Fox News is already beating CNN on TV. Now, to ensure the conservative news network doesn’t start winning online, CNN wants to make sure its employees know what stories Fox News is writing about.
In recent months, CNN’s newly revamped audience development team has begun highlighting the top daily stories people are searching for online in a widely seen company Slack messaging channel. The network has begun placing small fox emojis next to stories the right-leaning cable outlet covered online that CNN missed.
According to multiple sources who viewed the messages, no other competing news outlet has gotten the same explicit highlighting—a suggestion that network bosses occasionally want CNN to notice or emulate some of Fox’s successful online stories.
The suggested stories were, according to people who have viewed them, largely tabloid stories that the network didn’t deem newsworthy. But some were also viral stories meant to outrage the site’s conservative readership.
Among television news organizations, CNN’s digital-news arm remains one of the most influential. The website is one of the most highly trafficked news sites, regularly publishing scoops simultaneously as its on-air reporters breaks them; and its newsletters are often must-reads for media insiders. But multiple sources told The Daily Beast that CNN has become increasingly concerned that the network is missing popular, trending or highly searched stories that Fox News covers on its website.
While Fox News regularly laps its cable rivals in total viewership, CNN has specifically contrasted itself with its rival by highlighting its digital success. The network has repeatedly boasted about being the number-one online news source, specifically singling out its conservative cable nemesis. In May, the company said it had 28 million more unique visitors than Fox (a boast that Fox claims is actually 26 million, per Comscore), and in press releases it frequently refers to the network as “second-place Fox News.”
And, of course, Fox News disputes that they trail CNN at all—often pointing to their lead in total user minutes spent on the website and their larger mobile app traffic.
Still, CNN higher-ups are increasingly concerned about losing digital ground to Fox News.
The Wall Street Journal reported earlier this year that WarnerMedia Chief Executive John Stankey was keenly interested in revamping the network’s digital operation—a property he reportedly believed was not meeting its potential, and needed to focus more on audience development and data analytics. The company brought in a new chief technology officer with experience in content recommendation, and has made a push to use data to drive more traffic.
Fox News’ online presence is much like its on-air news operation.
At any given moment, the site is a mix of conservative opinion pieces, news aggregation, and salacious tabloid stories about crime, sex, politics, and culture-war stories. Boosted by strong homepage readership and a dedicated fan base on its mobile application, Fox News’ web traffic has grown in the past few years. Though CNN regularly bests Fox News, the network surpassed CNN in monthly page views for the first time in early 2018.
CNN spokesperson Matt Dornic told The Daily Beast that like other newsrooms, CNN often evaluates the online effectiveness of stories from top competitors like Fox News and The New York Times.
“Fox News has begun touting a digital growth story while publicly and aggressively targeting CNN so naturally we’re reviewing their editorial focus to assess what might be generating increased interest in their site,” he said.
He acknowledged that Fox News has attempted to overtake CNN on the digital side but, he pointed out, Fox’s traffic is often tied to its on-air coverage, which does not focus on hard-news reporting anywhere near as much as CNN does. For example, over the past year, Dornic noted, Fox News has run almost 90 stories focused on women in bathing suits.
“What we’ve determined is an alarming strategy I call the ‘the daily bikini,’” he said.
In response, Fox News noted that the women-in-bikinis content only accounts for less than one percent of their annual digital content.