The Seven-Year Itch: Why I’m Leaving CNN and Joining Poynter

Katie Hawkins-Gaar
Jan 16, 2015 · 5 min read

My first day at CNN was June 4, 2007. I was a month out of college and couldn’t believe I’d scored a job at such a well-known news company.

Today, January 16, 2015, is my last day at CNN.

The decision to leave CNN wasn’t an easy one. I spent six out of seven years working with iReport, the network’s citizen journalism platform, where I started as an entry-level associate producer. I served the past two years as iReport editor, which meant I oversaw the site, managed the rock star editorial team, and generally advocated for our community and team whenever I could. I made lifelong friends in the newsroom, sharpened my reporting, editing and verification skills, and learned what it takes to be a good manager.

I found the work rewarding, creative, and, yes, discouraging at times. For the most part, though, I loved it. The iReport community is unlike any other, and I will forever be grateful for the opportunity to work alongside the talented iReport team.

“So, why are you leaving CNN?”

Not surprisingly, this is the most common question I’ve gotten from friends, family and strangers alike. The reality is, after more than seven years in the same company, I’m ready for something new. I’ve had my share of frustrations at CNN — as does any employee at a long-term job, I’d expect — but my biggest frustration was with myself. I had become jaded in many respects, resistant to embrace some of the changes taking place within the company. As someone who prided herself on being part of arguably the most innovative team within CNN, I hated the idea of developing a reluctant attitude towards experimentation and change.

Thankfully, that’s no longer the case. On January 26, I will officially join The Poynter Institute, where I’ve accepted a job as their first Digital Innovation Faculty member. When I found out about the opportunity to work with Poynter and do such interesting and important work, I knew I had to apply. Personally, it’s a major change: My husband Jamie and I are moving to St. Petersburg, Florida, and leaving behind our friends, family, and the city we’ve known for most of our lives.

I believe it’s a risk worth taking. I’m thrilled to be part of Poynter, a respected and valuable institute. I’m happy that Jamie and I will meet new people and gain the experience of living in an unknown place. Most of all, though, I’m excited to play a role in the fast-moving transition that’s happening right now in the journalism industry. There’s plenty of uncertainty, of course, but there are even more opportunities to shake things up and completely reinvent how we cover the news and how our newsrooms are run. I am incredibly honored to be part of that.

There are so many examples of innovation in the journalism world today. There are the well-known “disrupters,” like Buzzfeed and Vox. There are the nimble start-ups — Circa,, Storyful, and so on. There are the people who have redefined what it means to be a journalist — Ann Friedman, Ta-Nehisi Coates and Nate Silver, to name a few. Finally, there are the countless legacy newsrooms experimenting with new workflows and re-imagining news. The process is scary, because it requires venturing into unknown and unstable territories, but it’s invigorating and rewarding for entirely the same reasons.

The CNN Center in Atlanta. Home sweet home for the past seven years.

Failure is a necessity for innovation, and failure is something I became familiar with through my tenure with CNN iReport — probably more often than I’d like to admit. We put out some solicitations to our audience that, in retrospect, were terribly off the mark. We poured time and energy into a handful of projects that ultimately didn’t resonate. As a manager, I tried various approaches with my team that didn’t stick, no matter how much I believed they would.

But through all of those failures, we learned and got better over time. For every failed assignment, we created a dozen other compelling ones. For every dud of a project, we’d produce a crowdsourced gem. And for every motivational approach I tried (turns out, not everyone responds well to brainstorming with crayons), I can proudly say that I wound up leading one of the most inventive, positive and creative teams within CNN.

I’m eager to take the lessons I’ve learned from iReport — from fostering a passionate online community to convincing colleagues that a crazy idea is worth pursuing — and bring them to both Poynter and the many newsrooms I’ll have the opportunity to work with. And I have full faith that the talented iReport team will continue to produce interesting and important work and shape the definition of participatory journalism. I can’t wait to cheer them on from afar.

Adios, Atlanta. I’ll miss you, but not your traffic.

There’s a chance that leaving CNN and Atlanta and moving to St. Petersburg might be a failure. I may not fit in at Poynter; my husband and I might have a terrible time meeting people and making friends; or we could find ourselves the subjects of a bizarre Florida headline. I may be overly optimistic, but those scenarios all seem unlikely. And even if we do fail, there’s always, always, always room to grow and learn from there.

(Side note: I only speak for myself. My husband makes no promises about whether he’ll avoid starring in a weird headline.)

I will miss CNN, Atlanta, and my incredible friends and colleagues, but I am so excited for what’s ahead. This year will be a great challenge and unique chance for personal growth.

I expect a big part of my new job will be to teach journalists and newsroom leaders to do exactly what I’m doing — to leave their comfort zones and embrace failure. That’s where the important and lasting work will happen.

Katie Hawkins-Gaar

Written by

I’m a writer and journalist. I’d be lost without gratitude.

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