What's Behind the News? Notes from a CNNgo Technology Briefing

I recently had a conversation with CNNgo’s product lead. This conversation was prompted by a frustrating experience with the streaming of a CNN on-demand program through the CNNgo on the iPad. The experience consisted for short bursts of program followed by over three-minutes of commercials, and then seconds more of the program, and then more commercials.

I took to social media and provided feedback on the experience through Twitter. I then took a deep breath and reached out to the CNN public relations team via email. They responded quickly.

What the product lead (she asked not to be named) shared was the continued evolution of a platform. Although consumers might think that a product in market for a year (CNNgo launched in April 2014) would have stable, well-tested applications, the reality is that much of the software reaching our powerful devices is cutting edge and experimental. Even big organizations like CNN don’t have control over all of the pieces. My streaming experience was the result of a broken encoder that threw off the ad servers, not a broken ad model, and certainly wasn’t the experience CNN application developers intended.

I thought I would take this opportunity to explore some of the other issues and experiences I’ve had as a iOS power user and daily consumer of CNN content.

Here is what I discovered.

Why advertising is annoying

It was my presumption that low advertising inventory was the major reason for the repetition of most CNN-centric adds streaming through CNNgo during on-air commercial breaks. I said sometimes by the time I actually get to a live program I can hardly stand to hear the theme song again. While inventory is a part of the problem it isn’t the only issue.

The biggest problem for online streaming is getting advertisers to provide content in a consumable form and insert it into the stream. Apple has some specific requirements, and as we all know, not running Adobe Flash is one of those requirements. CNN shared that advertisers usually stick to one format, rather than investing in platform-specific content formats, which yes, costs additional money to produce, but also makes it so that content can reach iPad and iPhone users (and Apple TV as well). Other “features” that clog up the stream are third-party call tags and other mechanisms used to track an ad’s performance. The bottom line is that advertisers aren’t always aligned with current technology—and to some degree, even if they were, the underlying technology continues to evolve. This is an area that is going to get better, and perhaps radically different in the future, but that radically different future will probably introduce new challenges for application developers and for content creators. CNN is currently educating its advertisers through its ad sales team and integrated marketing organization. Look for a wider variety of ads in the future.

Eliminating Dead Air

Dead air, or as CNN calls it, the Slate, happens in live video when the real-time ads on TV are replaced by digitally inserted ones that are shorter than the TV ads.

They have a couple of ways to working through this. First, they are looking at the alignment of inventories and also by shortening the break. Viewers are just a click away from leaving the CNNgo app and doing something else on their devices. The product lead is also passionate about educating teams at CNN, and the industry in general, about online viewing habits.   

Authentication issues

I fall into a small class of users who experience an Adobe authentication bug when using CNNgo. The app asks me to re-authenticate, accepts my credentials, and then tells me that I’m not authorized to view the content. This is a rare bug concentrated around heavy media users. CNN reports that the bug has been fixed, and hopefully it will be in the build available by the time you read this.

While this issue isn’t even apparent to most users, it brings up an awareness issue as well as an opportunity from Apple to better service its customers. First awareness. The CNNgo platform is developed in-house, but it consists of many parts, and all of those parts must be coordinated. Anybody who runs even a simple website on a platform like Wordpress has seen demands for plug-in updates. Apps like CNNgo have many components over which the developer does not have control. If any of those pieces aren’t perfect, then the experience suffers. Apple users see this all of the time with little things that don’t work, or annoy, following an iOS update. The reality is that software is a complex set of components and the development cycles aren’t always aligned; and, at the end of the day, every one of those components is written by a human and even in the information age, humans can still introduce errors into the promised utopia of digital perfection.

Second, and on a broader note, the authentication issues around cable companies needs to be fixed by Apple. And what I mean issue here is that we must authenticate separately into for each and every application that is enabled because of our cable subscription. Popular social applications like Facebook and Twitter are now integrated at the OS level, and so too should cable company authentications. Every app from CNN to HBO to ESPN requires authentication of a cable or satellite subscription in order to provide access to their content. Most people only have one media user name/password combination, and that should be stored in iOS so it can be accessed by any app looking for media subscription authentication. I think Apple needs to be that pretty high on their to-do list.

How CNN curates the news

As a regular CNNgo consumer, I see things that occasional users might not notice. One of those things is a story that shows up on the landing page more than once. In bringing that up, CNN shared that all of the content on the app is curated by people, known at CNN as digital producers. Though duplication of stories may occur, it is much more likely that hero images will be used for stories about the same topic, with the underlying text of video being different. That may be confusing, but it isn’t duplication. And they are figuring out how to get more images so the visuals are as differentiated as the story.

