Executive helps cable news giant face fresh challenges, out-Fox rivals

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When Jim Walton took over as head of CNN News Group in early 2003, Ad Age had just named it a "brand in trouble." This month, Mr. Walton will slice the cake for the cable news network's silver anniversary, optimistic about the progress he's made.

A CNN lifer, Mr. Walton, 46, worked his way up from an entry-level video journalist after graduating from the University of Maryland in 1981. He's now president of CNN News Group's assets: the domestic CNN and CNN Headline News, CNN International and CNN.com.

He's navigating the network through perhaps its biggest challenges since it dispelled its "Chicken Noodle News" nickname in the early `80s-dealing with a noisy competitor, an onslaught of attack blogs and, of course, a generation that knows more about Google than Watergate.

But Mr. Walton is confident-maybe even a little Ted Turner-esque-in CNN's strengths. Last December, he tapped CBS News veteran Jon Klein to lead CNN U.S. and in February began counter-programming CNN's prime-time schedule with an entertainment-oriented Headline News lineup. He's reinvigorating CNN.com, whose 22 million unique viewers make it the leading TV news site, by moving this month from a subscription-based to a free model. Come fall, it will feature multiple live feeds. He's also integrating CNN's individual assets, such as simulcasting CNN International on the domestic network over the noon hour.

"There was so much noise about one of our competitors versus one of our networks and quite frankly it was just bull," he said. "We're CNN . . . the greatest news organization, one of the most recognized brands in the world. Let's break down these silos within our division. And with the sum of our parts, nobody can touch us."

`ONE OF ONE'

The main competitor-the one Mr. Walton rarely mentions by name-is, of course, Fox News.

"Without sounding arrogant, CNN is one of one," Mr. Walton said. "We're the only real global news organization and our goal, to put it simply, is we want to practice good journalism-we want to always be accurate, we want to be timely, we want to report without bias and we want to take you to where the news is." He lists CNN's brand attributes-integrity, class, innovation.

Perhaps what most underscores the network's reputation is that it's still the top news destination when major stories break; ratings for coverage of the Pope's death, Terri Schiavo developments and the Atlanta courtroom shootings all outpaced Fox by double digits.

"Jim has intelligently and without fanfare re-engineered the CNN News Group to position it for long-term success, while managing with aplomb the daily journalistic and operating challenges that come with a 24-hour global news and information business," said Phil Kent, chairman-CEO of Turner Broadcasting. "His leadership in leveraging the full breadth of the CNN portfolio to tell stories to new audiences, particularly on emerging platforms, is shaping the evolution of CNN and the way consumers will use it in the future."

CNN touts that it's closing the gap in the 25 to 54 demographic-in the pre-Jon Klein era, CNN trailed Fox by 136%; in April that number had been cut to 55%. Newcomer Nancy Grace, despite near constant criticism from bloggers, has been a savior to Headline News, leading the network past MSNBC for a third place prime time finish. And Paula Zahn is finally beginning to find footing with viewers. Her April ratings are up 66% over last year's time period in TV news' coveted 25-54 demographic.

As for the broadcasters, "There's a bigger issue for CBS and ABC news," Mr. Walton said. "It's very expensive to cover news. And unfortunately for CBS and ABC, they're not able to scale their investments whereas NBC has MSNBC and MSNBC.com."

CNN is tightlipped about revenue, though it will acknowledge last year saw "record profit growth." At a recent earnings call, Jeff Bewkes, Time Warner's president- entertainment and networks group, predicted CNN will do better in the upfront than the overall cable market, which is projected to grow anywhere from 6% to 11%.

"I'm certainly not going to argue with Jeff," Mr. Walton said.

Just Asking

You worked at CNN during Ted Turner's reign. What kind of lessons did you learn? To go with your gut and not be afraid to challenge the status quo. Ted always encouraged you to be a dreamer.

Favorite TV show: "The Sopranos"

Favorite sports team: Nebraska Corn Huskers-my parents are both from Nebraska. My father says the first time I put words together as a toddler it was "Go Big Red."

What book is on the nightstand? Jack Welch's new book, "Winning."

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