- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 23, 2011

CNN sent 11 crews to cover Japan’s earthquake and tsunami, including headliners Anderson Cooper and Sanjay Gupta. Anchors Wolf Blitzer and Piers Morgan were elsewhere last week: Mr. Blitzer hosting his evening newscast from France, Egypt and Tunisia and Mr. Morgan heading to Israel to interview Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The deployment was the most visible example yet of new domestic chief Ken Jautz’s vision of CNN as a substantive news network that takes full advantage of its company’s newsgathering heft to concentrate more on journalism and a wide range of stories and less on political debate.

The abundance of news from Japan, Egypt and Libya makes this a particularly well-timed strategy. CNN is leading MSNBC in prime-time viewership in March. If that holds up, it will be the network’s first time in second place, behind Fox News Channel, in the cable-news ratings since January 2010, the Nielsen Co. said. CNN’s weekday prime-time audience is up 28 percent this year compared with the last three months of 2010. MSNBC is up 5 percent and Fox down 8 percent in the same period.

During the past few difficult years, CNN seemed more defined by what it took pains to say it wasn’t — a partisan talk network — than what it was.

“It’s important to stand out by being different,” says Mr. Jautz, a longtime CNN executive who replaced Jon Klein in the fall at the helm of the domestic network. “If much of the cable space is politically oriented and partisan politically oriented, the way to be different is … to talk about different subject matters and approach it differently.”

Mr. Jautz isn’t afraid of opinion. As head of the HLN network, he gave Glenn Beck a job. However, he wants all points of view represented. He doesn’t like the term nonpartisan, preferring “aggressively independent.” Mr. Jautz’s background is deeply rooted in international news.

CNN has built the biggest infrastructure in U.S. television news, partly with the help of moneymaking sister networks in CNN International and HLN. Because it collects advertising revenue as well as subscriber fees from cable and satellite systems and its main business is news, CNN has an advantage over advertiser-dependent broadcast networks that are cutting back in staff and relying more on video news services for images overseas.

Over the past few years, it was hard to tell that CNN had such a large international presence. CNN International, though produced out of the same Atlanta headquarters as the domestic network, might just as well have been part of another company.

Under Mr. Jautz during current big international stories, CNN has begun featuring news talent from CNN International. Hala Gorani has co-anchored newscasts on the main network and reported from Egypt alongside Mr. Cooper. Isha Sesay co-anchored Mr. Blitzer’s “Situation Room” while he was on the road last week.

“It certainly is noticeable that the network is using its news resources to cover hard news stories in ways in which its competition just can’t do,” says David Bernknopf, a 20-year CNN hand who now operates his own video production company, referring to an advantage CNN has in staffing.

CNN’s hope is to create a contrast and make it appear that rivals Fox and MSNBC are one-dimensional, with a focus on political arguments.

Even before the recent rush of breaking news, Mr. Jautz says, he tried to vary CNN’s output to avoid the frequent tendency in cable news to concentrate on one story to the exclusion of most others. He also says he wants a greater consistency in tone among different CNN broadcasts.

“You have to be a place where people have an expectation of you and you fulfill their expectations,” he says.

He also says he wants CNN to be a network where viewers learn something when they tune in. That doesn’t mean turning its back on stories — celebrity items, for example — that don’t fit some people’s definition of serious news.

A model for CNN could be NPR, which has built a strong business as a substantive news network despite management troubles, Mr. Bernknopf says.

“There’s a very discernible difference in terms of tone and personality and content,” says Frank Sesno, a former CNN Washington bureau chief and now director of the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University. “It helps that there’s about 12,000 global crises taking place all at once because that plays to CNN’s strengths.”