The week is far from over, but already it has been a reckoning for TV networks hurtling toward an omnimedia future. They have aggressively built websites and apps that serve not just video, their core competency, but also podcasts, native ad content and, riskiest of all, print journalism.
In this last arena, CNN's reputation took a major hit. On Monday, three pedigreed print journalists—Thomas Frank, Eric Lichtblau and Lex Haris—resigned their posts from a new investigative unit after CNN retracted a story on its website. The story, based on a single source, said that a Russian bank linked to a close ally of President Trump was under investigation by the Senate.
The furor over the retraction, which gave the administration fresh ammunition for its crusade against the media, eclipsed a separate but related development at Fox Sports. The division decided to cut 20 writing and editing positions, redirecting the budget for them to online video production.
ESPN, which continues to deliver text-based reports along with multimedia sports content, has struggled over the years to arrive at a proper balance. Its president, John Skipper, clashed with Bill Simmons, who launched the prestigious but money-losing Grantland site. The network parted ways with Simmons in 2015 and soon after dissolved Grantland.
At roughly the same time, Jason Whitlock, who was shepherding a new ESPN site devoted to minorities and sports called the Undefeated, was let go after a host of internal problems. (Whitlock has since moved to Fox Sports, and a more streamlined version of the Undefeated did eventually launch.) While ESPN has continued to invest in nonvideo online assets like data purveyor FiveThirtyEight.com, the Simmons and Whitlock issues, along with the larger economic pressures of video subscriber losses and Disney-instigated cost cutting, prompted a reset.
CNN is balancing on an even higher wire, given the level of competition it faces on air and online. Its linear ratings are up, but it has fallen behind Fox News and MSNBC on weeknights. It has endured PR crises in recent weeks when former contributors Kathy Griffin and Reza Aslan were dropped after separate anti-Trump spasms, and a previous online correction this month reportedly enraged President Jeff Zucker. After that correction, systems were put in place that were designed to avoid the exact scenario that unfolded this week.
Of course, one of the ironies of TV networks being ensnared by print-style problems is that major print outlets, from newspapers to magazines, are all feverishly driving in the other direction, toward video production. Troubled Time Inc. is laying off staff but launching ad-supported OTT services. Tronc—that infamously renamed Tribune newspaper spinoff—sees its future not as shoe-leather reporting and holding public institutions accountable, but as a geyser of video segments targeted at viewers through “machine learning.”
The grass may always be greener, but media companies may be starting to see the virtue of staying on one side of the fence.