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Archives: July 2009

CNN and Technology: 9 Landmark moments

CNN, one of the most watched cable news networks in the US, is not shy about incorporating never-before-used technology into its coverage. Whether its the now iconic “Magic Wall” or the questionably useful live holograms, CNN is using technology today that may be the standard for newsrooms everywhere in the future.


CNN was one of the first major news networks to actively encourage its users to not just send in tips, but to become the reporters themselves, when it launched iReport in 2008. The site encourages citizen journalists to submit photos, video, and stories, some of which appear on-air and many more appear online. iReport is still going strong and to date has received hundreds of thousands of submissions from around the world.

YouTube Debates

CNN really kicked off its use of innovative technologies during the 2008 U.S. presidential election. Instead of a traditional debate with a news anchor fielding the quesions, the YouTube debates encouraged users of the video-sharing site to submit their own questions for the candidates. While the questions themselves were pre-screened and selected, it did mark an important shift toward the incorporation of user-generated content into a traditional media framework.

The Magic Wall

Likely the most hyped touch screen device since the iPhone, CNN debuted the “Magic Wall” during its 2008 political coverage and used it to display zoomable maps, county-by-county statistics, and the locations of its field reporters. Watching CNN anchors use the Magic Wall was a little like watching other kids playing with a cool toy and while its usefulness was questionable (the technology was parodied by Saturday Night Live), it did bring life to otherwise boring data.

Live Holograms

Reporter Jessica Yellin and Black Eyed Peas frontman/Obama supporter were given the Star Wars treatment and beamed into CNN’s New York studio to chat live with CNN anchors — even though they were miles away in Chicago. While it technically wasn’t a hologram, it did make many jaws drop and helped CNN stand out from an already crowded political news market.

“Balance of Power”

CNN used the holographic technology again earlier that night with a 3D representation of the US Capitol to illustrate how key Senate races could affect the balance of power. Cable news networks often use infographics to synthesize complex data, but not may of them have done so in 3D.

“The Moment”

During the 2009 presidential inauguration of Barack Obama, CNN asked users to send in their photos from the event as Obama was sworn in. More than 600 submissions were combined to create one high-resolution, interactive photo dubbed “The Moment.” The incredible photograph was powered by Microsoft’s relatively new Photosynth technology and illustrated how crowdsourcing and citizen journalism could be mixed with innovative technology to create a unique and outstanding result.

The Race to 1 Million

When television celebrity Ashton Kutcher challenged CNN to see who could be the first to reach 1 million followers on Twitter, the internet was abuzz, placing bets on both sides. Who would win old media or young upstart? The competition became more intriguing when it was revealed that CNN didn’t actually own @cnnbrk, the username that was amassing the large number of followers. In the end, Kutcher won the bet and CNN now has one of the most followed Twitter accounts dedicated to breaking news.


Twitter users turned the tables on CNN and called out the network for its lack of coverage of the recent Iran voting protests. Using the hashtag #cnnfail, a seemingly endless stream of tweets admonished the network to dedicate more airtime to the story. In the end CNN complied, ironically using Twitter itself as a source for news reports from the country.

Live Webcasts

Many news networks offer online clips of previous broadcasts arranged neatly in video channels. CNN takes the idea a step further by offering live online simulcast of its television broadcast as well as live streaming video during special events such as the funeral for pop star Michael Jackson and the hearings for US Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor. The online video strategy proved to be popular during the 2009 inauguration when an estimated 7.7 million viewers watched the event online. To add another layer of technical wizardry, a list of related Facebook status updates were streamed in a sidebar adjacent to the video.

And here is a timeline of these landmark moments, created by Kevin Sablan at Almighty Link using Dipity. Many thanks to Kevin for creating this visual example.

Also on 10,000 Words:

CNN headlines themselves making news
7 Eye-popping interactive timelines (and 3 ways to create one)
10 Inspirational New York Times multimedia and interactive features

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In a world without editors, readers thrive

News meetings suck.

