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CNN’s brave new world

CNN's Brave New WorldOctober 13: At the 2010 Society of Professional Journalists Convention in Las Vegas last week, two speakers shared their approach to adapting modern communication. Through incorporating social media and mobilizing contributors, CNN has embraced the 24-hour online news world.

Take CNN’s approach to social media on TV. During broadcasts, anchors stand in front of a large screen and read comments people posted to Twitter.com that relate to whatever story they are reporting on. When viewers first hear about CNN reading tweets from Twitter on air, they might think it sounds like lazy reporting. Upon closer inspection however, it’s actually the same thing as when newspapers allow readers to post comments beneath an online article. “Social Media on TV works best when it adds context for viewers who never use Twitter,” said Etan Horowitz, digital media producer for CNN International. “There are ways to bring Web to TV and ways not to.”

Key questions Horowitz says to ask when incorporating social media into television programming are:

  • Is this a smart incorporation?
  • Is this gimmicky?
  • Does this incorporation bring value to the existing newscast?
  • Does this incorporation localize the story?

Horowitz explained that journalists should use the same news judgment they would apply to a newscast when searching social media content for story ideas. The top news online, he said, isn’t always the lead story on CNN, but sometimes it does influence what stories get covered or in what order.

How much influence does Twitter have on CNN? When CNN International was planning their coverage the second week of February this year, they noticed that fashion designer Alexander McQueen’s death was a trending topic on Twitter. While they had not originally planned to lead the news with this story, they decided to incorporate it into their story line-up.

Twitter has a variety of uses, explained Horowitz, one of which is serving as an online polling service. During the World Cup, the use of vuvuzelas was hotly debated. When asked if the loud South African musical instrument should be allowed during the games, the yes or no answers didn’t tell the full story. To find out how many people on Twitter wanted to use them and why, CNN provided charts and pull quotes.

The  next day of the convention, Horowitz’s colleague, Victor Hernandez, director of domestic newsgathering at CNN/U.S., led the session on “All Platform Journalism: The Good, Bad & The Reality.” Currently, there are five All Platform Journalists (APJs) at CNN. They cover breaking news, politics, the economy, and “rich feature” stories. They each have about nine years of journalism experience, but not all come from broadcast backgrounds. The official training program they go through is still in its experimental phase, however, APJs will be added to half a dozen more cities next year, including Las Vegas and St. Louis.

Each morning, the APJs participate in a conference call from their homes with Hernandez to discuss what stories are topics in their area. Hernandez will either tell them to go cover their suggestion, or he overrides them with a more pressing story he wants covered because of what is coming out of CNN’s headquarters in Atlanta.

In short, these “backpack” journalists are equipped with an HD camera, a digital SLR still camera, and some type of cell phone or Blackberry so they can tweet, blog, shoot, report and upload from anywhere. While “passion projects” are a rarity in this field, CNN APJ Jim Spellman’s story about homeless teens in Denver was one of CNN’s top stories of the year. It was a story he had wanted to cover and when he finally got the chance, it aired on the Cable News Network, then clips of it went viral.

Both presenters from CNN were highly engaging and clearly had more insight than the time allotted. As major media outlets like this one face the challenge of incorporating a 24-hour online world into their 24-hour news cycle, they have an exhausting challenge. As they both explained, however, the pace should never overtake the thoughtfulness that goes into building news coverage – whether that story originates out of Atlanta or anywhere else in the world.

–Rebecca Bredholt

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