May 24, 2023 - News

As CNN departs downtown Atlanta, reflections on its hometown

The CNN Center in 2021. The company says it will vacate the iconic building this year. Photo: Elijah Nouvelage/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Cable News Network — CNN — was founded in Atlanta in 1980 by media mogul Ted Turner as the world's first 24-hour television news network.

  • But the network has been shifting its center of gravity to Washington, D.C., and New York for decades, and this year it will start a new chapter in a smaller Atlanta office.

Driving the news: By the end of 2023, the company's Atlanta staff is preparing a long-planned move out of the palatial CNN Center, its downtown home since 1987, back to its original Techwood campus in Midtown.

Why it matters: Atlanta has been "enriched substantially by the creation of CNN here," said Tom Johnson, CNN's president and later CEO and chairman from 1990-2001. CNN Center (a onetime indoor amusement park) "was very much in the heart of Atlanta" and in its heyday "throbbing with activity."

  • In the 1990s, he said, "As the Atlanta Olympic committee started traveling around the world, people would say, 'Oh, Atlanta! That's Coca-Cola, Delta and CNN.'"

The big picture: In 2013, Jeff Zucker became CNN's first president based in New York, though it still employed 6,000 Georgians, as the Saporta Report wrote at the time.

  • CNN today remains headquartered in Atlanta, but its presence has shrunk to hundreds of staffers, according to current and former employees.
  • A spokesperson did not respond to questions about its Atlanta workforce nor the exact timing of the move to Techwood, but confirmed it remains under construction.

The other side: Amara Walker, one of the few CNN anchors based in Atlanta, told Axios the move — and the Techwood renovation — underscores that CNN isn't abandoning its hometown.

  • "We're leaving CNN Center, but at the same time we're returning home, right where it all started," she said. "I just can't [overstate] the excitement that I have."
Ted Turner at the CNN Launch event at the original "Techwood Drive World Headquarters" in Atlanta on June 1, 1980. Photo: Rick Diamond/Getty Images

Yes, but: "I think there's a great irony" in CNN's shift north, said Gail Evans, who started at CNN in 1980 and retired as an executive in 2001. "Because I don't think CNN would have made it if we'd been in New York or Washington."

  • In part, she argued, that's because of the "negative atmosphere" from legacy networks in New York and D.C. Atlanta, a growing city without a major media presence, responded with excitement, she said.
  • It was also cheaper, she pointed out: "What it would have cost to have created CNN in New York versus what it cost to create CNN in Atlanta was very different."

Plus: Marylynn Ryan, a former CNN vice president and Southeast bureau chief said the location also made its journalism better.

  • "The fact that Atlanta was outside the Beltway [in D.C.] and outside of New York was critical to us as journalists," she told Axios. "We didn't have the bias of living in those cities."

Flashback: Johnson told Axios that Turner's ambition and willingness to invest were the real keys to its early growth. He recalled Turner telling him: "I want you to make it the best news network on the planet … That's it, pal.'"

  • And so, ahead of the Persian Gulf War, CNN invested in satellite uplinks, transmission capabilities and a four-wire phone line across the desert to feed news out of Baghdad.
  • When the country lost power during the 1991 American offensive, CNN was the only network to continue live coverage, he said.

"CNN began as a very ambitious project," he said, even though it was criticized by competitors as "Chicken Noodle Network." But on that night, CNN proved itself.

Zoom out: CNN always "made an effort to not be just an Atlanta company," but rather a global and national network, said longtime Atlanta public relations executive Mitch Leff and former CNN employee. "They really made an effort to showcase a point of view that wasn't just one city."

What's next: While the loss of the CNN Center as a prominent cornerstone of downtown Atlanta is striking, "something else will come in there," Leff said. "Something else will be an icon for the next 20 years."

Of note: To mark the end of the era, hundreds of former employees plan to reunite at the iconic CNN letters outside the building next week for a photo.


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