Ed O’Keefe was recently hired by CNN to boost the network’s digital coverage of politics, a task he’s not going to undertake alone.
“If you’re a top talent in D.C., expect to get a call from CNN politics,” says the 36-year-old O’Keefe, whose title is vice president of CNNMoney and Politics. The CNN.com political team now numbers approximately 20 people, according to a network spokesman; the plan is to double that staff in preparation for the 2016 presidential election. Scores of other CNN employees also contribute political coverage on the network’s Web site.
There’s a reason why O’Keefe, who formerly served as editor in chief of NowThisNews, is supervising both CNNMoney and digital politics: The network is going to be doing similar things with both of them. CNNMoney is a site within a site — a semi-autonomous Web land — and the network announced yesterday in a memo that it had added “a new logo, new beats and fresh, inventive editorial.” CNN assumed full control of CNNMoney this week; it had shared management with other outlets.
CNN.com’s politics stuff will get a similar treatment. “We are going to be out there aggressively hiring in the marketplace,” says the New York-based O’Keefe, noting that the hires will be permanent personnel, and not just contractors working on 2016. “We are making a significant commitment to CNN politics and revitalizing it as a site within a site.” The CNN Digital Network registers just shy of 70 million uniques per month.
Here’s a template for one trick that the new-look CNN.com will be trying to duplicate: Last month, in advance of a Republican senatorial primary in Kentucky, CNN national political reporter Peter Hamby turned in an opus titled “How Mitch McConnell crushed the tea party.” From its Web design (sleek and uncluttered) to its structure (narrative, sectioned) to its reporting (deep), the Hamby piece resembled the sort of big splash a reader might encounter not on CNN.com but at the Atlantic, the New Yorker or Politico Magazine.
Then Hamby went on CNN tube to talk about it all, completing what CNNers like to cite as an example of Web-first journalism from the TV world. “It was the first time we put that many hours and manpower into a single piece,” says the 32-year-old Hamby, who started at CNN in 2005. He spent 10 to 14 days immersed in Kentucky politics, free of distractions. “I am able to have space to do stuff like this now,” he says.
Sam Feist, CNN’s Washington bureau chief, vows the makings of a trend. “I think you’re going to see an increasing number of these takeout pieces,” he says. Feist presides over an operation that includes political reporters and anchors, including Jake Tapper, Gloria Borger, John King, Dana Bash and Brianna Keilar. The network’s fresh push on politics, he says, is a “joint venture” between the political team in Washington and the CNN.com folks.
Such collaborations have a history of sputtering at legacy outlets, with the old timers feeding the platform of the past and the youngsters separately blasting away at the platforms of the present. Yet Feist claims that platform agnosticism is driving the process: “We want to be the place where Americans get their politics, whether it’s on TV or online,” he says. O’Keefe says he recently pitched his ideas to the Washington people: “I sat in a room with 50 people . . . and fully expected to get some hard questions and resistance and pushback, and I was to my delight and perhaps surprise received very well.”
A few years back, says Hamby, CNN was too prone to break news on television without first posting a story on CNN.com to mark out its territory. Things have since changed. “The instincts of the editorial staff have changed over past four years, where the first impulse of a reporter if you have news is to get it online,” he says.
CNN.com has an active political vertical that averages just south of 8 million unique visitors a month. Dial back to the month before the 2012 presidential election for a look at the fare. On Oct. 1, 2012, for example, there were stories about how Mitt Romney feels coming into the first debate, Ann Romney talking about her husband, Scott Brown v. Elizabeth Warren in a debate, a Pennsylvania voter ID law, debate expectations, Obama videos, poll results, Obama and his campaign staffers, Romney reassuring donors an ad about outsourcing.
That was a day’s work for CNN.com political people. It’s a lot of content, though it has the feel of a wire service. No surprise there, given that CNN runs a wire service for 185 clients. The commodity news briefs, however, can’t be counted on to shake the shoulders of Washington’s political class. And that’s something that O’Keefe wants to do. “What we really need to do now and plan to do in 2016 is hyper-focus on the audience we want to reach,” he says. “We want the names and the reporting that [are] absolutely essential for the influence makers in Washington.”
Sounds as if CNN.com is moving from a mass audience to a Politico audience. Could a CNN.com version of Mike Allen’s “Playbook” be in the works? O’Keefe nearly laughs off that question. “We won’t be recreating old models in our new way,” he says. The solution, he says, lies in social mobile video — putting politics coverage into short takes customized for platforms like Twitter, Vine, Snapchat, Instagram and others. That’s where the next audience is, says O’Keefe. “Where do we want to be? Do we want to be a big billboard on the highway hoping people will pass by or find our way to them?”
And this video play is a big deal, O’Keefe isn’t shy to assert: “CNN is the original news disrupter, and CNN is disrupting again.” As for competitors, O’Keefe insists that “none of them” is taking this step into video customization — and when he speak of competitors, he’s not just referencing MSNBC and Fox News.
BuzzFeed editor Ben Smith, which partnered with O’Keefe’s NowThisNews on video, calls O’Keefe an “an incredibly talented, thoughtful guy.”
Wire-style news, magazine-style takeouts, television, social mobile video — can CNN’s politics people do all this stuff at once? Hamby: “CNN is still enormous, it is huge.”
*The CNN Ed O’Keefe is not and is not related to the Washington Post Ed O’Keefe.