Not because they are long, boring and often don’t have enough snacks (actually that may be the problem), but because they are a group of journalists sitting in a room trying to decide what news they think readers will want to read. Editors and reporters have a good eye for news and are trained to know what makes a good story, but the problem with the system is that there really is no accurate way to gauge what stories thousands or millions of readers will care about. Sure there are site analytics which gauge the popularity of individual online news articles, but as any editor can tell you these stories often skew to the offbeat stories and celebrity news.

That’s where sites like Windy Citizen and come in. The sites aggregate local news for Chicago and New York, respectively, and follow a Digg-like formula where users submit the stories they find interesting and others vote the stories up or down. Both sites play to the wisdom of the crowd: local readers know what’s important to them and those that are unsure of what they want to read can rely on their peers for suggestions.

Windy Citizen (left),

Yes Windy Citizen and mostly depend on mainstream news sources to fuel their sites, but the key difference is readers don’t have to rely on mainstream news sites — or a handful of journalists — to tell them what they should be reading.

Such sites are like perpetual news meetings where people around the world communicate and identify the stories they are interested in. Online news headlines often appear separate from the actual news site, meaning many readers will have read the story without seeing the news site it came from or the landing pages that advocated its existence.

Some traditional journalists will argue that we need editors to make the key news decisions, but do we really? It is understandable why editors are needed in print and broadcast journalism to select stories to be printed or aired, but in the digital age where readers flock to social networks and, to a lesser extent, RSS readers to get the news they care about, the power of the news editor is diminished.

While sites like Windy Citizen and should be praised for letting readers determine what is newsworthy, such modern approaches to the curation of news won’t be adopted overnight… meaning the news editor position is safe for now. However, journalists should get ready for people-powered journalism where the reader is best served by serving themselves.

Also on 10,000 Words:

6 Sites that are changing the way you follow the news
Beyond Twitterfeed: Innovative uses of Twitter in the newsroom
5 Interactive maps that connect communities
How the internet is changing how natural disasters are covered
Why aren’t all journalists “citizen” journalists?

My first multimedia story… 11 years ago

I’m often asked how I came to know so many multimedia skills at a relatively young age. I recently rediscovered the answer.

In the summer of 1998, I participated in a project called Waking Hours that aimed to illustrate the interconnectivity of the lives of 20 Los Angeles teenagers, using the web as a platform. At this point I had no intention of being a journalist, yet we were armed with cameras and told to document a day in our lives. The summer before the big day we learned how to shoot photos and edit them in Photoshop (my first experiment was cloning my head on a friend’s body) and how to properly record audio.

The site itself is very 1998 — built with frames, small images that are barely visible — but the core values of multimedia storytelling are there. And the site reinforces that at 15 years old I was a multimedia journalist in the making. In the blog-like diary that includes links and photos, I describe reading Yahoo! Internet Life Magazine, creating maps on a Macintosh Classic computer, and the perils of chatting in AOL chat rooms (priceless quote: “I’m not a techno freak, I just like the Internet.”)

Being exposed to multimedia tools at such a young age unbeknownst to me left an indelible impression and is likely the reason you’re reading this blog today. Check out the project by clicking on “The Show” and read my entries by clicking on “Mark L.”

I leave you with my response to the question “Where do you see yourself in ten years?”

“In ten years I’m going to be a really famous person. I’m not sure how I’m going to be famous but I will be, I’m going to have this gigantic house probably in Hollywood, or maybe in New York city. I’m going to have a butler and a couple of little kids running around the house. I’m gonna have a gorgeous wife who always looks good even when she wakes up. I won’t have to work and I can just party when I want and play around, like playing basketball and stuff. If I’m living away from home I’ll take my own airplane back here to L.A whenever I want to so I can visit old friends and family.”

I’d say I came pretty close.

