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News Investment

News Investment

By the Project for Excellence in Journalism


The election year brought big changes to cable news, not just in the content but also in branding. CNN and Fox News both increased their overall spending by much greater percentages than MSNBC. But MSNBC gained perhaps the most attention for what it did with the little resources it had.

MSNBC built on the ratings success of its liberal hosts by adding Rachel Maddow. But some critics also questioned whether the channel’s ideological take on the news was carried too far. Fox News, the favorite of conservatives, extended the contracts of its most popular personalities and signed like-minded Glenn Beck, who had been at HLN.

And evidence in a 2008 PEJ study confirmed the sense that the three channels now offer three distinctly different products: candidates and pundits favored the channel that complimented their partisan outlook, and shunned the other (see Content chapter).

CNN fell in the ideological middle, and was the only cable channel that mirrored the tone of the media in general.

Other trends were reflected in the organizations’ budgets:

Overall Expenses,* All Cable News Channels (Estimated)

1999 – 2008, by channel
Design Your Own Chart

Source: SNL Kagan, a division of SNL Financial LLC
*Includes programming as well as general/administrative expenses

Investing in the News

The major cable news channels together were projected to invest $1.5 billion in the news last year, a 7% increase in spending from $1.4 billion the year before.

CNN, combined with sibling HLN, was projected spend the most, $721.5 million, up 5% from $686.3 million in 2007. That is 18% more than its nearest cable rival.

Cable News Total Spending* (Estimated)
2007-2008, in Millions of Dollars

Channel 2007 Projected 2007 Actual 2008 Projected
CNN/HLN 686.8 686.3 721.5
Fox News 486.6 521.4 611.1
MSNBC 191.1 191.7 211.2

Source: SNL Kagan, a division of SNL Financial LLC
*Note: Includes programming as well as general/administrative expenses

Cable News Staffing (Self-Reported)

Total staff (2007) Total staff (2008) Bureaus (2007) Bureaus (2008)
CNN/HLN 4,000 4,000 36 46*
Fox News 1,200 1,200 12 17
MSNBC 600 600** 0 0

*CNN calls its bureaus “editorial operations,” which include its addition of  all-platform journalists to some new cities in 2008
**MSNBC did not report a staff number for 2008 to PEJ. They also share bureau resources with NBC News.

Cable News Domestic Bureaus, 2008

Atlanta Atlanta Atlanta
Boston Boston Burbank
Chicago Chicago Chicago
Dallas Dallas Dallas
Denver Denver Washington
Los Angeles Los Angeles
Miami Miami
Minneapolis New York
New Orleans San Francisco
New York Seattle
Orlando Washington
San Francisco

Source: The channels.
Note: MSNBC uses NBC News bureaus. CNN calls its bureaus “editorial operations/bureaus.”

Fox News was expected to spend $611 million in 2008, up 17% from $521 million the year before. Although it has fewer bureaus and staff than CNN, it has built a newsgathering operation outside of its well-known slate of opinion-oriented programming.

Cable News Foreign Bureaus, 2008

Latin America Latin America Latin America
Bogota Havana
Buenos Aires
Mexico City
Europe Europe Europe
Berlin Paris Frankfurt
Istanbul Rome London
London London Moscow
Madrid Moscow
Middle East Middle East Middle East
Abu Dhabi Jerusalem Amman
Amman Baghdad
Baghdad Tel Aviv
Africa Africa Africa
Cairo Cairo
Asia Asia Asia
Bangkok Hong Kong Bangkok
Beijing Beijing
Chennai Hong Kong
Hong Kong Tokyo
New Delhi

Source: The channels.
Note: MSNBC uses NBC News bureaus. CNN calls its bureaus “editorial operations/bureaus.”

MSNBC, as in past years, was projected to invest the least in the news in 2008. The channel shares the extensive resources of NBC News in its New York headquarters, where they also share space. In 2008, MSNBC was projected to spend $211 million on the news, 10% more than the $192 million it spent in 2007. The channel has no bureaus of its own.

To see how that money is spent, it is useful to break down the resources inside each channel.1


Launched in 1980, CNN was the first American all-news cable channel, and it continued to be the most global and have the largest infrastructure. CNN and HLN in 2008 had nearly 4,000 employees worldwide, and CNN had 13 bureaus in the United States and 33 abroad (HLN has no independent bureaus).

