My friend Ramon Escobar called me last week. He sounded urgent. CNN, he said, planned to hire 450 people right away.
“We are trying to hire 200 journalists,” he told me. “We need everything, from top management to executive producers, producers, editors, reporters, you name it.” (Note: CNN updated its statement to say it is not currently not hiring reporters for CNN+. The company says the sole focus at the moment is producers at every level.)
Ramon is the senior vice president for talent recruitment and development at CNN. What he was describing to me is the largest hiring surge since CNN began in 1980. CNN is launching CNN+, a subscription streaming service for news that it says “will exist side by side with CNN’s existing television networks and will feature eight to twelve hours of live programming a day.”
CNN says the project launches in the first quarter of 2022 and, in addition to journalists, the network will hire hundreds of specialists in production, engineering, technology, marketing and analytics.
The CNN+ effort follows others — including NBC and Fox — but none of them is even close in scope to CNN’s. Cord-cutting has cost cable networks access to millions of potential viewers as they are replaced by services like Netflix that put the user in control of content.
CNN is handcuffed by agreements with cable companies so it cannot just stream its current offerings to people who do not have cable. Instead, it had to create a totally new product. According to CNN, people who have cable or satellite service will also get expanded news coverage through CNN+. All of these subscription services have to take care not to undercut the legacy over-the-air or cable operations that are their foundations.
CNN+ will be headed by chief digital officer Andrew Morse who said, in addition to about a half days’ worth of live programming, CNN+ will offer a range of special programs focused on topics featured in recent special reports: climate change, Middle East politics, the Jan. 6 insurrection and race relations. CNN said it is producing a two-hour documentary on the transition of power in Afghanistan, another example of the kind of in-depth programming that CNN+ will offer.
Morse also envisions something he calls an “interactive community” that will give subscribers the ability “to engage directly with our talent and experts about the issues that matter most to them.”
CNN has experimented with the concept in town halls with candidates and political leaders. But Escobar said CNN+ will go beyond the town hall concept.
“Imagine that we have someone representing the Afghan government. We see an opportunity to directly connect the newsmakers to the audience. It is like a town meeting but in a streaming setting. If you are a subscriber of CNN+, you could participate in what could be an interaction with the ambassador to the UN about Afghanistan,” he said. “Everyone in the news industry has streaming, but this is more than that. It is interaction.”
Escobar insisted that the innovations ahead will not be about technology, but will instead focus more on content creation and interactivity that could attract new, nontraditional news audiences, especially those that do not have cable TV.
Variety reported that insiders are speculating that “there’s a strong probability that CNN Plus would be bundled in some fashion with HBO Max and Discovery+” once the merger of WarnerMedia and Discovery is completed next year.
Escobar said the people he is helping to recruit will work in New York, Washington, D.C., and other spots, depending on the job. He is scouting for talent in local and network TV but also has a history of hiring former print and online journalists. Some of his most fertile scouting groups are CNN journalism workshops at major journalism conferences, including the National Association of Black Journalists, National Association of Hispanic Journalists, Asian American Journalists Association and NLGJA, the Association of LGBTQ Journalists.
“In the last nine years, we have hired more than 50 people that we came to know through those workshops,” he said. (I have been a volunteer teacher in those sessions every year.)
CNN+ will launch in the U.S. and later expand to global markets. “Our efforts will be to make sure the workforce reflects the world that it is going to service. We are a global news organization and CNN+ will look global,” Escobar said.
Variety reported that the subscription news service business is getting crowded. CNN is just the latest in a long string of big plans from the biggest players:
- CBS News, which got in early to the game with CBSN, has been combined with its parent company’s local TV stations, and the combined entity has already begun producing special reports led by local-news anchors on the ground at events of great interest, like the collapse of the Surfside condominium in Florida.
- MSNBC is developing programs from top anchors like Mika Brzezinski and Nicolle Wallace for its parent company’s Peacock outlet.
- ABC News has broken down walls between streaming and linear programming, enlisting producers from its streaming efforts for its “GMA3” on ABC and elevating streaming anchor Linsey Davis to anchor a weekend broadcast of “World News Tonight.”
- Fox News continues to bolster its Fox Nation streaming outlet with additional content — and in May announced it would make its linear primetime opinion broadcasts available on the service the day after they air.
CNN+ announced its first big-name hire in Kasie Hunt, a veteran of NBC News, who will be a CNN+ anchor and national affairs analyst. Hunt left MSNBC last month. The network is posting other jobs now on its employment website.
Escobar has developed a pitch for the people he is recruiting that he considers the “best and brightest.”
“I tell people all the time, this is their choice for a pioneering job. These do not come around very often,” he said. “Our goal is to be a global leader, we will look like the world around us, and this is how to get in on the beginning of it.”
Here is the employment website that CNN is using to list the hundreds of new positions. (Anyone interested in CNN+ roles should type “CNN+” in the search bar. It needs to be typed with the quotation marks.)
This article was originally published Aug. 24, 2021.