“Jim” at CNN.com has invited me to look at the beta version of the new CNN.com (screengrab top; current design below) for the Online Journalism Blog. He knows how to make a man feel special.
So of course I oblige, and the site? Well, I’m somewhat underwhelmed. In a year of relaunches, CNN’s effort lacks the ‘big canvas’ approach that seems to becoming the norm (larger images, larger text), and looks ‘small’ as a result. The redesign reminds me of that old cliche: ‘more evolution than revolution’, i.e. ‘we bottled it’.
So, a missed opportunity visually. But where they’ve done much better is under the hood, and in philosophy. Firstly, the decision to release a ‘beta’ version of the site to some users represents a change in the way these things have been traditionally done. So credit for joining the world of the ‘perpetual beta‘. Secondly, video is a stronger element, including a “move to an in-page flash video player and in-page video across our various storytelling pages“, while the primacy of text is challenged by “the idea that, online, all media types are created equal – text, video, photos, graphics and audio“. Er, and interactivity?
This is illustrated vividly by the comparison:
Notably, the site search engine has three options – the Web, CNN News, and CNN video.
I’m in the process of finding out how they made video more searchable. Jim tells me:
“The design itself was done in mind to make videos more searchable and discoverable by external search engines (Google, Yahoo, etc). Because the videos are no longer in a popup, users can link directly to individually videos and find them either from search engines or other partner links.
“For our internal search engine, we’re constantly making efforts to make our videos more searchable. We’re continually trying to find more ways to integrate more relevant metadata, thereby yielding more relevant results in a search. We’ve come along way and we still have plenty of room for improvement. We’re also continually looking at technologies that will help us improve our searchability.”
Those points aside, there are lots of little touches which are interesting signs of how news is changing: more prominence given to the Citizen Journalism arm (‘iReport’), more visible RSS feeds, blogs and podcasts, and, er, weather personalisation. I particularly like the subtle ‘Hot Topics’ line just under the navigation, too.
Of course, the great thing about a beta is: it’s work in progress. And the Behind The Scenes blog is wonderfully open about the changes they’ve already made in response to feedback. If you pop to http://beta.cnn.com/ you can add your own ideas to those already suggested.
PS: If you want the full CNN presentation, here it is.
UPDATE: The Journalism Iconoclast has also reviewed the site, and noticed some things I missed, particularly the use of AJAX, which does indeed make this a more impressive site than most:
“One of my favorite new features of the site is the video page itself. It breaks the video content down into different tabs like “Top Stories,” “Most Popular,” “By Category,” “Staff Picks,” “Live TV,” etc. But they aren’t separate pages. Using the power of Ajax, CNN.com doesn’t have to reload new pages each time you click on one of those tabs.
“Click on the story about the Glasgow airport attack. You are taken to the written story about what happened, but at the top of the page you’ll notice tabs for video and photos. If you click either one it puts the video or photos above a summary of the story for you to view — all without reloading the page. It’s very fast and seamless. Clicking on the read button takes you back to the full text.”