If you were tuning into CNN one evening in early January, you would’ve watched a quartet of reporters break a big story live on air: Intel chiefs presented President Trump with claims that Russian agents tried to compromise him.
That’s in part thanks to Rachel Smolkin, the executive editor of CNN Politics, who was entrusted almost three years ago with giving the network’s political coverage a digital shot in the arm. In the intervening months, she’s helped build CNN Politics into a cross-platform juggernaut that breaks stories on TV and the web simultaneously, luring scoopy and digitally savvy reporters like The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza, Mashable’s Juana Summers and National Journal’s Dan Berman.
Poynter caught up with Smolkin to talk about joining CNN from Politico, bringing digital acumen to a cable network and covering President Trump as he berates the Washington press in general and CNN in particular.
How did you come to CNN, and what are you doing there?
The mission was to rebuild. CNN was known for its politics, of course, but it was mostly its politics on the television side. And the feeling when I came was that we had not had equivalent investment and attention on the digital side at such an important time.
I came from Politico, and I had a wonderful experience and great colleagues there. But who could pass up an opportunity to come to CNN and get to build a new team coming into the presidential election?
So we got through the midterms with a bit of a bare-bones staff. We had some early newcomers like Chris Moody, who came on just in time to help us cover the midterms. But the bulk of the building came in the months after that.
How does CNN juggle breaking big stories on television with reporting them on the web? There are others — I’m thinking of Rachel Maddow — who are really focused on breaking news on TV first.
I was actually at dinner that night with Sam Feist, the Washington bureau chief. And we were with a bunch of other journalists. So, as we were beginning to get the alerts about this interview, Sam and I were both on our phones, and we were looking for this on NBC’s website, MSNBC’s website, couldn’t find it anywhere. Even after our story was published. But we were literally sitting together as we were planning the coverage.
As you say, it takes a lot of coordination. What we’re doing here at CNN is very special, and we’ve had tremendous support from (President) Jeff Zucker on down. We’re building something that has not been done successfully anywhere. And we’re doing it with a terrifically talented group of people. It takes a lot of work and a lot of time to integrate two completely different platforms. And I don’t know of another place where television and digital are equal partners the way they are here.
Do anchors write their own stories?
Jake’s a very good writer. He’ll often write his own stories. And we love it when he has time to do that, or Manu Raju or Jeff Zeleny or Evan Perez — all of them are highly capable of writing their own stories — if it’s going to be a situation where they’re breaking news on television or they’re busy making calls and they’re not in a position to write it, we have a great group of writers and reporters on our digital team who we’ll pair them with to work together and handle primarily the writing piece in coordination with the primary reporter on the story.
Does the digital side have trouble getting the attention of the broadcast side?
I’m smiling a little as you ask that question because we have so much interaction with our president, Jeff Zucker, that it’s almost hard for me to think of it in those terms. Honestly, getting attention is not the problem here. We get a tremendous amount of attention throughout CNN. Our coverage is very prominently featured on the main CNN.com site. Our reporters are on television constantly. I joke that if I can’t find my reporter, I look up and see them on CNN, as happened with Jeremy Diamond just the other day.
How does covering the Trump administration differ from other administrations?
We always want to hold administrations accountable. So that piece, the basics of how we do our jobs everyday, hasn’t changed with the new administration. I do think that we’re at a very important moment in history right now. This was an election no one could have predicted. We’re in uncharted terrain with this president, with this administration as he comes to an office that he had an unusual path to.
Readers are tremendously interested right now. Engagement is very high. And I know that I personally, and all of my colleagues here as well feel a tremendous sense of personal responsibility to recognize the importance of this moment in history, to get the story right, to get our coverage right. To be fair but also hold this administration accountable just as we would for anyone in power in Washington.
CNN has been accused of being “fake news” and “very fake news” by President Trump. What’s the cumulative effect of all that on morale at CNN?
We feel energized. We know that we have a very important job to do right now. I’ve worked as a journalist for a very long time. I don’t think I’ve ever had a greater sense that the work I do every day is important. And we have to keep our focus on our jobs. We have a responsibility to get our facts right, to be fair to the people who we’re covering. To push hard and ask tough questions. And if things are said offered as facts that are not correct, not true, we have a responsibility to point that out, no matter who says them.
I think my colleagues are energized here. This is not a time where people are dispirited in any way. I think people are tired. Everybody is working round the clock. And certainly the level of intensity that you have during a presidential campaign has not in any way receded post-election. But as far as feeling discouraged, no. We feel like we have a responsibility and a privilege at CNN to lay out the facts.
During the election, CNN was accused of giving Donald Trump too much airtime. What lessons would you take from that?
I always try to listen to criticism to hear if there’s something that we need to take away from it. In this case, I would make an argument that our job is to cover news. It’s pretty hard to argue that under any definition of news, coverage of Donald Trump didn’t make sense. I would invite anyone concerned about giving him a lot of coverage to look at who the president of the United States is right now. Here is a person who many of our colleagues in the media dismissed early on as a joke or a fringe candidate. I credit CNN and Jeff for understanding early that this was somebody who had the potential to really be a force in the campaign.
We invited all candidates onto our air. Not all of them took up our offer, and Donald Trump did. So perhaps the takeaway is that he understood the current environment and how to communicate better than some of his rivals did. I’d argue there are some lessons there for candidates moving forward to use the opportunity to do interviews and to talk with voters in different kinds of ways.
Is there ever any pressure to go easy on candidates during interviews for the sake of access?
No, I’ve never heard any pressure like that in my time here. Quite the contrary — we want to hold anybody we interview accountable. If they’re saying things that aren’t correct, we have to call them out on it. And I like being in an environment where it’s understood that that’s our role.
White House Correspondents’ Dinner, in or out?
We’ve announced that we’ll be bringing young journalists to that dinner. And that really goes to the core mission of the dinner. That was an idea from my wonderful colleagues in public relations and marketing. I love that we’re doing that. We’ve somewhat moved away from that in recent years. And if there’s a chance to help train and inspire the next generation of journalists, that’s a good thing.
Many people were critical of CNN for hiring Corey Lewandowski. Many other people supported CNN for hiring Lewandowski because they said it’s important to have a diversity of voices from the left and the right on TV. But many people were saying, “You shouldn’t have someone who was just on the campaign on your air.” As an editor, how do you handle being a part of the story?
The folks who worked for President Trump back in the campaign were perhaps not as well represented on television as well as they could’ve been. There was a desire to bring those voices into the mix.
Correction: A previous version of this story mistakenly referenced Donald Trump where it should have cited CNN.