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Baptism by Water

Jon Klein had been president of CNN a mere 12 days when the Asian tsunami hit and began to take its devastating toll. Watch for a while as the story continues to unfold, and you see his influence: how much more time the network is spending with survivors from Indonesia to Thailand as they describe the impact on their lives of the incalculable devastation, instead of just pointing the camera at a parade of government officials. CNN stars, such as Christiane Amanpour and Anderson Cooper, gave reports with true depth from the field.

To capture the “true impact of what happened,” Klein says, “we’re letting people tell their stories. It’s in the DNA of this place to do that. If you open the spigot at this network, trust the instincts of the people in the field, you get powerful work.”

In the first week of tsunami coverage, Klein’s ratings got a big bump, bigger than No. 1 Fox, but the narrowed gap isn’t likely to remain that way in the absence of the kind of major story that plays to CNN’s strengths: superior international reach and breaking-news chops.

“If we’re going to succeed, we have to stay on important stories and own them,” says Klein. “We’re going to cover the war on terror and homeland security the way we covered the tsunami.”

According to Klein, CNN’s approach to covering the tsunami disaster has provided a new template for the 24/7 news machine. He was glad to show conservative pundit Tucker Carlson the door and announce that the long-running Crossfire shoutfest was in its final days. Larry King Live, the network’s highest-rated show, will continue, he says, but the rest of prime time will get a makeover. That doesn’t mean Anderson Cooper or Aaron Brown is likely to lose his respective perch—Klein has praise for both—but it does mean their shows will spend more time reporting on issues from the field and less with talking heads chattering about the story of the day.

“The conventional wisdom in the business is that you look at the Fox News Channel and emulate what they do,” says Klein, in a subtle dig at MSNBC, which is planning to give Carlson a prime time show. “I’d rather trust my instincts.”

Klein’s playbook calls for developing shows that emulate the best of the broadcast-news genre, whether it’s a public-affairs show as good as Meet the Press, a nightly newscast as compelling as Nightline at its best, or a weekly franchise as strong as Frontline or 60 Minutes. “I don’t think there’s been the will here to do programs like that before,” he says.

Before coming to CNN, the 46-year-old Klein ran The FeedRoom, a broadband service he started in 1999 and managed to survive the dotcom bust. Before that, he had been a wunderkind producer at CBS News, rising to be executive vice president of the news division.

Being the No. 2 suit at CBS News didn’t work out. The word inside the network was Klein displayed a lot of shoot-from-the-hip arrogance and tried to change too much too fast at an entrenched institution. He recognizes that now he’s getting that rare thing in the journalism business: a second shot at overhauling a long-established but struggling news operation. “You have to embrace the institution and love it more than you love your own ideas,” he says. “CNN suffered the same problem that AT&T faced when the Baby Bells were born. When you’re the only game in town, you don’t take the competition seriously. You become uncompetitive. You need a slap in the face to make you sit up and take notice. In a strange way, Fox has done us a favor by waking up the sleeping giant. We are fully awake and a little pissed off and ready to go do what we’re better at that anybody in the world.”