CNN Trends: $20 million that could be put to better use

In the grand scheme of the CNN global money-making machine, $20 million may amount to a rounding error. But it’s not an insignificant sum  considering the cost of the in-depth investigative efforts that should be the hallmark of any serious news organization.

So when CNN spent $20 million to acquire the news personalization service Zite last year, it’s reasonable to expect it make a meaningful contribution to the business. Which makes Zite’s deployment on this week something of a head-scratcher.

Zite is powering CNN Trends, a new “news discovery dashboard,” and dashboard is a term used in the loosest, most charitable sense of the word. CNN Trends is essentially a single page that compiles the top 10 stories “trending” on social media, and automatically aggregates for each story a collection of stories from outside the website to accompany CNN’s own take.

This isn’t going where you think it is. Sure, the most obvious question that comes to mind when it comes to an aggregation strategy like this is, why offer users an alternative to your own content when that risks pulling them away from your own site?

But that’s not what’s questionable about CNN’s integration of Zite (which continues to function as a freestanding app). What CNN is doing is acknowledging the reality that its users typically graze across the Internet for different versions of the stories that interest them most–a notion hopefully supported by user data than mere presumption.

Rather than let its users leave to let a search engine enable that habit, the website is smart to step in and attempt to establish itself as a starting–and ending–point for consumers’ diversified news diets.

CNN should be commended for taking such a counterintuitive, dare I say disruptive, approach to its business. But just about every other element of how Zite has been integrated into doesn’t make as much sense.

For starters, the true power of Zite is in its ability to personalize the news to each reader’s individual interests, not a collective interest that speaks to no one in particular. The stories that are going to prompt me to want to read multiple versions are going to be the ones most relevant to me, not the masses.

As for the ability to read multiple versions, that’s nice but not exactly the most compelling value-add that would keep me from going back to Google News to get identical service. It would have been better to get some sense of qualitative judgment of the stories being culled instead of what seems to be a random sampling. Most of the multiple versions that pop up are purely duplicative of CNN’s own story, offering nothing new.

Trust me, you’ve read one “Drake Graduates From High School” story, you’ve read them all.

Better yet, CNN/Zite, go back to the drawing board and figure out a way to make aggregation a one-page experience that eliminates the risk of me leaving and truly distills differentiated information from each story into one uber-story. It probably takes a human curator to make it happen, but perhaps for high-interest stories, that’s a justified expenditure.

What Zite should do is give me a door into CNN that is reading me as much as I am reading the site, collecting information about my interests and presenting me with a version of the site that reflects those interests. And Zite would be better off as a button that appears alongside every story on than in a sequestered dashboard.

Surely CNN Trends is just the first step in what will become a more sophisticated product over time. But the way Zite is utilized here is so embryonic compared to what it could conceivably deliver that it’s worth asking what’s the point of CNN taking it to market at this early stage.

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