Roy Wadia on our Our Interactive World project

This is interesting: colleague Roy Wadia on our Our Interactive World project from eons ago…

Our interactive world: a convergence journalism project from another time and place (last year)
By Roy Wadia
Media Consultant and Freelance Reporter,
Published: Wednesday, May 01, 2002
http://mediacenter.org/content/1443.cfm

The Concept

Internet technology and its impact around the globe. That was the broad theme of “Our Interactive World,” CNN’s most ambitious “convergence” project to date, which brought together CNN International, CNN.com, Time magazine and Time.com for one massive week in May 2001. Nothing on that scale had been attempted at CNN before, and, given the logistics involved and present-day realities, probably won’t be for the foreseeable future.

The concept was simple, on paper at least. A special issue of Time International, a companion theme week on CNN International and a joint Web site that reflected and complemented the print and TV product. The execution, however, was daunting.

The Plan

The magazine idea was formulated first, in late 2000. Once the target date of May 2001 was set, Time approached CNN. Once television signed on, both sides agreed to work together on a Web site. The basic outline of the plan was thus:

The magazine’s editorial content would be channeled through Time’s Asia-Pacific team based in Hong Kong, with contributions from correspondents around the world. CNN International’s editorial content would be guided by its senior team in Atlanta, who would commission pieces from the network’s stable of international reporters. The joint Web site would be hosted by Time.com in Hong Kong and New York, with CNN.com in Atlanta, London and New York contributing and posting CNN material accordingly. All three platforms — print, TV and Web — would be cross-promoted in creative and editorially viable ways.

First, we discussed the editorial content. Both Time and CNN were keen to highlight the opportunities interactive technology afforded people around the world. Time drafted a number of topics and stories, sharing its list with CNN. The network in turn requested of its correspondents ideas they’d like to package, and we whittled down the list to some 30 television reports. Countries on the list went beyond the usual suspects, to include places such as the steppes of Mongolia, the scrubland of Burkina Faso and the Amazon jungles of Peru — a true global representation.

At the same time, we couldn’t ignore the burning issue of the “digital divide.” Time decided to devote a special section to that topic. CNN announced it would produce a one-hour program during the theme week, to be aired live on CNN International and webcast at the joint Time/CNN site. The show would feature Internet luminaries, business leaders and international economists who’d debate the topic and field questions from a live audience at the CNN Center as well as Web users in chat rooms during the webcast.

The Workflow

Having drafted an editorial plan, the next discussion focused on the logistics. Print, television and the Web all have their own pace. Drafting a timetable suitable to all was quite a challenge. There were certain dates set in stone, but meeting some of those deadlines, especially on the TV side, would prove difficult.

The CNN reporters working on the theme week were filing their pieces in addition to their daily news duties. Some correspondents were able to send in their reports early, but most had to work around their everyday schedules, factoring in breaking news and stretches of time when they simply couldn’t focus on the theme week. Further, given CNN’s global spread, CNN Europe/Middle East/Africa (headquartered in London) and CNN Asia-Pacific (in Hong Kong) had to gather their regional correspondents’ reports before dispatching them to Atlanta.

The CNN.com “special projects” teams in London, Hong Kong and Atlanta assigned to the project had to contend with their very own daily news duties as well, and hence wanted the TV side to file pieces promptly, week after week, in order for the stories to be adapted and edited in time as Web scripts or video streams.

Similarly, Time.com needed CNN.com to get its Web material ready in time to be posted at the joint site. In turn, CNN.com needed to gain access to Time.com’s secure server to post CNN material, but it took several weeks for the “keys” to work, causing further delay.

The Promotion

Once the kinks were worked out, and a workflow pattern was established, we turned our focus to cross-promotion. Atlanta devised an on-air schedule for the TV reports, to ensure that the appropriate pieces would air within CNN’s blocks of regional programming (Europe/Middle East/Africa; Asia-Pacific; South Asia; Latin America; North America). The Time/CNN Web site needed access to this schedule, to promote the TV component on a daily basis across the week.

