Surely A Zucker Target, CNN.com Needs A Revamp
There was a frisson last week about Rupert Murdoch’s tip of the hat to CNN's evolution under new head Jeff Zucker. The compliments – touching on the increased on-air energy – didn’t betray any fear that CNN would pose much of a ratings challenge to Fox News anytime soon. But, as Murdoch hinted, there seems to be an effort to find stories with more widespread appeal and offer blanket coverage of them, rather than dipping in and out.
Zucker will no doubt continue his efforts to break from what one former CNN executive described as “brand-cuffs,” a feeling inside the company that CNN has a duty to focus on matters of national importance rather than chase ratings. That doesn’t mean CNN will completely abandon its heritage. Piers Morgan has offered a hybrid that Zucker apparently thinks is working by spending months focusing on why so many Americans are opposed to some version of a ban on assault and military-style weapons.
At some point after Zucker feels he has the right talent and staffers share – or at least adhere to – his vision, he’ll likely turn his attention to CNN’s Web page. He’s not just in charge of boosting ratings at CNN, but driving revenues for the Time Warner unit globally.
And whoa, could CNN.com use help. Where to start? Nothing short of a redesign and refocus.
The site is way too busy and staid. On an average day, it needs urgency and moxie. Some juice.
On Friday, an "exclusive" story about a Republican senator reversing his stance on gay marriage after learning his son was gay didn't feel that much different at first glance from a piece about his simply agreeing to a minor tax increase.
It seems the CNN.com editorial mission is to simply offer as much news as possible. The avoirdupois comes off as sleepy. After a few lead stories, there’s not much evidence one article or video has any more prominence than another.
The content mass may work for someone with time to burn who can keep scrolling down and down. It’s no friend for a grazer, someone looking to swiftly stay on top of things or grab a quick diversion from compiling a boring spreadsheet.
If CNN suffers from those “brand-cuffs” on-air, perhaps its Web site is straight-jacketed as well. There might be an ethic of we’re CNN -- a sort of paper of record – so how can we leave any story off a sort of lead page?
To be sure, problems may not lie entirely with a fill-it-to-the-brim editorial approach. The design might be restrictive. Hey, the template is there, so the space has to be filled.
The most curious aspect of the CNN.com home page is the far-left column that comes just “below the fold.” Under a photo and some top stories, comes a seemingly endless rundown of indistinguishable links under a “This Just In” header. There’s no topic coherence.
On Friday, stories ranged from the debate about drone use to a “dramatic dog attack” (with a video link) to more about Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg. No differentiation in prominence. A similar dynamic comes with a group of “Featured” videos at the home page heart.
In contrast to CNN.com, the Web site for Fox News feels more lively, at least up top. Same with NBCNews.com, although it is also rather crowded. Like CNN.com, both sites do fall victim to small and indistinguishable headlines as one scrolls down, which that don’t exactly invite a reader in. (MSNBC is said to working on a Web re-launch and has no dedicated presence now.)
ABCNews.com doesn’t have a lot of flair, but benefits from larger headlines. Most appealing may be CBSNews.com, which could be said to be clutter-free. On Friday, it had a lead story about U.S. defense of North Korean missile use with a bold headline. To the right were a few stories portrayed with similar pop. From a distance, it may look like a tabloid, but it works and the robust headlines throughout are a good tactic.
CNN’s mobile apps have some flash on iPhones and iPads. Then again, the screens are so bright, it would be hard not to. But with the iPad, it may again be trying to do too much. A first-time visitor is virtually repelled by a screen that’s a wall-to-wall mosaic of same-sized photos and headlines. CNN’s best digital venture could be its iPhone presence, which can feel decidedly un-crowded and the design works well with the limited space.
Why all this picking on CNN? In an age where news networks and Web sites are chasing ratings and readers at the expense of quality, why knock CNN.com for offering so much content, even if it takes some work to sort through it? Isn’t that the opposite of dumbing down the news?
All true. But if top-notch content isn’t easily accessible in a world where time is at an extreme premium, how valuable is it?