This topic generated a long discussion about machines versus humans. And like any good emerging technology organization, the CNNgo team is looking at technology that can make curation more efficient, but whatever they do, the news must remain of top quality, and highly relevant to readers. At this point, the digital producers aren’t going anywhere.

Regardless of the organizing source, be it human curation or machine learning, the next topic is one I’m surprised I’m still asking midway through the second decade of the twenty-first century: Why isn’t my news personal yet?

Why isnt my news personal yet?

A common practice among information technology and marketing professionals is the development of personas. A persona is a representation of a broad group of consumers who all fit into a general category. They can be distinguished by a few common attributes. You might not want to think that you fit into a persona, but you do. One of the CNN personas is that of an older consumer who wants some key news, but is overwhelmed by the options already available. While Internet pundits promise one-to-one experiences, the truth is those are pretty hard to create. It is difficult to even balance between competing expectations for the various personas, let alone give everyone their own customized version of the news. It isn’t impossible, just hard to get right, and it requires a balance between simplicity and complexity. More options make things more complex. Designing out complexity and offering “complex” functions in a simple way also requires time, and creativity —and sometimes emerging technologies. But what doesn’t require as much effort is more transparency into the editorial process on how the curators view the relevancy of content over time.

Currently CNNs editorial choices aren’t transparent, meaning that even though the page is curated by people, viewers don’t know what the decision making process is among those editors. It seems strange, for instance, for some Hollywood side stories to remain on the top page for days while stories with more relevance to me go missing in a day or so. It’s not that CNN shouldn’t have editorial choice about what goes on its page, but as a viewer, I would like to know CNN's thinking, so that perhaps through feedback, I can suggest alternative choices. Is the story about the President rambling to a sixth grader really still relevant days after it happened? Of course, it can be argued that in the virtual world that story always, and forever, going to be somewhere on the web, and that it remaining on the bottom of a CNNgo scroll isn’t really a big deal because there is literally infinite real estate should CNN choose to use it. But for me, curated news should be relevant, and remain relevant. I want that scroll to be about what matters.

The future, of course, is personalized news, at least as far as technology can take it today. We get some of that in the likes of Watchup, LinkedIn Pulse, Flipboard, and Newsbeat, all tools that allow the consumer of news to select what he or she believes is relevant, with varying degrees of granularity. And that to, me, is where CNNgo needs to go. I want it to tell me what is important that I may not know about, but then concentrate on providing me with news about those things I do care about. It should also know, for instance, that I’ve already saved the story "New streaming on Netflix, Amazon (apologies to other streamers covered but not in the title) in May,” and that that story is no longer relevant to me. It need take up no real estate in my news streams or my consciousness. Any science discovery of note, I want that to be at the top of my feed second only to some social or environmental event that will threaten the lives family members. And then I want to hear about Apple’s record quarter. And then…

We will eventually get to a place where personal newscasters, rendered in real time, read us the news in the accent of our choice and use our first name when they deliver it. And it will be the news we want to hear, but hopefully not only that—it should also include the news we need to hear, and that will be a negotiation at the pinnacle of the human conduction. We will ask technology to no only track concepts, but to track biases, but also perhaps, to challenge assumptions. Will future news systems have the ability to say, “I know you aren’t going to like this, but you really need to hear what this group in Kansas did today.” Will it be able to break through the walls of echo chambers, or to reinforce them at the whim of the consumer? Probably yes, and that will create an entirely new debate, and a new state of being that society will need to account for in everything from consumer behavior to politics.

Thank you, and good night.

Personalized news probably won’t be on the wish list much longer. It will be a reality. This list of current CNNgo technical issues will be resolved and replaced by a new, more sophisticated set. For those of us addicted to staying current with the news, and with our technology, there will never be a time when we aren’t at least a little ahead of the curve when it comes to perfect, repeatable execution of an experience.

Midway through the conversation, the product lead summed up most of the technical dialog with one statement, “sometimes it’s hard to make a dream work when you have existing technology.” That is something that all of us living on the bleeding edge need to remember.  As William Gibson points out, “the future is already here, it just isn’t evenly distributed.” New consumption experiences may vary in quality depending on the apps you adopt and the experiences you choose to engage. Don’t be too hard on those trying to make your dreams come true.

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Author Details

Daniel Rasmus's picture

Author Details

Daniel Rasmus

Daniel W. Rasmus is the Founder and Principal Analyst at Serious Insights. He is the author of Listening to the Future, Management by Design and Sketches of Spain and Other Poems. Rasmus teaches at Bellevue College where he teaches Social Media and Personal Branding.