Jeff Zucker began producing television just before the Berlin Wall fell. He will leave CNN as its president in 2021 during an industry-wide changing of guard that, for the news business, feels almost as climactic.

Zucker is one of a vintage of largely male journalists who started their careers in the go-go years of the news industry, made their names as managers by dealing with the prospect of decline, and enjoyed a surprising resurgence during the frantic Trump era.

“The energy of this news cycle has gone on longer than anyone could have imagined,” Zucker told the Los Angeles Times.

The same goes for Reuters, The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, HuffPost, Wired and Vox Media — who are all looking for new editorial chiefs. CNN and ABC, meanwhile, have top managerial positions coming vacant.

The successors to Zucker and his counterparts face a dual challenge. They must simultaneously shepherd their newsrooms through an age of political division and overcome what one media executive calls the news industry’s “poverty of ambition” — the sense it is destined to decline.

“Among owners and investors there is this sort of scarlet letter on the news business,” the executive said. “It’s just not a high return, it’s not an economic opportunity, it’s almost becoming a civic thing.”

News publishers carry more visible scars from half a century of falling advertising, a process brutally accelerated by the coronavirus pandemic. During the final quarter of 2020, print ad sales plummeted by more than a third at The New York Times and DMGT, the UK media group that owns the Daily Mail.

Seeking a more reliable revenue stream, many have rushed to a digital subscription model — with some success. The New York Times ended 2020 with 6.7m digital subscribers, having added 2.3m during the year of tumult, while digital subscriptions to The Wall Street Journal grew to 2.5m by the end of the year.

“What is clear is that journalism that is differentiated enough and high enough quality can generate consumer subscriptions,” said Gordon Crovitz, the former Wall Street Journal publisher. “And that’s the most sustainable business model that news has ever had.”

Meredith Kopit Levien, who took over as chief executive of The New York Times last year, acknowledged that 2020 would be “an outlier” for growth, and that a more subdued news cycle might be reflected in audience levels.

But she remained bullish about the group’s potential reach, suggesting its 6.7m subscription tally could be tripled or quadrupled “over time”.

For cable news companies, which still make billions of dollars a year from the declining format of real-time television, the future remains an open question.

Through his eight-year tenure atop CNN, Zucker has been credited with turning round the WarnerMedia-owned cable network. When he arrived at CNN in 2013, the channel was regularly outpaced by Fox News and MSNBC.

But the network soared in the ensuing years, earning record ratings in 2020 as it benefited from the polarisation of television audiences during the Trump presidency.

CNN’s operating revenue jumped to $1.65bn in 2020, from $1.4bn in 2016, according to Kagan estimates. Fox News similarly grew operating revenue to $2.9bn in 2020, from $2.5bn in 2016.

The problem for cable news networks is that pay-TV fees, which account for roughly three-quarters of their revenues, are under strain as younger audiences move to streaming.

CNN’s future is now in the hands of Jason Kilar, the chief executive of CNN parent company WarnerMedia, who comes from a technology background, having worked for Amazon before founding the streaming service Hulu.

He has expressed interest in creating a direct-to-consumer subscription for CNN, according to people briefed on the matter. This would pit CNN against rival Fox News, which in 2018 launched its own digital streaming service, in the battle for the future of television news.

Kilar in December denied rumours that WarnerMedia was considering selling CNN. The news network appears to be an awkward fit for WarnerMedia, which is betting its future on HBO Max, a Netflix-style streaming service of movies and television shows.

“We all know the pay TV ecosystem in the US is declining,” Kilar said last month.

But in Silicon Valley fashion, the former Amazon executive spoke of his grand online ambitions for CNN, a 40-year-old television channel. Calling the internet “an opportunity that is unlike anything else in our lifetimes”, he praised CNN as the “biggest news franchise on the planet”.

Meanwhile, Kilar’s boss, AT&T chief executive John Stankey, has been reviewing his assets for potential sales, as he looks to pay down the group’s heavy debt. AT&T has received expressions of interest in CNN, according to people familiar with the matter.

Although AT&T has played down the prospect of a sale, Stankey has repeatedly said that no portion of its business is exempt from the asset review, telling investors: “There are no sacred cows.”