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The FishbowlDC Interview: CNN’s KC Estenson Looks Into His Digital Crystal Ball

Subject: Ken “KC” Estenson

Job title: Senior VP and GM of CNN.com, responsible for all aspects of CNN.com’s business endeavors. Named to this position in September 2008, Estenson is based in CNN’s world headquarters in Atlanta and reports to Susan Grant, executive vice president of CNN News Services. Previously employed: The Walt Disney Company, where Estenson oversaw the digital media businesses Disney’s cable networks including Disney Channel Worldwide, SOAPnet and ABC Family. In 2007, Estenson received a Primetime Emmy® Award for Excellence in Interactive Television Programming for ABC Family’s Fallen Alternate Reality Game. Location of breakfast interview: Four Seasons Hotel, Georgetown, Washington, D.C.

Where he lives: Atlanta since 2008 Born: Portland, Ore. until age 3 Formative years: Sacramento, Calif. “It’s a cool little city. I look back with such jealousy and envy. So whatever, I can hike in the Sierra’s on a Tuesday afternoon, I would die to do that. People say Atlanta’s got great access to the outdoors. It really doesn’t. The thing about Atlanta is it’s got a real rebel soul to it, really good restaurants, they like to party, people are really nice and it’s a football crazy city. You get the four seasons (not the hotel), and that airport will get you anywhere in the world. It’s not an airport to love, it’s just an airport that gets you where it needs you to go.” Smarty-pants: B.A. in political science with honors from St. Mary’s College of California; the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He also earned a master’s of education from Harvard University.

Thoughts on Facebook: No. Here’s my thing with Facebook. When I first came to CNN, I was heavily spammed by political extremists and so I severely curtailed my Facebook interaction. Before I came to CNN, I had donated money to a campaign, and as a matter of course at CNN, we don’t have formal affiliations. When I joined I had to write the campaign and ask for my money back to be clean and clear. They happily refunded by 50 dollars. I had friended the campaign and they put a badge on my page. So we get contacted all the time, from advocacy groups. They seem to think I have control over what CNN puts on its programs. I started getting emails and phone calls, and then on Facebook, 800 to 1000 friends. There’s so many people on there, you don’t know who’s in there. So I locked it up to be as private as I can. I use it only to calibrate Faceboook usage of other sites. No updates. Twitter habits: I do tweet. I use Twitter more than Facebook. So you were getting harassed. This was back in ‘09. So, yes. But I also feel like I get harassed when [CNN digital publicist] Matt Dornic texts me.

What’s your guilty TV watching pleasure? Game of Thrones, Homeland, Top Chef, Bravo real estate shows, I have two TVs in my office, they are on all the time. I absolutely love TV, but I consume it in a playlisted time-shifted way along with live sports and live news. I love the X Factor. I watch it with my kids. I watch The Voice. I like Christina Aguilera, she’s cute. And Adam. And Blake.

Washington, D.C.: “I actually really do like it here. I usually make a couple trips up here a year. Due to the nature of my work, I go to San Francisco a lot more with the technology as well as New York. I feel refreshed by the people I get to hang out with when I visit. Everyone here is really smart and really into our country, they’re plugged in, informed. You don’t get that broad based person in other cities. The people I hang out with in San Francisco do not watch television.” Hotel of choice: Four Seasons and the Ritz with Sports Club LA. Georgetown is my favorite part of D.C. I like it’s history, character, shops, running on the canal.

Managing digital employees around the world: We place our digital people globally, in, for example, London, Hong Kong, and Dubai. I manage 250-300 employees, so I travel a ton. Sadly, Washington is not a city I get to as much as I like, but CNN obviously has a big presence here. List your gadgets: iphone5, ipad, Samsung Galaxy 3s, Macbook Air. I do not use a PC in any shape or form. I like to make sure CNN is working on all platforms. High end set of headphones.

How do you feel about CNN being compared to Fox News and MSNBC? I don’t look at them at all as competition to CNN digital. When you look at sum total of CNN, they are in different leagues. CNN far surpasses what Fox does, and certainly MSNBC as well. As far as political position, I like CNN’s stance. I think it’s respected for being non-partisan. Does it amaze you that Fox News earns such high ratings? No. All the more conservative people watch more television. Younger, better traveled, more integrated people are not watching television as much in primetime. Those people who are living interesting lives are out living those interesting lives. They’re out at a play or to a movie. I honestly think that is in some ways why The Daily Show and Colbert come on so late.

