The Cohort: What it looks like to be classically trained in leadership

Q&A with Rachel Smolkin, vice president and executive editor of CNN Politics

August 6, 2019
Category: Uncategorized

Editor’s Note:

Rachel Smolkin is the vice president and executive editor of CNN Politics. She has been credited with helping transform CNN across its global digital platforms, thanks in part to her hiring decisions and management philosophy. Now, Smolkin oversees around 60 staffers and collaborates with dozens more. 

Talking with her, it’s obvious that she’s been classically trained in leadership — she graduated from the Sulzberger Executive Leadership Program at Columbia University and has been a top editor at Politico and American Journalism Review. In a recent interview, I talked with Smolkin about the value of quitting, unsticking and disassociating from assholes. 

This Q&A has been lightly edited for clarity, brevity and context.

Mel Grau: I think there are some women in the Cohort who strive to be where you are as a VP of such a respected global brand. How did you get there?

Rachel Smolkin: My first job out of college was as an intern at the Philadelphia Inquirer, covering mushroom farms in southern Pennsylvania. So I always tell people, I started my career covering mushroom compost, and now I cover Washington.

If you look back at my whole career arc – if you can call something that winds around so much an arc – I’ve gone about it by always looking for where the opportunity is where I’ll grow and learn the most.

In my mid- to late 20s, I left a job that wasn’t working well and I had no other job. Everybody, except for my husband, said this was a terrible mistake and that I’d ruined my career. But I knew that it was the right thing at the time. It ended up being the best career decision – other than coming to CNN – that I have made because it freed me to think about who I was as a journalist and what career I really wanted to have.


MG: How do you see digital in particular serving a more diverse audience, or at least trying to reach a more diverse audience?

RS: It is important to have a staff that represents this diversity of our audiences. Politics tends to be male-dominated. On our team, we have incredible male talent, of course. But I’m also so proud of the women we have on the team at every level of the organization.

The other important component is thinking through the diversity in coverage that we’re providing. Some of that is being mindful of things like voter voices, but it’s also looking at the beats that we have. We are about to add a politics culture writer. 

Newsrooms tend to silo. The political team is different from the sports team, from the business team, from the entertainment team. Because of the way we structure beats in the newsroom, sometimes we miss the connection. And there’s such an important culture/political connection right now that I think we can do a much better job for our audiences.

This article originally appeared in an issue of The Cohort, Poynter’s newsletter for women kicking ass in digital media. Join the conversation here.


MG: You had talked with Poynter editor Ben Mullin back in April 2017 about the digital transformation that you led at CNN. At the time, you said your staff was energized in response to President Donald Trump’s regular attacks on CNN. Two years later, is that still the case? How y’all feeling?

RS: We are energized. My philosophy is: Bring in talented people. Create a clear sense of mission. Then you let them go at it.

Not long after I started at CNN, a colleague of mine popped into my office and said, “I understand what you’re doing now.” And I said, “Oh, what am I doing?” and he said, “You’re hiring really talented people who aren’t assholes.” I laughed. “Yes, you got it. You cracked my management philosophy. That’s exactly what I’m doing.”


MG: There’s this vibe that sometimes people from TV are much more brash, hardcore, not afraid to yell about stuff. Do you have to be more disciplined as a manager?

RS: The first thing I would say is that my colleagues at CNN are the nicest people I have ever worked with. Wolf Blitzer is just as nice off the air as he is on the air. When my team had first started, he came by and passed out peanut brittle to everyone.

We are here to help one another. We rise and fall as a team. As you’re creating the culture, I think that is something that you have to talk about and emphasize regularly. I expect it from my team. I’m very lucky to have that in return from my team.


MG: You penned a column last year about Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade. You wrote, “Beneath the light that Spade and Bourdain spread, darkness crept in. And for so many of us it laps at the edges, sometimes held at bay, sometimes drawing nearer.” It was rather moving, and it felt personal. How do you manage your mental health and support your team?

RS: I worked so intensely that in the 2016 campaign, it was probably around the time of the convention, I let myself get overly run down. And that was not good for me. And it was not good for my family. And it was not good for my team.

Out of that moment, I learned that I needed to think about sustaining a little differently. I started taking yoga, which I do every week and I love. I started focusing more on the vacations I take with my family. I just went back recently to dance class, which I did growing up and loved it and missed it. 

I say to my team: You’re in the midst of a very intense period in journalism. We have to do right by our audiences. And we also need to take space for ourselves. We need to make sure that we’re taking restorative moments that feel beautiful to us. For some people, it might be cooking. For some people, it might be hiking or going to an art museum or reading. Whatever that thing is for you, I think it’s so important to take those moments and carve that out.


MG: A big thing in the Cohort is obviously talking about our successes. But another thing that we value is being honest about where we fall. What has been one of your biggest work fails?

RS: We do tend to focus a lot on success, but I’ve learned so much more from my failures. I would also say I’ve learned from moments when I felt stuck. I think resilience is a very underrated quality in the news business and leadership. Because in those moments, when you feel stuck, you have to think about how to unstick yourself. A colleague recently said to me, it’s not much fun to fall into a hole, but there’s a lot of power in knowing you can climb out of it. 

The only thing I would add to that is you don’t have to climb out by yourself. Find that group of people who can help you come out of it.


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