Skip to main content

Ken Jautz: From Out of the Trenches

Ken Jautz spent more than a dozen years in journalism's trenches, reporting overseas first for The Associated Press and then as CNN's bureau chief in Germany. As a young foreign correspondent, he chronicled some of history's biggest moments. Today, the TV executive credits much of that experience in his successful effort to turn around CNN Headline News.

The executive VP of CNN Worldwide, Jautz is responsible for programming Headline News. The network has made headlines in the three years since its makeover began in February 2005 with outspoken legal analyst Nancy Grace, followed by Showbiz Tonight and then by conservative radio-cum-TV star Glenn Beck in May 2006.

“Nancy Grace was the fastest-growing show in all cable news in 2005,” he says. “The next year we launched Glenn Beck, which was one of the fastest-growing shows in cable in 2006. And in 2007, Showbiz Tonight has grown 62%. So three years in a row, we've had the most growth of any cable news show each of those years, which is really pretty remarkable.”

This is what Jautz calls his “propaganda spiel.” “I can bore you with endless numbers about how well Headline News is doing,” he laughs. Year to year, Headline News has grown 17% in primetime and 13% in total day in news' target demo of 25-54 year olds, says Nielsen.

The channel that once featured a bland menu of news updates has become a destination for the pull-no-punches ideological talk that has thrived on cable news. Grace is parodied by Amy Poehler on Saturday Night Live, and Beck is a target of liberal ire. Even Jautz has made Keith Olbermann's “Worst Person in the World” canon (in January 2006, for hiring Beck).

“There's a lot of movement and attention around Headline News, and that was not the case years ago,” says Jautz.

Granted, some of the attention is not always positive. Grace has been criticized for her leaps to judgment, and in 2006 generated headlines when a Florida woman who was a suspect in the disappearance of her son shot herself less than 24 hours after being grilled by Grace.

“These are people and shows that evoke a reaction,” he says. “Some of it's positive, some of it's not. But they evoke interest, and the ratings show a heck of a lot of interest.”

“Somebody much wiser than us once said that a man can accomplish great things if he doesn't mind who gets the credit for them,” says Jim Walton, president, CNN Worldwide. “And that kind of sums up Ken.”

Walton hired Jautz away from N-TV, the German-language news channel where he was managing director, in 2001 to run CNNfn. Jautz—who is fluent in German and met his wife, Kristin, who is German, in Frankfurt—had already spent many years overseas, first during his post-graduate school years as a correspondent for The Associated Press, and from 1988 to 1995 as the German bureau chief for CNN.

“He's one of those rare executives who can understand and balance the creative process coupled with the strategic and fiscal process,” adds Walton.

Jautz has been in journalism's trenches. He lived overseas for 17 years, and for more than a dozen of those years, he was a reporter. At AP, he was stationed in Vienna, where he covered Soviet-bloc countries including Poland and Bulgaria.

“I was an eyewitness to so many historical moments,” he says. “It was amazing.”

As CNN's bureau chief in Germany, he was frequently on the road. He was in Moscow during the 1991 coup attempt against Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev; the Middle East throughout the early '90s during the first Gulf War; and Cambodia in 1996 when Pol Pot at long last dissolved the Khmer Rouge.

And he was in Germany on Nov. 9, 1989, when the East German government announced that travel to West Berlin would be permitted.

“It was about 9 o'clock in the evening when people started streaming over the {Berlin] wall. But it was eerily quiet at 8 o'clock in the evening,” recalls Jautz.

“I remember telling [CNN headquarters in] Atlanta, I don't think anything's going to be happening here tonight,” he laughs. “I always joke that I was wrong at key moments as a reporter, so clearly I'm a candidate for management.”

Jautz had a fiery baptism moving from print to television journalism. The Beirut hostage crisis, which began in 1985 when Islamic terrorists hijacked a TWA jet en route to London, continued throughout the '80s as terrorists kidnapped Westerners, holding them for months and often years. As hostages were sporadically released, they were flown to Ramstein Air Base in Germany before being taken to nearby Landstuhl Hospital for observation. As CNN's man on the scene, Jautz played an integral role in the ongoing coverage.

“I told Ken, you're the key to this operation,” recalls Jane Maxwell, CNN's senior VP for special events.

Jautz says Maxwell taught him most of what he knows about television.

“I spent a lot of time with him on the phone just talking about the basics of television,” she says. “It's not brain surgery, but it's complicated and it's daunting and it's big, and if you make a boo-boo, lots of people watch it. I remember saying to him, look, I know what it's like; I was once new to television, too. So if you have any questions at all, you can call me anytime day or night. Do not worry about waking me up. I am too old for beauty sleep at this point in my life. Just call me.

“And you know what? He never called. He actually got it. He understood it. He has sort of the genetic material to understand how to cover a news story and get it on TV.”

Jautz says his boots-on-the-ground experience helped refine his management techniques. “I feel like that has made me a better news executive, having worked in the news trenches. It makes me understand the needs of the real heroes of our business, who are the people out gathering news often in dangerous places, and the people who are spending long hours every day producing shows.

“Really, it's the successes of those folks that matters.”

To see a gallery of Fifth Estater caricatures, click here.