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CNN chief's exit interview: No regrets

By Josh Levs, CNN
updated 4:46 PM EST, Fri December 21, 2012
Jim Walton started at CNN in 1981 as an entry-level video journalist, or VJ. He is stepping down as president of CNN Worldwide. Jim Walton started at CNN in 1981 as an entry-level video journalist, or VJ. He is stepping down as president of CNN Worldwide.
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Jim Walton: The CNN years
Jim Walton: The CNN years
Jim Walton: The CNN years
Jim Walton: The CNN years
Jim Walton: The CNN years
Jim Walton: The CNN years
Jim Walton: The CNN years
Jim Walton: The CNN years
Jim Walton: The CNN years
Jim Walton: The CNN years
Jim Walton: The CNN years
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Friday is Jim Walton's last day at CNN, where he has worked more than half his life
  • Walton worked his way up from an entry-level job to president of CNN Worldwide
  • As he prepared to pack up his office in Atlanta, he agreed to an "exit interview"
  • "It's been a hell of a ride," Walton says

(CNN) -- He's been one of the most powerful figures in the news business for nearly a decade -- not just in the United States but around the world.

Now, after rising from the company's lowest ranks to become president of CNN Worldwide, Jim Walton is leaving the building. Friday is his last day.

"I've been president of this organization for nearly one-third of its existence. I'm proud of that and of what CNN has become, what it stands for and what we've accomplished together," he said in a note to employees.

"Thanks for the long hours, for the understanding families, for the support in tough times, for the laughs all the time and for the courage to do the right thing. You made my job exciting, rewarding and possible."

Walton announced his planned departure in July, saying at the time that "CNN needs new thinking."

Former NBC chief Jeff Zucker will take his place.

In saying farewell, Walton leaves the company where he has worked more than half his life. The 54-year-old began in 1981, a year after CNN was created.

It means letting go of the excitement, but also the burdens -- including one that has vexed him throughout his nine years at the top: turning around prime-time ratings for CNN/U.S., the flagship TV network.

"I'm looking forward to a few months, maybe longer, of not making decisions," he says with a smile. "And then at some point I'll roll my sleeves up and start making decisions again."

He won't say what those decisions might entail, just that he's looking forward to spending time with his wife and two teenage boys and is "excited about the future."

"It's been a hell of a ride," he adds.

As Walton prepared to pack up his office at CNN Center in Atlanta, he agreed to sit down for an "exit interview."

At first, Walton warns that he'll be reticent. "I'm not an impresario. I haven't been one to seek the limelight," he says, adding that he's uncomfortable talking about himself.

But after pressing a hidden button beneath his table that automatically swings the office door closed, Walton steadily opens up about what he'll remember most, what kind of leader he's tried to be and what guided the changes he's made to CNN.

"I try to make good decisions, try to do what's right for the company, for the organization, and not necessarily what's right for me and how I'm going to be perceived," he says.

"I'm very hard on myself, and I try to learn from my mistakes, of which I've made many in my time here. But I don't have regrets, because any mistake that I've made along the way, I've learned from."

He declines to say what some of those mistakes were. When asked about CNN's flub this year, initially reporting that the U.S. Supreme Court had overturned the mandate in President Barack Obama's health care law, Walton shakes his head.

To discuss specific mistakes or regrets is "just not who I am," he says.

He's also mum about specific successes. When asked what he's most proud of, Walton doesn't cite awards, programs or topics CNN covered.

Christiane Amanpour says Walton \
Christiane Amanpour says Walton "saw the whole grand experiment of CNN through from its birth."

"CNN is just a great place to be. We have continued to report the news timely and without bias, and we've given it context, and I think we have never in my time here compromised on any story."

Asked what days stand out in his mind, he says that even more important than big breaking news stories are the times that employees "have been in difficult situations."

"We have people who go into dangerous places sometimes, and we've had employees who have been in real trouble -- and we've worked with them and their families."

Rick Davis, CNN's executive vice president of News Standards and Practices, has known Walton from the beginning. Davis and Walton worked together 30 years ago when Walton reported to Davis in CNN Sports. For the past 10 years, Davis has reported to Walton.

He's a "straight shooter" who understood the challenges people throughout the company face because he has held so many roles, Davis says.

"He never lost touch with what all those people were going through. ... So when he was managing, it was always important for him to treat people with respect because he was one of them."

After joining the company in 1981 as a video journalist, CNN's entry-level position, Walton worked his way up through several jobs, including tape editor and executive producer. From 1996-2000, he was president of CNN/Sports Illustrated, the now defunct all-sports network, and won an Emmy for coverage of the 1996 Centennial Olympic Park bombing.

Before being named president of CNN Worldwide in May 2003, he was president of CNN's domestic networks group, which included CNN/U.S., Headline News and CNN.com, and then president and chief operating officer, overseeing editorial and financial operations for CNN.

Davis says Walton is also a decisive manager who has guided CNN to profitability, including a new record this year.

That's something Walton happily discusses -- without getting into specifics.

"I can honestly say I tried real hard. Financially, the results have been spectacular, pretty much unrivaled in this industry. And I'm proud of that."

