Last December, just after CNN.com unveiled a redesign with a simplified, user-centric interface to better showcase its breaking news, a new blog appeared named Afghanistan Crossroads. But this wasn’t just the hard-hitting tales of combat found on CNN.com’s homepage: This blog showed overlooked stories like how troops were finding small ways to celebrate the holidays, interviews with Afghani bloggers, even reporters’ personal photos from day-to-day life in Kabul.
Connecting these dots between the torrential news cycle and more personal blog-like narratives is CNN.com’s new managing editor Meredith Artley, who has revolutionized the cable channel’s online presence. Under her leadership, the site saw February ratings that blasted past all other news and information sites, beating MSNBC Digital during its Winter Olympic coverage, even as CNN’s broadcast ratings continued their precipitous tumble.
Artley, who has performed similar online news wizardry at the Los Angeles Times, The International Herald Tribune, and The New York Times, says she relies upon the strength of the journalists who have been working there for years–she just gives them tools like blogs, video, and even outside non-journalist sources to tell their stories more effectively. “There are so many strings you can pull, going beyond just tossing up a story and updating it,” she says.
Since the site’s relaunch, CNN’s newsgathering framework has had a chance to prove its viability: The devastation in Haiti forced every major news outlet to rely on short bursts of news via Twitter and first-person reports until their journalists could get there–a way of reporting that CNN.com was already equipped to handle with its breaking news blogs and iReporters. “We threw everything we had at that story, from building databases to new multimedia efforts to minute-by-minute reporting,” says Artley, whose team created a Haiti earthquake topic page that collects ongoing coverage even months after the disaster.
Perhaps the most memorable part of CNN.com’s Haiti coverage was Anderson Cooper’s on-the-ground reporting, which bounced seamlessly between streaming video and broadcast. Bringing video front and center on the site was something Artley felt strongly about. “These are big names with their interpretation of what happened,” she says. “That lineup of great thinkers lets the network have more of a presence.” She helped to introduce live streaming video to CNN.com’s homepage, which debuted by covering the media circus of the Oscar red carpet. In March, John King’s new CNN show, John King, USA was simulcast using Facebook Connect, creating a solid online community for the show from its launch.
Experimenting with new ways of telling stories has also allowed CNN.com to investigate some unlikely partnerships. In January, the site launched its partnership with VBS.tv, the video channel from the unapologetically irreverent media company Vice. This brings stories that CNN might not necessarily cover–like retirement homes for sex workers–to CNN’s expanding young audience. Another popular video series tracks the indie band the Handsome Furs as they tour through Asia.
Artley’s leadership has demonstrated how technology can change the way journalists tell a story, and now her work will also play a hand in changing how users get their news. In mobile traffic–where the next big newsgathering battles will be fought–CNN.com has held the top spot for an astounding 37 months. Its apps are basically untouchable, with 14.2 million unique visitors in January, a number that clobbers its nearest competitor, Yahoo News, by more than 187%. “The traffic numbers indicate that all this innovative work is resonating with users,” says Artley. “We are feeling pretty good over here.”