last week, though, weren’t just more but were also different. They showed that Chris had abused his position by, for instance, trying to find out what stories other journalists were working on. This went way beyond anything Zucker could have reasonably foreseen, and thus may have given him the freedom he needed to do what he should have done earlier.

No doubt Zucker’s hand was strengthened further when Chris Cuomo was hit during the past few days with a sexual misconduct allegation of his own — his second.

2. What about Sean Hannity? I’ve heard a number of people ask why Chris Cuomo has to go when Fox News did nothing about Hannity’s close relationship with Donald Trump. To which I can only respond that Fox, notwithstanding good work by a few of its journalists, is not really a news operation. It’s a propaganda outlet whose stock in trade is lies and ginned-up culture-war stories about issues such as race and the evils of vaccinations.

CNN is not what it used to be, and I’m not a fan of its prime-time line-up of opinionated talk shows. But it’s good to see that management still cares enough about the network’s reputation that it’s not going to stand for a host who breaks all journalistic boundaries — even if he didn’t do much journalism on the air. To imagine that Fox News would take similar action is to believe that Fox and CNN are in the same business. They’re not.

And wouldn’t it be great if CNN ultimately decides to replace Cuomo’s 9 p.m. talk show with an actual newscast? I’m not holding my breath.

3. What about Jeffrey Toobin? You may recall that CNN suspended Toobin as its legal analyst after he was caught pleasuring himself during a Zoom meeting. Many observers were surprised when the network took him back eight months later.

I’m not sure what that was about except to note that the incident took place during a New Yorker staff meeting, where Toobin was a writer. The New Yorker fired Toobin and shows no signs of being willing to take him back. CNN may have figured that it would be unfair to banish Toobin permanently for something he did for another employer. Still, it’s hard to watch Toobin without going “ewww.” And I say that as someone who liked his work both at The New Yorker and on CNN.

Finally: What an extraordinary downfall for the House of Cuomo. I revered their father, Mario; long before 2020, though, I was aware of Andrew’s thuggish reputation as governor. Chris struck me as an amiable lightweight. Scandals like this have a human dimension that can’t be overlooked. Andrew and Chris got what they deserved — but I feel bad for their mother, Matilda, who, at 90, is still very much with us.

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Chris Cuomo has left the building

From Oliver Darcy and Brian Stelter of CNN:

CNN said Tuesday that it has suspended Chris Cuomo “indefinitely” after new documents released this week indicated that the anchor was more intimately involved than previously known in helping his brother, former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, craft a defense amid a flurry of sexual misconduct allegations.

I can’t imagine Cuomo will be back, but who knows?

Earlier: CNN needs to punish Chris Cuomo severely — and to consider firing him

CNN needs to punish Chris Cuomo severely — and to consider firing him

Chris Cuomo

I’ve been defending CNN’s Chris Cuomo ever since we learned that he had been advising his brother, former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, about how to respond to allegations of sexual harassment and assault.

It’s not that I like his program especially; I don’t. It’s that the misguided decision to let Chris host Andrew during the early days of the COVID pandemic was more a failing by management than it was something that could be blamed on Chris, and that it wasn’t fair to criticize him for acting like a brother.

No more. Monday’s revelations show that Chris Cuomo went beyond giving his brother advice, and even went beyond strategizing with other members of Andrew Cuomo’s team. According to the newly released documents, Chris Cuomo abused his position at CNN, and for that he needs to pay a steep price — maybe a long suspension, maybe termination.

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“How in the world does Chris Cuomo survive this?” asks Tom Jones of Poynter, taking note of the sordid details:

According to documents released Monday by the New York attorney general’s office, Chris used his media sources to seek out information about women who accused his brother of sexual misconduct. He then relayed some of that information to his brother’s top advisers.

Writing in The Atlantic, David A. Graham — who believes that Chris Cuomo should resign or be fired — offered this:

When Chris Cuomo simply offered advice to staff members, he failed to observe the rules CNN had set for his private behavior. But by gathering information from “sources” and passing it to his brother’s staff, Cuomo committed the more egregious step of directly mixing the journalistic work of calling sources and gathering information with his personal, familial commitments. He was wise not to go further into the realm of “oppo research” [something Chris told investigators he did not do], but he still went far beyond the bounds of propriety.

Chris Cuomo hosts an opinionated talk show that is only peripherally tied to journalism. But as Graham notes, he does, in fact, act as a journalist, and people are going to return his calls when he tells them that he’s working on a story. His behavior violated multiple rules of “The Elements of Journalism,” including reporting the truth, maintaining independence from those we cover and serving as an independent monitor of power.

I tuned in Cuomo’s show Monday at 9 p.m. to see whether he’d be on and if he’d address it. There he was, but he made no mention of the revelations — not at the beginning, not at the end.

I’ll give him this much — he seemed every bit his normal self, even though he had to know his career was hanging in the balance.

CNN seems to be taking the new allegations seriously. “The thousands of pages of additional transcripts and exhibits that were released today by the NY Attorney General deserve a thorough review and consideration,” CNN said in a statement. “We will be having conversations and seeking additional clarity about their significance as they relate to CNN over the next several days.”

The next step is to act. I doubt that we’ll see Chris Cuomo in the anchor chair tonight. The question is whether we’ll ever see him there again — or should.

In which Mike Beaudet and I try to make sense of CNN’s Chris Cuomo problem

By Peter Ramjug

Chris Cuomo is expected to be back on the air at CNN this week. Questions still swirl around him following the resignation of his older brother, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, and the role the cable network star played in advising the governor through his political crisis and how the network will handle one of the biggest stories of the year going forward.

Cuomo will likely keep his job, say Northeastern journalism faculty experts Dan Kennedy and Mike Beaudet, even as media watchdog groups and others have called for him to step down or be fired for his involvement with the matter. They say network management and Chris Cuomo himself share blame for a “messy situation” that blurred personal and professional lines between the anchor and his embattled sibling.

Read the rest at News@Northeastern.

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