Walton "has been instrumental in growing the business into the financial powerhouse it has become, while establishing the brand as the worldwide leader for television news," says Time Warner Chairman and CEO Jeff Bewkes.

"When Jim Walton assumed the presidency of CNN in 2003, it was underperforming and earnings were in serious decline," Bewkes says. "Since then, he and CNN have tripled earnings, doubled margin and delivered annual growth of 15%."

Walton is not without his detractors though. A former correspondent and anchor who was let go in 2008 says Walton's focus on money has damaged CNN.

"In the corporate world, he looks like a hero, but for the people who care about news, he's a disappointment," says Miles O'Brien, who spent nearly 17 years at CNN, most of it covering science and technology.

O'Brien says Walton pushed a system in which correspondents spend so much time doing live shots that they're not given adequate flexibility to do enough "good shoe-leather journalism" and long-form reporting.

Walton had no comment on assertions by O'Brien, who also found fault with decisions to close the network's science and technology unit several years ago and shrink its documentary units this year as the company switched to buying programs from outside companies.

But Davis counters that Walton has made strong decisions to help CNN remain financially viable so that it could continue to produce high quality work.

And Walton notes that "in my time here, we've added newsgathering."

"We dropped some of the wire services; we invested in our own reporting because we wanted to own our own content ... and that's been a very, very successful strategy."

Certain parts of the company "weren't being viewed as much, or they weren't as essential, or for some other reasons we made determinations that they weren't growing or helping us grow or a part of the brand. In the meantime we're investing significantly in those areas of the business that we felt were critical to our growth," including mobile and digital platforms, he says.

CNN employs about 4,000 people worldwide.

CNN's chief international correspondent, Christiane Amanpour, says of Walton: "He's fun, he's kind, he's witty, and he saw the whole grand experiment of CNN through from its birth."

After he announced his resignation, CNN anchors praised Walton's leadership.

"Sad to hear that Jim Walton is stepping down at CNN," Anderson Cooper tweeted. "He is a great guy, and has done tremendous things for CNN. I will miss him very much."

And John King, whose show had been canceled just a month earlier, tweeted: "(H)ow many can say their boss is always a straight shooter, especially in tough times, and treats EVERY employee as family. thanks jim walton"

Randy Harber, who spent 32 years with CNN as an editor, also praised Walton.

"He was the guy who said, 'If you do basic journalism and you keep us in the middle, then we will succeed.' We didn't veer right or left. He kept us that way.

"He was a very fundamental news guy," Harber says.

Bob Thompson, founding director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University, describes Walton similarly.

Anderson Cooper tweeted: \
Anderson Cooper tweeted: "He is a great guy, and has done tremendous things for CNN. I will miss him very much."

Going in an "ideological direction," as Fox and MSNBC have done, is "tempting," he says. But Walton avoided it.

Still, Walton couldn't attract and keep U.S. viewers on a daily basis in the absence of huge stories. "When it comes to prime time, he wasn't able to bring together the forces that were able to solve it," Thompson says.

Walton takes personal responsibility for the ratings. "Of course I do," he says. "I'm the head of CNN."

During his tenure, CNN has grown to include 45 editorial operations around the world. Despite prime-time ratings troubles, CNN boasts of reaching more people on TV, the Web and mobile devices than any other TV news organization in the country. Internationally, CNN is the most widely distributed news channel, reaching more than 265 million households outside the United States.

CNN has received dozens of journalism honors during Walton's tenure, including 70 this year alone. Among the 2012 honors are two News and Documentary Emmys three Peabodys and two Edward R. Murrow Awards.

Jon Klein, who ran CNN U.S. for six years until he was let go in 2010, says Walton was "receptive to big ideas" such as iReport, CNN Heroes and political coverage "featuring the magic touch-screen wall."

"He was invariably enthused and supportive," Klein says. "He made us all conscious of the importance of diversity on air and off, and above all brought a sense of human decency and generosity to our daily interactions."

Phil Kent, CEO of Turner Broadcasting System -- which includes CNN -- calls Walton "the leader we all aspire to be: smart and steady, tough and fair, business-savvy and respected by his team, and with a track record of great judgment when it matters most."

Adds Harber, "He had tenacity and a practical sense of what we were doing and what worked."

Walton says his career trajectory -- from entry-level VJ to president -- would be harder for someone to emulate at a big company today.

"When I started in 1981, nobody knew what CNN was. Fast forward to today. If you want to work in journalism, there's not a better place in the world. ... So it would take someone a lot longer than it took me. But sure, anything's possible."

He supports the choice of Zucker as his replacement, though he says he wasn't consulted on the selection.

"I think Jeff's great. ... He's got tremendous experience, and he also gets what CNN is. But more importantly, he has great ideas about what CNN can be."

As he glances around his office, one thing is clear. Jim Walton is ready to leave. CNN will always be in his blood, he says. But he's ready for a new chapter.

Perhaps what's most telling is what Walton doesn't say at the end of his "exit interview."

Asked how he hopes people will remember him, he says, "It's up to them."

When pressed, he shrugs and insists, "I don't care" -- then grins.

It's perhaps a classic response from a man who says he makes decisions based on what's good for the company and not what's good for him -- or how he'll be perceived.

"I've been very fortunate that I've not really ever cared about that."

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