“Twitter is a frenemy.” That’s how CNN’s new president, Jeff Zucker, described the cable news network’s relationship with social media. In a combination luncheon speech and informal press conference at the Atlanta Press Club this week, he said the network uses, relies on — and is scared by — social media.

While it’s an important tool that helps reporters and producers gather information and predict what people are interested in, it can also be wrong, he said. Plus, anyone can post a story “next to a cat on a skateboard and think they’re a journalist.”

The middle doesn’t have to be boring

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Social media was just one of many topics the former head of NBC Universal addressed in his first public appearance since becoming CNN president three months ago. He said CNN will continue to invest heavily in news coverage, especially breaking news, but he wants to increase viewership every day.

CNN is like that spare tire in the trunk,” he said, explaining that people forget about it till they need it. (The Boston Marathon bombings happened just a few hours after he spoke.)

And while he said CNN will remain non-partisan, big changes are ahead.

“Just because you’re in the middle, does not give you the right to be boring,” he said. “Too often, we haven’t been vibrant enough.” He said to expect a new morning show, more documentaries, less prime-time celebrity news, and a broader selection of non-fiction programming to compete with Discovery, A&E, History, Food Network and other channels.

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He attributed criticism of the network’s coverage of the stalled Carnival Cruise ship Triumph to jealous competitors. It was a human drama, he said, adding 300 people stranded in a building without food or sanitation would be just as newsworthy.

“Just because Jon Stewart makes fun of it doesn’t mean he’s right,” he said. And yes, he added, he considers “The Daily Show” a competitor.

Making money on digital

He also touched on the difficulty of making money from digital platforms such as CNN.com.

“How you monetize digital is the biggest question that every media company faces,” he said.

In a brief encounter just before he left, I asked Zucker whether he would consider offering sponsored content on CNN.com, similar to what Forbes.com does. “Absolutely!” he beamed, and without time to elaborate, he was gone.

Later, a CNN spokesperson had a bit more to say to me about that:

“Just like our TV programming, we’ll take under consideration and experiment with a whole host of formats and revenue models across our digital platforms. However, there are no immediate plans to offer paid placement for CNN.com.”

UPDATE (4/25/13): The Atlanta Press Club has now posted a video with a brief excerpt of Zucker’s appearance, including his reference to the cruise ship coverage and Jon Stewart:

By the way, Zucker’s reference to Jon Stewart being a competitor did not go unnoticed. Stewart mentioned it April 17 at the start of a “Daily Show” shellacking of CNN’s coverage of the Boston bombing:

Terri Thornton, a former reporter and TV news producer, owns Thornton Communications, an award-winning PR and social media firm. She is also a freelance editor for Strategic Finance and Management Accounting Quarterly. Follow her on Twitter @TTho

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