The site also promoted the special hour-long program on the “digital divide.” An hour before that program began, the chat room opened up, with moderators warming up the Web audience, encouraging them to watch the show, either on TV or via the Web cast. During the show, one of the two TV anchors on air monitored the chat rooms and chose audience questions for the TV guests. The guests themselves were either live at the CNN Center, or joined the program via satellite (from places like Washington, New York, Delhi and Hong Kong).

Promoting the theme week and Web site on TV, of course, was relatively easy. CNN International began running promos a month before the first piece aired. At that point, the Web site was a teaser, a static page with highlights from the upcoming magazine issue and TV theme week. Then, a week before the big day, the TV promos were more specific, teasing selected TV reports. At the same time, the Web site began promoting the TV schedule. Finally, as the full Web site was unveiled, it was promoted prominently at Time.com and CNN.com, with links that took the user to www.cnn.com/InteractiveWorld, a.k.a. www.time.com/time/interactive. As the TV theme week began on CNN International, the Web site would be promoted along with each report, both as an on-air graphic during each piece (“Log on to CNN.com/InteractiveWorld for special reports all week”) as well as a live anchor script after each piece, over a full screen grab of the Web site.

Within the magazine issue itself, Time provided readers with the opportunity to request so-called :CueCats, which could be used to scan links in the magazine to find additional features online. “This was a massive undertaking,” says Dan Erck, Interactive Development Manager at Time Inc. International, and a key point person on the project. “In the end, the site had hundreds and hundreds of articles and images. Technically, the :CueCats worked like a charm, but few people requested them, and even fewer actually used them. It was a neat idea, but probably a little ahead of its time.”

The Payoff

Whether the :CueCats were used or not, the site itself drew a sizeable audience, the traffic driven from the magazine and the TV theme week. “The response was fantastic,” says Erck. “The site got more than 2 million page-views, twice what we thought it would.” Interactive World, he says, was “easily our most successful special site to date” in terms of audience feedback.

Still, there were critics at Time and CNN who wondered whether the effort was worth it, given the cost and logistics involved, especially during a global economic slump and a consequent lack of advertising sponsorship. At CNN TV, just getting reporters to file dozens of pieces was a challenge in itself, despite their enthusiasm for the project. Across the CNN.com diaspora, reeling from mass layoffs in early 2001, there was initially little appetite for a massive project that threatened to divert time and manpower, with minimal ad revenue. And at Time, the concerns were also of an editorial nature. “The feedback before the project,” says Dan Erck, “was that an issue devoted to interactivity and convergence would be too vague and wouldn’t spark a reaction from readers. The criticism after the project was that it was too ambitious and probably a bit of a reach.” Still, Erck avers, “I think it was worth trying, and I’m glad we did, but we sold very little advertising into the issue and so from that point of view the project wasn’t a monetary winner. But that probably had more to do with our lousy timing, and less with the project itself.”

The Future

All of which begs the question as to whether prominent news companies should invest and align their resources so they can do this kind of work in the future. Is there, in other words, a journalistic or audience-oriented argument for this type of project?

In the post-September 11 news environment, at least at CNN and Time, the answer depends on what sort of theme one has in mind. An ambitious convergence project that encompasses the “war against terrorism” or the Middle East crisis, for example, may be editorially appealing, even without adequate advertising sponsorship. But sweeping themes such as “Our Interactive World” may face a harder sell in the near future. “Journalistically, the challenge is to keep such projects fresh year after year,” says Dan Erck. “This is probably why we’re not doing Interactive again this year.” The other challenge, he says, “is to find the necessary time to give the project the justice it deserves, and in a year like this, that’s almost impossible.”

Links:
CNN — Time: “Our Interactive World”
“Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War”
CNN: “The Hajj: Islam’s Journey of Faith”

Roy Wadia is the former Director of Integration, CNN International and CNN.com. Wadia is currently a media consultant and freelance reporter, shuttling between Atlanta, Vancouver, B.C., and Bombay.