Walking into CNN's newsroom is like walking into Best Buy during the holidays: gigantic flat panel displays are plastered all over the hangar-like space; people are running around frantically with laptops and Blackberrys and iPads; touchscreens galore dot the scene; and as I watch Wolf Blitzer and Anderson Cooper try to tame opinionated pundits, there are layers of digital projections not visible to the naked eye. It's a newsroom for the 21st century, and during last night's hectic mid-term elections, CNN gave Fast Company a behind-the-scenes look at how technology has impacted its news coverage.
"I spend 99% of my time on the relationship between TV and digital," says Alex Wellen, craning his neck between a MacBook, iPhone, and small television set. "A story should be bigger than any one platform." As senior executive producer of integrated programming, Wellen is tasked with bringing CNN to the digital age. He's showing me the latest election tech--analysis by Crimson Hexagon of hundreds of thousands of geo-located tweets, mapped to show why people are voting this election. The map was bright orange, indicating the vast majority of the public were voting against rather than for a policy or candidate. "That is a story," he says, beaming. About an hour after I spoke to Wellen, that data, which began as dispersed tweets before being corralled and analyzed, had flown from CNN.com to CNN, delivered live on-air by John King, who used the information to describe voter sentiment. "It's a fascinating way to just look at the conversation in the Twitter-verse," King explained.
While running through this latest technology, Wellen was interrupted several times with urgent queries, which demonstrated the strains of such a modern newsroom. One producer ran over with a breaking report on Latino voters. Where does this live? How can I get this on Twitter? Who is running the blogs? Should we retweet the report or get it on CNN.com's Political Ticker? Another staffer interrupts to speak with Wellen about a new data map ready to go online. About 10 months of work went into these visuals--when do they flip the switch and make them live?
"We have people building the feeds, building the website, building the Magic Wall, curating tweets, working on analysis--it's pretty elaborate, but it's only one element of our coverage," says Wellen, ticking off some of the more techy features of CNN's coverage, such as virtual sets.
Indeed, while online teams work intimately with on-screen talent, it's the latter that must bring this digital world to life. Think about how much work goes into translating this technology to an audience--how CNN hosts must explain what Twitter and Facebook and social media analytics are. And that's not to mention interacting with walls and walls of touch screens and digital projections, many of which, mind you, don't actually exist.
"That's the weird part about all this," says chief business correspondent Ali Velshi (pictured above), who works with hologram infographics. "There is more technology than we've ever used before, and yet nobody can see any of it. I'm standing there, and there's nothing in front of me--but the viewer sees it."
Which makes it all the more impressive that CNN hosts don't slip into fumbling weathermen, pointing in the wrong direction or clicking the wrong item. Even John King, who typically controls the Magic Wall--CNN's giant iPad-like screen--has streamlined the process, even as he's punching buttons and dragging images on a multi-layered green screen that looks completely different to him than it does to viewers.
Still, the network's tech prowess hasn't stopped criticism. At times, the amount of on-screen glitz can feel overwhelming, and some like Jon Stewart have skewered the excessive digital coverage.
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That's not slowing CNN, though.
"Sometimes we have technology that doesn't get us there, it's just neat, but I'm not doing this just to impress you or tell you we're better than Fox and MSNBC," Velshi says. "This really matters to you. You need to know why X person won here. If I have to give you some brighter shiner objects to do it, then I'll do it."