Unbound Edition. Meaningful conversations about brand, from Davis Brand Capital.

CNN: Stuck in the Middle with You

CNN and sister network HLN face a difficult brand challenge.  As Teri Schindler noted in her recent post on the branding of broadcast networks, CNN is caught between a rock and a hard place with MSNBC’s liberal bent and Fox News’ right-wing “reality.”

In order to form its own flavor and identity within the political spectrum, CNN has become increasingly obsessed with “hearing from you.”  CNN isn’t alone, but it has arguably led the way in relying on Twitter and other social media for filling the 24-hour news slot — sometimes to a fault.

CNN’s incorporation of social media and its own iReporters into its coverage points to a growing reliance on what has been labeled public, civic, or citizen journalism.  During my undergraduate studies at the University of Missouri-Columbia School of Journalism, the topic was engrained in the curriculum and research interests of faculty.  Early notions of public journalism involved soliciting input from the public via town hall meetings or other feedback mechanisms to set the news agenda.  Today, new technologies mean the public’s input is virtually instantaneous and more prolific.

Traditionally, debate surrounding public journalism largely hinged on the role of the public and its involvement in shaping the content and direction of news coverage, and the news media’s role as responsible gatekeepers.  In the age of media disintermediation, the latter is becoming less and less relevant. And whether or not that’s a good thing depends largely on one’s philosophical views on populism and the role of journalism within a free society, and whether or not you are married to the one-way, sender-receiver model supported by ad dollars.

Whether good or bad, the internet has forced news media to adopt varying degrees of public/civic/citizen journalism.  Regardless of what you call this breed of journalism, news media have involved their audiences in shaping news more than ever before – from conducting online polls and comment sections for stories to user-submitted images and mining Tweets.

Intentionally or not, CNN’s heavy reliance on Web 2.0 to fill the 24-hour news slot is defining its brand voice and identity.  Turning an ear to the news consumer and helping to amplify their voices through a traditional broadcast channel is commendable.

If MSNBC is the voice of the Left and Fox News is the voice of the Right, can CNN effectively position itself as a centrist voice of the people without diminishing its own role within the dissemination of news?  What is the next iteration of their model beyond cherry picking comments from Twitter or other social media and incorporating them into the coverage?And will the vetting (or lack thereof) of audience inputs impact the credibility of the brand over the long haul?

CNN is advancing a form of public/civic/citizen journalism.  And as its approach evolves, it will be interesting to see if it is savvy and agile enough to move on to the next big thing when Twitter goes the way of Friendster.  Or if it will be capable of moving past viewing social media merely as a means of soliciting mini letters to the editor in the form of 140-character Tweets to a more complex system of organizing communities to engage in substantive conversations surrounding the issues of the day.

If CNN can emerge as the real, representative voice of the people without pandering to its audience, it will be a welcomed breath of fresh air among a lot of hot air from the competition.  Based on its relentless coverage of Michael Jackson’s death, I think this is a big “if.”  But I would love to be proven wrong.


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