CNN and HLN Expenses (Estimated)
2006-2008, in Millions of Dollars

2006 2007 2008
Total Expenses 654.1 686.3 721.5
Programming Expenses 273.7 288.8 310.4
General/Admin 380.4 397.5 411.0

Source: SNL Kagan, a division of SNL Financial LLC

CNN Staffing

Getting a breakdown of how many of the 4,000 CNN employees are engaged in gathering news is more difficult. The network does not break that number down.

One rough proxy for news staff is to examine the numbers that CNN provides to the News Media Yellow Book, a quarterly publication that lists staff contacts for leading news media organizations in the United States.

This list is self-reported by CNN. The people listed are all news people, including top management, staff assigned to various desks such as national, international, and medical, as well as nine national bureaus, staff assigned to specific national programs, such as Lou Dobbs Tonight or Anderson Cooper 360. (It does not include technical, sales and promotional staff.)

But the list does offer some sign of year-to-year changes. The number of CNN staff in the spring 2008 edition, which represents 8% of the network’s reported overall staff, was up 7% from 2007. (It is only 3% higher than in 2005, when PEJ began logging the data, which suggests that CNN’s core news staffing has remained relatively steady over recent years.)

CNN’s number of bureaus rose in 2008, from 36 to 46, with 13 domestically and 33 abroad.

One major development in the bureau system was the decision to expand the number of one-person outposts for domestic coverage in 2008. In August 2008 the news channel announced the creation of what it called “all-platform journalists” in 10 U.S. cities. They were assigned to Philadelphia; Seattle; Columbus; Denver; Houston; Las Vegas; Orlando; Phoenix; Raleigh; and Minneapolis. Some staff were relocated from existing CNN bureaus (see below for more on the new journalists).

These all-platform journalists are equipped with cameras and equipment to edit and transmit live from the scene of news.2 The idea was to expand the reach of the network without incurring the cost of a traditional bureau staffed with reporters, producers, camera and sound crews and support staff.

The new, “one-man-band” journalists will double the number of American cities in which CNN correspondents are posted. “Technology is allowing us to pare down to that one person who can deliver the product,” said Nancy Lane, senior vice president for newsgathering for CNN/U.S.3

CNN Programming

Besides the all-platform journalists, another development in the CNN newsroom in 2008 was the intensified focus on an even smaller range of subject matter, something introduced by its rivals as well. That meant an emphasis on politics above all other matters. In January, just after the primary season had begun, CNN premiered CNN Election Center in its 8 p.m. weekday prime-time slot, where Out In the Open with Rick Sanchez had been.

The Associated Press quoted the CNN/U.S. president, Jonathan Klein, as saying about the new show, “There is no question that this political campaign is bewitching viewers. We’re having so much fun covering it that we wanted to do more of it on the air.”4 After the election, Election Center was replaced by Campbell Brown’s new show, No Bias, No Bull. Brown’s program, fashioned around the concept of holding politicians accountable for their actions, appeared to resonate with audiences in the months following the election.

Sanchez was given a weekday afternoon slot as host of CNN Newsroom. There, Sanchez introduced Twitter, the online social networking tool, into the show. With it he invites listeners to “become part of the conversation” by posting comments he reads on the air.

CNN’s morning show, American Morning, faced stiff competition from MSNBC’s successful Morning Joe in 2008. In March, American Morning’s host, John Roberts, spoke about the show’s future, saying it would include more ad-libbing and a slightly looser format, echoing the formula that contributed to Morning Joe’s success.

Programming Schedule, October 2008

6 a.m. American Morning Morning Express w/ Robin Meade
7 a.m. American Morning Morning Express w/ Robin Meade
8 a.m. American Morning Morning Express w/ Robin Meade
9 a.m. CNN Newsroom Morning Express w/ Robin Meade
10 a.m. CNN Newsroom Headline News
11 a.m. CNN Newsroom Headline News
12 p.m. CNN Newsroom Headline News
1 p.m. CNN Newsroom Headline News
2 p.m. CNN Newsroom Headline News
3 p.m. CNN Newsroom Headline News
4 p.m. The Situation Room Headline News
5 p.m. The Situation Room Prime News
6 p.m. The Situation Room Prime News
7 p.m. Lou Dobbs Tonight Not Just Another Cable News Show
8 p.m. Campbell Brown: Election Center Nancy Grace
9 p.m. Larry King Live Not Just Another Cable News Show replay
10 p.m. Anderson Cooper 360 Nancy Grace replay
11 p.m. Anderson Cooper 360 Showbiz Tonight
Midnight Larry King Live replay Not Just ANother Cable News Show replay
1 a.m. Anderson Cooper 360 replay Nancy Grace replay
2 a.m. Anderson Cooper 360 replay Showbiz Tonight replay
3 a.m. Larry King Live replay Headline News
4 a.m. Lou Dobbs Tonight replay Headline News
5 a.m. Anderson Cooper 360 replay Headline News

