A little over a month ago, CNN.com announced a dramatic redesign of its Web site. Headed up by general manager KC Estenson and creative director Brian Martin with strategy and design by Brooklyn-based firm HUGE, the site now has a tidied-up, stripped-down interface that uses lots of video to showcase the dynamic nature of breaking news. Simplifying news design is a bona fide trend—Reuters' revamp and Aol.'s pending relaunch are two more recent projects that come to mind—but CNN.com has three secret weapons powering the journalistic machinery behind the smart new look: a wealth of broadcast-quality video, brand-name journalists, and recently hired vice president and managing editor Meredith Artley. She's responsible for a way of thinking that aims to change the way both CNN.com and CNN reporters work.
Artley views the newsroom as a cohesive unit, or, as she calls it, a "giant candy store," where the knowledge of contributors from all corners of CNN can be creatively combined to produce comprehensive, multimedia coverage of any story. Joining the team just before the redesign, Artley encouraged reporters not only to use the latest streaming video technology and share resources but to actually tell stories in a different, often more personal way. "This is a place for journalists to really have an impact," Artley says. "I think we can change the future of storytelling."
A blog launched on Dec. 1 is the first example of the new era of collaboration: Afghanistan Crossroads. Not only was it timed perfectly with President Obama's announcement this week that he's sending 30,000 additional troops to the country, but the embedded journalists on the project have been told to file reports that went beyond their newsgathering responsibilities—personal anecdotes, even. Artley wanted a place for the stories that didn't turn into headlines: female journalists who shared stories with her about their decisions to wear or not wear headscarves in their cars, or others who described the beautiful yet perilous journeys through the roads of Kabul on their way to covering events. "Most media organizations are covering Afghanistan in an incremental way," Artley says. "This gives a center of gravity to a story that's so important at this moment in time." It also helps keep a story like this—one that the media has been accused of ignoring—front and center, as reporters are able to broadcast updates to the channel every day, no matter what else is competing for headlines.
Artley came from another reshuffling news organization, the Web site of the Los Angeles Times (before that she oversaw changes at the International Herald Tribune and The New York Times). Even before LATimes.com launched a smart new redesign in August, Artley had helped double traffic by breaking down reporter silos within the paper—getting, say, the veteran political columnist to blog, or asking the paper's beat reporters to share information with the Web team. "The number one thing was really working with the entire newsroom," she says. It's not always second nature to traditionally trained reporters, but it's a value system she has instilled in CNN's Atlanta headquarters as well.
CNN.com has not only empowered its own journalists but is training new ones. Its popular iReport program includes over 410,000 registered and dedicated iReporters, who contribute everything from red carpet interviews with celebrities at the Hollywood Christmas Parade to holiday cookie recipes on a site that's curated by CNN staffers. The speed in which CNN can essentially ask for reader commentary was illustrated during a recent event, where video of iReporters reacting to Obama's Afghanistan speech was edited into a montage by CNN producers within two days. CNN.com is also experimenting with first-person video reports and blogs from non-journalists. Its Opinion page, which launched with the redesign, is the first time that CNN.com has included op-ed commentary.
Still, the question remains: When it comes to technology, what will be the game changer, a la John King's "magic" touchscreen wall, for the CNN.com experience? The site has already integrated streaming video with real-time chatter from Facebook, as it did on its Inauguration Day coverage. NewsPulse is a way to customize, filter, and search news. After hinting at the possibility of some interactive graphics, Artley says ... wait for it ... "We'll be getting funky in the months to come," she says.
CNN's broadcast ratings have been plummeting of late. In October CNN dropped to last place in prime time among cable networds, and most recently its biggest brand-name journalist, Anderson Cooper has seen a significant drop in audience numbers. But according to the numbers from Fusion, a new rating system compiled by Nielsen that combines both broadcast and Internet impressions, CNN.com has a combined reach of more than 123 million across its online and television platforms, making it the #1 cable news brand, beating MSNBC and Fox News. Those figures are promising, but the most recent figures are only from August, pre-redesign.
But already since the redesign, Artley's team has noticed an uptick in more videos being watched, as well as a longer time engagement with the site—not just scanning for the latest headlines. That's the real change she thinks CNN.com will see in the long run. "We're always going to have the breaking news, where we dominate and deliver," she says. "But look for new broader stories, trend pieces, that give more analysis." Artley even acknowledges the suggestion that CNN.com could be a model for a brighter future in a bleak industry. "That's the most wonderful byproduct," she says. "We're empowering journalists to be reporting again."