March 22, 2018

A decreasing presence in the Facebook algorithm and data concerns. The often toxic environment of Twitter. The surfacing of fake news in Google searches. News organizations have realized more and more that their content is being held hostage to other platforms.

Which is why this statement from a high-level media executive stands out:

"The homepage is not dead."

This is what S. Mitra Kalita, the vice president for programming at CNN Digital, told a group of social media specialists in New York recently. Poynter wanted to explore that more, so David Beard reached out to her for this short interview via email. It has been edited for length and clarity.

Your comment has come after years of seeing many news homepages automated, de-staffed, de-emphasized from the "homepage is king" era a decade ago. What has led to the change, at least for media sites like CNN or the L.A. Times, which you ran before?

In the rush to get our content on other platforms, let's not forget about our own. CNN has the most powerful news homepage in the world. Our loyal users come to us to be informed, engaged, educated, maybe a little entertained. We owe it to them to keep the experience as vibrant as both the news and the rest of the internet.

That being said, it would be impossible to value the homepage in a vacuum. We know we are contending with competition from other sites, feeds and platforms. We know there are audiences out there who aren't among the CNN loyalists.

The challenge is to preserve and dominate a core audience even as we leverage the homepage and other platforms to find new users. I guide our thinking among content creators and distributors alike with three key questions:

What's the story?

Who is it for?

How will we find them?

That shift in focus from quantity to quality. How has it forced to change thinking on priorities?

Those questions help. Understandably, some journalists have a formulaic response to news or assignments. But if you rewind to those questions, it forces us to ask WHY we're doing something, and more importantly, WHO it's for.

I'm going to preempt the next question: What about stories such as Syria or South Africa's water crisis? This is precisely the value proposition of a CNN. We have reporters on the ground everywhere who can help make the stories come alive and become personal. CNN users value this accessibility and prioritization of the stories they need to know about.

If you could guess, what percentage of your time did you spend thinking about podcasts and newsletters five years ago? How does that compare with today?  Why?

A lot more! I recently asked my teams to consume the news of the day in an entirely new and different way than their usual. I joined the exercise and chose audio as my method of delivery.

A few things resulted — I moved the Google Home into our bathroom (I start with CNN's "Five Things for Your New Day;" my kids ask for the weather; my husband listens to music). The Amazon Alexa has stayed in our kitchen (we do frequent weather checks, my husband listens to NPR, the kids love to play "Jeopardy," it's replaced our kitchen timer.) By having these devices in these spaces, though, it's also exposed the limitations (and opportunities) of real-time audio. During the U.S. Open, we wanted to check scores and they weren't available. Sometimes, Alexa doesn’t know where the nearest ice cream parlor is.

My relationship with podcasts also has changed. I love "The Daily" (from my friend Michael Barbaro at the NYT) and I also love David Chalian's "Daily DC" to get some context around the big political headline of the day. But I also love evergreen podcasts such as "Terrible, Thanks for Asking." My mood to consume these tends to be more reflective or contemplative, so they are perfect for the commute home.

So how has this changed CNN's thinking? Marcus Mabry, our senior director for mobile, regularly encourages us to have content on mobile web for mornings (urgent, newsy); lunchtime (catch up); commute home (deep read, explanatory, analysis). I like that this programming strategy focuses on users, their state of mind and how we might fill a void. It's smart and helpful to think about individuals versus times for large traffic opportunities (as I used to in previous jobs).

Newsletters are a growth area, but also an area where our programming is more personal and focused on niche. I find myself not feeling able to get to sleep until I have read Brian Stelter's Reliable Sources. We're also using email alerts to set up experimentation around news-inspired newsletters; a recent push explaining what the tax bill meant to Americans was especially successful.

In building brand-identifiable areas, what are important characteristics?

Mission. Why are we doing this? Who are we serving? What problem (or void) are we solving?

Do you have new journalistic favorite items (newsletters? shows or podcasts or sites or passion projects)? If so, what are a few of them?

Some of them I mentioned previously. (See above.)

The most interesting stuff still finds me via Twitter and Facebook. Never thought I would say that's an old-school response, but I think it is.

The most important question. If you were interviewing yourself, what's the one thing you'd ask? And what would be the response?

Actually, I just finished a Turner leadership training and an internal consultant asked me, "You have worked at so many startups and new initiatives within journalism. Why are you at CNN?"

My response: It feels too important a time to keep journalism, viral content and content still aspiring to go viral in an echo chamber. CNN is the largest digital news platform, with a larger audience than any other platform. I am here because I have never felt more purpose to come to work every day, more pressure to break down the sums of stories into their parts, more ambition to elevate our storytelling game in terms of digital prowess and just sheer smarts. It’s really, really hard. It's really, really necessary.

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