Skip to main content

Making sense of the world

In 1989, a local magazine profiling Shelby Coffey observed that he had already had three chances of a lifetime. Little more than a decade later, the count is at five, and, as Coffey notes, it's not over yet.

After serving as editor of U.S. News and World Report, the Dallas Times Herald and, finally, The Los Angeles Times, all within a remarkable two-year period that followed a long and successful tenure at The Washington Post, he crossed over into television in 1998 taking a senior position at ABC News. And less than two years later, Coffey is running a network: CNNfn.

"I have been really lucky," he says, "and I have enjoyed the opportunities. I've had a chance to work with a great set of people: [Post Editor] Ben Bradlee, Tom Johnson [who has hired Coffey three times at Times Mirror and now CNN], [Los Angeles Times Publisher] Otis Chandler, [ABC icon] Roone Arledge and [CNN founder] Ted Turner."

"I saw Shelby's significant interest in and concern for high-quality financial-news coverage first-hand when he worked directly for me at both Dallas [Times-Herald] and The Los Angeles Times," says CNN News Chairman Tom Johnson. "He has risen to the top of his profession through his dual commitment to journalistic integrity and personal caring for the people with whom he works."

There were concerns, held both by Coffey and by others, about his transition from print to television. "But," Coffey points out, "there was concern in the late '70s and early '80s about Roone Arledge [who moved from sports to take over ABC News]. Now we see he's a Hall of Famer.

"I didn't go into television trying to pretend to be Walter Cronkite from day one," he adds. "One of the things I think is most important for a news executive is to bring out the best in people you're working with. Also, to a certain extent, you have to be an editor, a good reader.

"I've got 50 years of experience as a television viewer and a sense of what's a strong story: Is my attention wandering, what is going on here that disturbs or entices me as a viewer? At ABC, I did a fair amount of editing. I reviewed many, if not most, of the 20/20 pieces and some nightly news pieces if there were concerns from a standards-and-practices point of view."

Speaking of his early television days, Coffey says, "There were a number of areas in which there was overlap and a number of areas that were new and interesting. You need to know how to work with the visual element, but what you're trying to do in both media is to get at the more important news, to keep viewers' attention. You do that through compelling exclusives and through sharp analysis, expertise, contrary viewpoints-journalistic training is in all of that."

Coffey acknowledges that rival CNBC has a considerable jump on the competition in TV business news. CNNfn passes about 15 million homes, compared with more than 70 million homes passed for CNBC.

"We do want to get more carriage," he says. "I don't set a time frame and a number..The digital world is going to offer even more chances for interplay between and CNNfn, the television network."

He cites partnerships between CNNfn and AOLTV, The Industry Standard, Fortune, Fortune monthly spinoff eCompany Now and The Financial Times. "As convergence continues, in the broadband future, the next two to five years are going to be some of the most interesting in our experience."

"With him as president," says Johnson, "the growth, elevation and continued success of our Business News unit and CNNfn is assured. In fact, within Coffey's first six months at CNNfn, he has expanded CNNfn's programming schedule to 24 hours weekdays and has increased CNNfn's new-economy coverage with two new business programs and a new bicoastal format for Moneyline that will launch on Sept. 5."