Source: Respective websites
Note: All times Eastern

There were also changes at HLN. In 2005, the channel replaced its typical headlines-only “wheel” format with prime-time programs. It maintained a steady lineup through 2006 and 2007, led by the conservative talk show host Glenn Beck at 7 p.m. in the East and Nancy Grace’s justice-themed interview/debate show at 8 p.m. That prime-time programming was shaken up in October when Beck, who was up for a contract renewal, was signed by Fox News to start a 5 p.m. program as well as a weekend show.

After Beck’s departure, HLN put a new show in his old slot called Issues With Jane Velez-Mitchell. Velez-Mitchell’s program expands on the courtroom-related themes that appear in Grace’s.


MSNBC began as a joint venture between NBC News and Microsoft in 1996, and was taken over exclusively by NBC in 2006. From the start, it had relied on its bigger corporate sibling for resources. The news channel offered a way to amortize the cost of NBC newsgathering across more platforms and programs. But for years, with ratings low, the expenses were kept on a leash. Now, with ratings rising, things have loosened up a bit.

SNL Kagan projected that MSNBC would spend $211 million overall on the news in 2008, less than a third of what CNN spends, but still up 10% from the $192 million the year before. Those figures, however, are somewhat deceptive. MSNBC’s overall expenses are illustrative of the extent to which it borrows newsgathering resources from NBC News. That reliance can be seen particularly in looking at the category of expenses not tied to producing specific programs, its more general newsgathering expenses. In 2008, MSNBC was projected to spend $46 million on selling, general and administrative costs, just 22% of its total spending.

MSNBC Expenses 2006-2008, in Millions of Dollars (Estimated)

2006 2007 2008
Total Expenses 186.5 191.7 211.2
Programming Expenses 138.4 146.0 164.3
General/Admin. 48.1 45.7 46.9

Source: SNL Kagan, a division of SNL Financial LLC

MSNBC Staffing

MSNBC has no domestic bureaus of its own, relying on NBC, which had six in 2008.

As with CNN, one measure of MSNBC’s core news staff is the News Media Yellow Book tally, which gauges, if imperfectly, the annual changes at the channel. According to the spring 2008 edition, MSNBC news staffing (it listed 6% of MSNBC’s overall staff) was down 8% from 2007. These Yellow Book numbers, however, are self-reported and only partial. They represent only a fraction of the 600 total staffers that MSNBC identified as its payroll for 2007 (2008 staff numbers were not provided by MSNBC), although it is unclear, as with the others, how many of these are news-gathering staff.

MSNBC Programming

The most talked-about programming development of 2008 involved a prime-time switch. In September, MSNBC gave liberal Air America radio talk show host Rachel Maddow her own show, bumping The Verdict With Dan Abrams from its 9 p.m. slot. The decision drew an increase in ratings (see audience), but was criticized by some as moving the network farther to the left, a formula that, nevertheless, may pay off in the long run for MSNBC.

Maddow, who had been serving as an MSNBC commentator, had been a favorite guest on Keith Olbermann’s show, which now precedes her program.

The schedule shift was Abrams’ second in 2008, after the show’s first incarnation as Live With Dan Abrams. (Abrams remained at MSNBC as a legal analyst.)

