CNN has a big problem: its ratings are dropping. Big time. A New York
Times article this week pointed out that CNN’s main hosts have lost
almost 50% of their viewers over the past year.

And while CNN’s viewership is plummeting, its competitors are gaining
viewers. Several FOX News hosts have registered year-over-year
viewership gains in the range of 25-50%. And lest you think the drop in
CNN’s viewership is primarily the result of demographics or political
preferences, CNN is even being beat out at certain hours by MSNBC and
CNN’s lightweight news channel, HLN.

On the internet, however, CNN has arguably managed to become one of the most savvy users of social media in the news industry. A number of its hosts are some of the most engaged television personalities on Twitter, and the @cnnbrk account it purchased counts nearly 3m followers. It runs a site for citizen journalists called iReport, as well as a network of blogs. Comments and content culled from iReport, its blogs and social media hubs are often featured on-air.

Given all this, one might think that CNN sees social media as a boon. But that’s surprisingly not the case; CNN sees social media as its biggest threat. At the Bloomberg BusinessWeek’s Media Summit New York in March, CNN U.S. president Jonathan Klein told attendees of his keynote that “the competition I’m really afraid of are social networking sites.” Why? They’re “an alternative that threatens to pull people away from us.

For a news organization that Klein called “number one by a mile in digital“, CNN’s fear of social media is somewhat ironic, if not entirely paradoxical, especially given how engaged CNN is through social media channels. But Klein’s fear does highlight an inconvenient truth for news organizations: social media isn’t a panacea. Social media’s staunchest advocates urge news organizations to embrace social media, but it’s hard to ignore the fact that CNN’s extensive social media presence isn’t doing anything to stem the tide of viewership declines.

One could argue that CNN’s Klein is right; that social media is simply pulling many CNN viewers away from their televisions. But unfortunately Klein’s fear of social media is somewhat misguided. CNN’s viewership numbers vis-à-vis its competitors make it clear: CNN has no reason to fear social media. Instead, it should fear the most likely cause of its decline: a product that consumers find hard to see relevance in.

Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at NYU Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, has some ideas. As does Politico’s Michael Calderone. Yet CNN’s Klein is loathe to fundamentally change CNN’s product, as Calderone notes:

Jon Klein, the network’s president, has consistently defended its down-the-middle news strategy, despite the increasingly large ratings leads opened up by MSNBC and particularly Fox, with their ideological slants and big personalities.

Perhaps CNN shouldn’t become a partisan voice that’s heavier on personality and lighter on substance; I certainly don’t have the answers for CNN. But if Klein truly fears social media more than CNN’s competitors — and their products — CNN has a real problem. That’s because the first step in fixing a product is to admit that it’s flawed. If CNN puts its head in the sand and believes that viewers are flocking elsewhere because of social networks, it will never get around to admitting that its product is coming up short.

The good news for CNN is that 2009 was its most profitable year ever. It’s therefore obviously doing something right, and will realistically have some time to figure things out, a luxury many other traditional news organizations (namely newspapers) don’t have. But if CNN continues to worry about Facebook and Twitter more than it does competing television news networks, it may not have that luxury for too long.

Photo credit: hyku via Flickr.