CNN: Leading the pack in. . .newswriting?

I’m only sort of kidding.

Click here. Or here. Or, what the heck, here. [Note from author: CNN doesn’t have permalinks for its content, so these links keep going dead. If you wind up at a missing page, just click on any news story and you’ll see the feature I’m talking about.–cs 5/28/08]

Notice that each of these stories appearing on the CNN website is topped by a bulleted list titled Story Highlights. The following text rides in a box alongside the headline of a story, “Russia: We did not drop missile”:

STORY HIGHLIGHTS

  • Russia says it could not have dropped a missile in Georgia earlier this month
  • Georgia accuses Russia of “shameless Soviet diplomacy”
  • Experts from the U.S. among others have identified the missile as Russian
  • Incident reignites feuding between Russia and its pro-Western neighbor

The folks at CNN have figured out what editors of newspapers figured out by the 1920s or so but then (how?) forgot when they made the transition to the Web: Above-the-fold matters. People skim the news, scanning headlines, decks, picture/captions, and reading (sometimes) ledes and (rarely) the story to the jump and (very rarely indeed) all the way to the end.

But the biggest group of people skims headlines, decks, pictures and captions. This is the news consumer, both in print and online.

The most successful newspaper websites don’t seem to get this. Many use only the headlines that appear in the day’s paper, or those that come on top of wire service stories. The best of them handcraft blurbs for stories that get bigger display. A few get pictures and captions.

But click on the article itself and get this from USA Today.

This from the New York Times. [This link is behind a pay wall. Again, any Times news story will do.–cs]

This from the Washington Post.

In these examples you’ll find decks, some multimedia enhancements, links, and so on.

But none of them has what, arguably, would be the most valuable service to Web readers of the news: A succinct summary on top of the story, above the fold, that needs no clicking or scrolling to consume.

My deduction: CNN creates very little original news–and, as a broadcast culture, accepts intuitively how short a news consumer’s attention span is. (Recall the ribbon of text scrolling across the bottom of its newscasts.) It has no vanity associated with its original news reporting, no need to spool out the whole 43-inch wordroll in order to comfort the top print editors, who (still!) insist their marquee work in the paper be marquee work on the Web, repurposed with little disruption to the version that is trucked each morning to readers’ homes.

CNN’s news summaries are often not very good. The language is sometimes dull, the details are poorly selected, insights are heroically resisted. They read like the work of junior producers in a hurry.

But the summaries exist, high up, bulleted and readable. This fact alone gives a majority of Web news readers–skimmers and dippers–a better experience.

The only website I’m aware of that campaigns to package news stories with this kind of efficient skimbait is the give-‘em-a-break-they’re-still-in-beta site Newser. Its stories are topped by 100-word blocks of text, written by newswriters, and more insightful than CNN’s. But they are presented as blocks of text. No white space. Small text. From a usability perspective, these better writeups score lower than CNN’s bullets. Compare the Newser link above with any of the CNN links at the start of this blog entry and you’ll see what I mean.

I’d say it’s ironic that a broadcast website understands how to present news to an electronic user better than newspaper publishers that pay for serious reporting and news analysis.

But it’s not.

If newspapers took a cue from CNN’s packaging, and topped their full reports with easily skimmable summaries, they’d have the best of both worlds: Important, original news that carries out the vital functions of the Fourth Estate–and reaches the maximum audience.

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21 Comments on “CNN: Leading the pack in. . .newswriting?”


  1. […] CNN: Leading the pack in. . .newswriting? « Web 2.Oh. . .really? “CNN’s news summaries: Language is sometimes dull, the details poorly selected, insights heroically resisted. But the summaries exist, high up, bulleted and readable. This alone gives most Web news readers–skimmers and dippers–a better experience.” (tags: news readability usability good+example) […]

  2. Joe Gimenez Says:

    For those who write press releases, could this be good counsel? Make bullet points of the highlights at the top of the page, maybe hyperlink to the associated text in the release. Just a thought.


  3. May I suggest that you cast your ‘Net’ a little wider to catch some better kettles:

    There is this little news outfit called the BRITISH BROADCASTING CORPORATION
    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/technology/6959864.stm

    Their top of story summaries are brilliant, they package related content better than anyone else and they make it look easy. This story has it all, unordered lists, graphics, sidebar stories in a breakout box, videos of geezers playing video games, breaker heads and tons of rich, related content.

    Then there is always THE FIRST POST which does a daily news home page better than almost everyone.
    http://www.thefirstpost.co.uk/


  4. […] CNN: Leading the pack in. . .newswriting? I’m only sort of kidding. Click here. Or here. Or, what the heck, here. Notice that each of these stories […] […]


  5. […] delve into and get lost in. They don’t understand scanning, skimming, and dipping as touched on here. I have not yet been able to convince them that the young engineers don’t use the intranet this […]

  6. Paul Theis Says:

    I would like to take this a step further to say that I wish newspapers themselves more resembled web pages. Why the slavish devotion to narrow columns, for instance? (My guess: to distinguish news type from the ads, which doesn’t seem a good enough reason.) And why not put into print newspapers the same kind of news summaries that CNN.com provides?


  7. […] an interesting post at his Web 2.Oh. . .really? blog, former WaPo editor Craig Stoltz gives kudos to the interior page treatments at CNN.com that […]


  8. […] an interesting post at his Web 2.Oh. . .really? blog, former WaPo editor Craig Stoltz gives kudos to the interior page treatments at CNN.com that […]

  9. Bob Stepno Says:

    A serious site designer responded to my critique of short cryptic headlines once by saying there were more “click-throughs” with brief headlines than on heads with summaries. Seemed logical to me, but not for a good reason, as far as journalism goes…
    How could we test this hypothesis: With short heads, people click when they are slightly intrigued (or puzzled), but they don’t stick around. With clear summaries, people can tell exactly which stories they want to read in detail, so there are fewer click-through-and-leave hits. But maybe there’s also more time spent on selected stories and more loyalty to that “brand” for doing a better job of informing me in the first place.
    It’s not as simple a measurement job as click-through, but sophisticated server logs and focus groups would help.

    Or is it just that click-through is more easily quantifiable for the ad salesmen to pitch to clients accustomed to clear counts of “sales” and “viewers”? “More click-through” might be right up there with “it’s new, it’s improved, it’s old-fashioned…”


  10. […] Craig Stoltz said it well: I’d say it’s ironic that a broadcast Web site understands how to present news to an electronic user better than newspaper publishers that pay for serious reporting and news analysis.  […]

  11. Simon Harper Says:

    Broadcast and web news are closely related; and an organised, more detailed web news service should succeed newspapers.

  12. redball81 Says:

    I absolutely agree with your point here: i often end up reading entire articles b/c i’m afraid of missing the main points–when in reality i shouldn’t be spending that much time getting my news every day.

    the idea of CNN’s “story highlights” should be implemented by every internet news provider.


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