A look into your crystal ballKC’s thoughts on the future of CNN.com: I do believe that people who are in their twenties now are expecting very different things out of their television. They’re getting their news and information in an entirely different way. The people who come to our website are in their late 30’s early 40s, so you’re talking about generational differences. You get beyond the core news of the day, the things that interest those people start to vary. Digital platforms are much broader, entertainment stories, fashion, arts, culture, with kind of equal weight to the core news of the day. The way I think about that is…there are the things you need to know and there are the things you want to know to be interesting when you go and talk to other people. Thoughts on gossip coverage: I think there is a natural curiosity. It’s a tawdry word. I’m not a huge fan if it’s rumor. But a story like the Jesse Jackson Jr. story is fair game online? Unapologetically. Jesse Jackson Jr.? Sure, why not? Health and Human Services angle and the effects of depression, which millions of people cope with everyday.

Thoughts on CNN’s new head honcho Jeff Zucker: Jeff hasn’t started yet. If his past is any indication, I would say I’m very excited about him coming on board. He’s going to bring a passion to the news, similar to what I just described. He’s got a good history of taking risks and trying to innovate. On a human level, I really like to work for people who have taken risks and have both success and challenge in taking those risks. I prefer that to working for someone with a sterling record who has never had a mistake in their lives. What’s your vision for CNN Digital, this time more specifically: There’s near term things and long term things. In the near term, my hope is that CNN will continue to deepen and broaden its relevance to people. It needs to be part of the daily media diet. In many ways, the world needs CNN now more than ever. We are the source and outlet for news and we have a robust business. This year we are going to post our most profitable year ever. A lot of publications and news outlets have been making cuts. If we can figure out how to direct our reporting into those areas, we can pick up audience that has historically gone to those sources to be informed.

Daily output: We write pieces, we do investigations, we do both long and short form stories. It’s partially an execution area. We are not as robust and staffed in high quality writers as I’d like us to be. The perception is that people don’t necessarily think about going to CNN for that kind of reportage. We’re not going to push that messaging hard until we have a product that we believe in. The fact is, 8 to 10 million people come to CNN.com everyday. Over the long haul, I am really interested in what is going to happen to the television when the Internet connects to it. I do believe CNN will be very uniquely positioned to take advantage of that change. We create all of our reporting…we do all of reporting in first position. We do not have AP or Reuters. If you think of your television screen as a giant computer screen…there’s so many possibilities there. That’s kind of my long term geek passion. Sites you go to regularly: I am a huge fan of New York Magazine. And I feel like what Adam Moss did was to make it edgy, interesting, and culturally influential while still being up on news makes it a must read. I am a big fan of The Daily Beast and the Beast is absolutely in my diet. Bleacher Report, ESPN. In general I have a deep reverence and respect for the New York Times, except for Tuesdays when they focus on Science.  I love the LA Times as I lived in LA for almost 10 years. They go deep into the entertainment business. The reboot of The Hollywood Reporter is also strong. I do not read Roll Call

Where are you on commenters? Should any and all be allowed? Community commenting is an important part of every news site and we love our audience at CNN. I do believe, however, that if you want to participate in the discussion, you should have to use your true identity. A few years ago, that wasn’t technically feasible, but by implementing cross-registration with Facebook and Twitter and Google+, that aspiration is becoming easier for us to implement.  It’s amazing how the quality of discourse rises when everyone commenting knows who they are chatting with. What is your typical day? I start every morning with my cell phone in my hand–reading through our internal briefing notes and catching up on the overnight news through CNNi.com.  I’m a coffee geek, so I’m using brewing a pour-over cup in my Chemex or pulling a shot (or three) of Espresso while I listen to NPR. I would be the saddest American if I couldn’t have my coffee over NPR every morning. If you could implement one new idea right now onto CNN.com what would it be? I would make our television network totally interactive.  As the Internet comes to the television, the whole paradigm of watching that giant screen is going to change radically.  I can’t wait for that day.

 

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