Programming Schedule, October 2008

6 a.m Morning Joe
7 a.m. Morning Joe
8 a.m. Morning Joe
9 a.m. MSNBC Live
10 a.m. MSNBC Live
11 a.m. MSNBC Live
12 p.m. MSNBC Live
1 p.m. MSNBC Live
2 p.m. MSNBC Live
3 p.m. MSNBC Live
4 p.m. MSNBC Live
5 p.m. Hardball with Chris Matthews
6 p.m. Race for the White House*
7 p.m. Hardball with Chris Matthews replay
8 p.m. Countdown with Keith Olbermann
9 p.m. The Rachel Maddow Show
10 p.m. Countdown (replay)
11 p.m. Rachel Maddow (replay)
Midnight Hardball (replay)
1 a.m. Hardball (replay)
2 a.m. Rachel Maddow (replay)
3 a.m. Hardball (replay)
4 a.m. Hardball (replay)
5 a.m. First Look

Source: MSNBC website
Note: All times Eastern
* After the November 2008 election, Race for the White House was replaced by 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

With eyes turned to the presidential race in 2008, MSNBC’s programming and content strategies received a lot of attention.

Much of this focused on the role of MSNBC’s opinionated talk show hosts as the marquee figures at the cable channel.

Early in the year, MSNBC President Phil Griffin had given two of the network’s most popular prime-time talk show hosts the job of anchoring MSNBC’s primary nights and convention coverage: Keith Olbermann, whose on-air commentaries frequently feature a liberal bent, and Chris Matthews, who worked as a staffer to several Democratic lawmakers and ran unsuccessfully in 1974 for a Democratic congressional seat in Pennsylvania. (Matthews considered running for the Senate in 2010 but told his staff later that he would not make the run.)5

Using partisan talk show hosts as anchors was a departure from the traditional practice of leaving anchor duties to straight-news personalities who mediate between commentators. The network’s leftward lean raised the ire of conservatives.

During the Republican convention, the McCain campaign publicly criticized Olbermann for on-air comments he made as anchor. Olbermann had criticized a Republican video tribute to the victims of the New York September 11 attacks, saying that the video was “exploiting the memories of the dead.”6

Other incidents also drew concern, not just for their partisan tinge, but for the squabbling tone they conveyed. When Joe Scarborough, a former Republican congressman and now an MSNBC morning show host, praised the McCain campaign for what appeared to be a comeback, Olbermann mocked him on the air. Olbermann’s words, “Jesus, Joe, why don’t you go get a shovel?” prompted an awkward onscreen argument.7

Former NBC anchorman Tom Brokaw soon criticized the two pundits’ coverage. At a panel in Denver, where the Democrats held their nominating convention, Brokaw said that both Olbermann and Matthews had “crossed the line” in their coverage.8 Brokaw, according to some sources, was a major catalyst in the decision by Jeff Zucker, the head of NBC, to remove them from the anchor role (see Ownership for more).9

In making that change, Zucker reiterated separate and different identities at the two channels. (Olbermann and Matthews were returned to the anchor seat, however, during MSNBC’s coverage of the presidential inauguration in January 2009.)

At the same time, NBC news correspondents and analysts continued to be a major part of MSNBC programming. In March of 2008, the network canceled Tucker, its 6 p.m. weekday prime-time show, and replaced it with Race for the White House with David Gregory. Once Gregory was tapped in November to host Meet the Press, Washington correspondent David Shuster took his place at MSNBC. NBC foreign affairs correspondent Andrea Mitchell was also given an anchor role for MSNBC’s weekday coverage from 1 to 2 p.m.

Other NBC correspondents, including Brian Williams, Chuck Todd and Tom Brokaw, continued to appear as guests on the cable sibling, as well.

All this raised some questions about whether viewers recognized the different brands, and whether that helped or hindered the larger corporate strategy that NBC once hoped for — extending the NBC brand across multiple platforms (see Ownership). For MSNBC, however, the future seems fairly clear for now. After years of struggle with ratings, it has found traction with an ideological approach, and hosts like Olbermann are likely to be at the center of things, if not necessarily in the anchor chair. In November, his contract was extended for four years, through the 2012 presidential election.

Fox News

Fox News entered the U.S. cable news scene at the same time as MSNBC, in 1996, but without the larger corporate support. In the past 12 years, as it built itself into the ratings leader, the channel has continued to increase its spending on newsgathering.

According to Kagan estimates, the bulk of Fox News’ spending was projected to be in its programming, as opposed to its general newsgathering and administrative costs. (The reverse is true for CNN). That appears to reflect the fact that the Fox News is built less around a system of bureaus internationally and domestically and more around prominent show hosts, particularly in prime time.