Also on 10,000 Words:

Do children really want to be journalists when they grow up?
Just what are they teaching future journalists?
How film school helped me become a better journalist

3 reasons journalists shouldn't use Flash

When Flash, the animation authoring software distributed by Adobe, first made its way into the hands of journalists, newsrooms everywhere seized the opportunity to create interactive stories that combined text, photos, audio, and video into one neat package. The novelty of the program led to the use of Flash for everything — even for stories that could be told successfully with just text and pictures — and sometimes requiring staff with no previous experience in design or computer programming to begin learning the program.

That said as wonderful a program as Flash is and despite its limitless possibilities there are several reasons why newsrooms should just say no.

1. Flash projects take a long time to create

When brainstorming how to incorporate Flash into upcoming multimedia projects, many journalists and editors don’t take into account how time-consuming it is to build even the most basic Flash project. Whereas with a print story, the writer can simply stop writing at any moment and not include further points or ideas, the process of creating keyframes, tweens, and coding a project takes a significant time to create complete. Flash is only done when it’s done.

2. Many projects don’t need to be animated

Journalists get excited when they see Flash projects with eye-catching animation and thus are tempted to make everything move, swish, zoom or fly across the screen in their own projects. Journalists should first decide if the multimedia project even needs to be built in the program and that Flash isn’t being used just because it’s cool. If it is decided that Flash is a great fit for a particular story, the producer should restrain his or herself and not go overboard with animation. At its foundation, a Flash project is still about telling a story.

3. Most journalists are not designers

Flash is okay to use as long as the conventional rules of web design are not ignored. Those who interact with Flash projects expect the layout and navigation to mirror traditional websites with the added bonus of interactivity. Because the average journalist isn’t schooled in the fundamentals of design or user interaction, a Flash project should first be sketched or storyboarded by professional designer who is well-versed on how readers interact with visual stories or graphics.

Of course there are many reasons why journalists should use Flash, among them its versatility and its power to draw in the passive user. The following are three multimedia journalism stories that are proof of the power Flash has to bring stories to life.

1. National Geographic: Kingdom of the Blue Whale

2. Las Vegas Sun: Construction Deaths

3. Día de la Música

Also on 10,000 Words:

Where to find the best in Flash journalism
How to save time when using Flash
How did they do that? How to deconstruct websites and Flash files
8 Flash tips and tricks + one big cheat sheet

4 Cool tools for following the news

Most online news sites are poorly designed messes where stories are packed into every crevice of the site with no consideration for the user. Those who just want to browse the latest headlines are often left to wade through a sea of indecipherable text. The following sites recognize that online readers want to browse headlines and they want to do it quickly.

USA Today: Newsdeck

USA Today has long been a champion of visual journalism. Newsdeck, launched last week, continues that tradition with a headline aggregator laid out in the paper’s colorful but simple style. Headlines are broken up into separate boxes that, by selecting the arrow button, toggle between top stories and most popular stories.

New York Times: Article Skimmer

Article Skimmer, launched earlier this year, is a user-friendly interface for browsing the latest New York Times headlines. Browse different sections by selecting a category in the sidebar or using the up and down arrow keys on the keyboard.

Google News Timeline

While the Times and USA Today visualizations only show headlines from their respective papers, Google News Timeline displays news stories from a variety of news outlets, arranged chronologically on a timeline. Users can also enter a search term to see the news on a given subject as it has been covered over time.


DoodleBuzz isn’t going to be the site of choice for hardcore news readers, but it is a fun tool for visualizing news headlines in a unique way. Enter a search term and draw a few lines with your mouse and DoodleBuzz creates headlines based on your doodles. Doodle more and you’ll find story excerpts as well as related topics.

UPDATE: Be sure to check out’s visualization of its most popular stories. Each story is arranged in the tree map format also used in the popular Marumushi Newsmap (hat tip to the site’s Conectados blog).

Also on 10,000 Words:

8 Ways of visualizing the news
7 Innovative ways of visualizing the news
Be inspired! 12 ways to find the best in data visualization