There isn’t much that scares veteran CNN correspondent Sara Sidner.
As Moammar Kadafi's regime fell in Libya in 2011, Sidner coolly and methodically reported on the celebration in the streets of Tripoli while trying to avoid the bullets and shells being sprayed into the air. ("Please don't shoot sir," she said as if it were a minor distraction.)
When most of the country was in lockdown during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, Sidner spent 176 days on the road, many of them in Minneapolis covering the murder of George Floyd by police. She became a fixture during the protests and facilitated the first conversation between the city's police chief and Floyd's family.
Sidner recently returned from Turkey after watching families grieve over the massive loss of life in the catastrophic earthquakes that struck the region.
"I don't think I've ever seen such destruction on a large scale and I have been doing this a minute," Sidner said in an interview from CNN headquarters in New York.
Sidner, 50, remains a steady, authoritative presence when surrounded by chaos. But she admits to being a bit anxious about her new assignment that began Monday when she became part of the troika of anchors on CNN’s revamped daytime lineup, the latest in a series of changes the network has made under Chief Executive Chris Licht.
“I’m nervous because that’s me,” Sidner said. “I know nobody thinks being in a studio is scary, but for me it is because it is new and different. Sometimes I need to take a risk.”
Sidner joined John Berman and Kate Bolduan, already familiar to the network's daytime viewers, on "CNN News Central," a three-hour block airing from 6 to 9 a.m. Pacific. (A second block launches later this month, with Jim Sciutto, Brianna Keilar and Boris Sanchez.)
The new format will be put to the test on Tuesday as it covers the run-up to former President Trump's appearance in a Manhattan criminal courthouse where he will be indicted on charges related to allegations that he paid hush money to a porn star who claimed to have had sex with him.
Over the long term, "CNN News Central" is another step by Licht to reinvent the venerable news brand for its owner, Warner Bros. Discovery. He has tried to move it to the political center, as his bosses believe it swayed too far left during the Trump years. At the same time, he's dealt with cost-cutting pressures created by the parent company's debt.
It's been a tough road. CNN's ratings declined 40% in the coveted 25-to-54 age group during the first quarter compared with a year ago, according to Nielsen data. (During the same period in 2022, the network was covering the initial weeks of Russia's Ukraine invasion.)
CNN has been unable to get a foothold in prime time. It has tried a mix of news-driven specials and town halls instead of opinionated personalities, which have proved the best route to getting regular cable news viewers. “CNN This Morning” is also struggling to gain an audience, although there is now peace on the set after a tumultuous period that followed sexist comments made by co-anchor Don Lemon.
Nonetheless, Licht has the backing of Warner Bros. Discovery Chief Executive David Zaslav, who has urged patience for the network's new positioning, even if it means lower ratings in the short run.
In daytime, CNN has been more competitive with MSNBC in the 25-to-54 age group advertisers want to reach with cable news. (Fox News leads in the demographic and total viewers).
Licht said in an interview earlier this year that he wanted the daytime hours to make a statement about the network's journalism.
While prime time is when the most viewers are available to watch, influential people in business and government have CNN on their office screens all day. Licht said the network's global resources deserved a better showcase during the daytime.
The network created a new studio for "CNN News Central" utilizing large screens that cover the walls. The anchors spend little time behind desks while interacting with larger-than-life images of correspondents around the world as stories are developing.
"Mama needs some new shoes because we're going to be standing for three hours for the most part," Sidner said.
Licht said he wanted Sidner as part of "CNN News Central" because of her energy, her experience in the field, and her "genuine excitement around the news, as opposed to some (people) that are brought on because they have general excitement about the left or the right."
"I want people that are excited about the news and can deliver that energy into programming," Licht said.
Based on its first day, "CNN News Central" does not appear to be a major reinvention of TV news. The network's election coverage with its famous "magic wall" has a similar feel. Fox News also used a wide open set for "Shepard Smith Reporting," when the anchor was still with the network.
Eric Sherling, the CNN senior vice president overseeing the programs, said the goal is to visualize stories in a compelling way that conveys the network's reporting strength. He expects the look of the program to evolve with the breaking stories it covers.
While there will be multiple anchors on the set, viewers shouldn't expect the kind of breezy chatter they hear on morning programs, according to Sherling.
"It will be talk with a purpose," he said.
The well-traveled Sidner represents CNN's reporting reach. She acknowledges that some colleagues have joked how her arrival in a remote location is never a good sign.
"It's like, 'Uh-oh, if she shows up, something bad went down or was about to happen,'" she said. "But I'm willing to break my heart again and be around people whose hearts are broken. I care about the people I talk to. I'm still in touch with some of those I reported on in really horrible scenarios."
Jonathan Klein, a former CNN president, said Sidner is the right messenger for Licht's vision to make a definitive news source without a political bent.
"She’s very authentic," Klein said. "She’s not performing. She’s being herself and viewers can sense that."
A longtime Los Angeles resident, she arrived in New York earlier this year to host a show on CNN+, the streaming service that Warner Bros. Discovery shut down less than two weeks after its launch.
The service is gone, but Sidner was talked into sticking around to be a key ingredient the latest experiment under Licht, who took over the network last year.
"I came here to do something different anyway," Sidner said. "So this is an extension of that."
She admits its not easy to process the trauma she sees around her in places like India, Afghanistan and other hot spots she's dropped into. Still, it will be an adjustment to be contained in a studio for the first time in her 15 years at CNN.
"I'm still a girl in the streets," she said. "I get my juice from being around my people and I will continue to do some of that."
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.