Fox News Expenses (Estimated)
2006-2008, in Millions of Dollars

2006 2007 2008
Total Expenses 472.5 521.4 611.1
Programming Expenses 316.3 354.2 432.2
General/Admin. 156.2 167.2 178.9

Source: SNL Kagan, a division of SNL Financial LLC

Fox staffing

In terms of its on-the-ground operations, Fox News had 11 domestic bureaus in the U.S. in 2008 and it lists six international bureaus – in Hong Kong, Paris, Rome, Jerusalem, London and Moscow. In 2008, there were 1,200 total employees at Fox News’s U.S. operations, according to the network’s own reporting. PEJ’s analysis of the spring 2008 News Media Yellow Book found that the number of people it listed in 2008 represented 18% of the reported overall staff. The Yellow Book total was 16% higher than Fox News listed in 2007.

Fox Programming

In 2008, there were a few changes in personnel at Fox News, an exception for the channel’s steady lineup, which continued to bring in the highest ratings among all the cable news channels.

Fox News
Programming Schedule, October 2008

Time Fox News
6 a.m. Fox & Friends First
7 a.m. Fox & Friends
8 a.m. Fox & Friends
9 a.m. America’s Newsroom
10 a.m. America’s Newsroom
11 a.m. Happening Now
12 p.m. Happening Now
1 p.m. Live Desk With Martha and Trace
2 p.m. Fox News Live
3 p.m. Studio B with Shepard Smith
4 p.m. Your World with Neil Cavuto
5 p.m. America’s Election HQ*
6 p.m. Special Report with Brit Hume
7 p.m. Fox Report with Shepard Smith
8 p.m. O’Reilly Factor
9 p.m. Hannity & Colmes
10 p.m. On The Record with Greta Van Susteren
11 p.m. O’Reilly Factor (replay)
Midnight O’Reilly Factor (replay)
1 a.m. Greta Van Susteren (replay)
2 a.m. Brit Hume (replay)
3 a.m. Red Eye with Greg Gutfeld
4 a.m. O’Reilly Factor (replay)
5 a.m. O’Reilly Factor (replay)

Source: Fox News website
Note: All times Eastern
*Replaced in November by Glenn Beck

Of the few programming changes made by Fox News, the main one capitalized on heightened interest in the election. America’s Election HQ took over for The Big Story With Gibson & Nauert in the 5 p.m. weekday slot.

Glenn Beck, the conservative host for HLN, left that channel in October and began his new program on Fox News in January 2009.

Two of Fox News’ most popular personalities, Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly, signed contracts in October that will keep them with the cable network through 2012.

In November, it was announced that Alan Colmes, Hannity’s liberal counterpart, would leave the show they co-hosted at the end of 2008. In December, it was announced that Hannity would remain on the show as its sole host.

And one of the network’s mainstays, anchor Britt Hume, retired after 12 years with Fox News and 35 years in journalism. The channel’s chief White House correspondent, Bret Baier, took over in his spot at Special Report.


1. Media research firm SNL Kagan divides its projected total spending into two main categories: selling, general and administrative, and programming expenses. General and administrative accounts for the overhead required to run the channel generally, such as bureaus and correspondents not tied to any specific show. Programming expenses refer to costs directly attributable to the production of specific programs. There is, however, enough flexibility in how channels can account between the two categories that the larger, aggregated figures, tell a more accurate story.

2. Chris Ariens, “New Bureaus, New Kind of Journos for CNN,” TVNewser, August 12, 2008

3. Brian Stelter, “TV Networks Rewrite the Definition of a News Bureau,” New York Times, August 12, 2008

4. David Bauder, “CNN Launches Nightly Election Wrap,” Associated Press, January 15, 2008

5. Bill Carter, “Political Futures: From TV to the Senate?” New York Times, October 21, 2008

6. Howard Kurtz, “MSNBC Drops Olbermann, Matthews as News Anchors,” Washington Post, September 8, 2008

7. Howard Kurtz, “MSNBC Drops Olbermann, Matthews as News Anchors,” Washington Post, September 8, 2008

8. Howard Kurtz, “MSNBC’s Family Feud,” Washington Post, September 1, 2008

9. Felix Gillette, “Hard Fall: What Happened to NBC?” New York Observer, September 9, 2008