Visitors walking into CNNMoney’s New York bureau on the fifth floor of the Time Warner Center are greeted with a blast of data — and ambient heat — emanating from a huge array of video monitors.
Welcome to the business news site’s digital war room. Erected in December, it comprises two 84-inch LG 4K monitors that flash second-by-second metrics and data visualizations from about a dozen Internet and social-media tracking services. Above those screens are five 32-inch TVs, tuned to CNN and other nets.
It’s not an actual room. Rather, in a bullpen in front of the 10-foot-wide video bank, a dedicated team of 10 multiplatform producers and analysts sit parked in two rows, glancing up constantly at the streams of data.
The setup provides a “business-intelligence control room for digital,” says Ed O’Keefe, VP of CNNMoney and Politics (pictured above). “It’s like getting Nielsen ratings in real time.”
Of course, any digital-news publishing outfit worth its salt closely tracks usage metrics and trending stories. But the war room’s personnel is specifically tasked with acting on the data immediately to flag hot emerging topics for social and video content.
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The live stats can yield counterintuitive insights. Earlier this month, after “NBC Nightly News” anchor Brian Williams admitted he falsified an account of his experience in Iraq, CNNMoney pushed two different headlines for the same story: “Controversy Grows Over Williams’ Iraq Apology” and “Apology Backlash: ‘He’s in for a Hell of a Ride.’” Within 20 minutes, war-roomers saw that the latter had higher click-through and sharing rates, leading the less-contextual “Hell of a Ride” version to become the headline for all users on the site.
CNN prexy Jeff Zucker is a fan of the concept, swinging by several times daily to see what’s trending, staffers say. In fact, the group’s social-media producer has affixed two rearview mirrors on her monitor to detect when Zucker is peering over her shoulder.
CNNMoney’s war room effort appears to already have reversed a slide in audience. Effective June 1, 2014, Turner Broadcasting terminated its 14-year joint venture for the website with Time Inc., shifting full control to CNN. As a result, CNNMoney’s unique monthly users fell precipitously, from 18.0 million in January 2014 to 12.4 million last June, per comScore. That was in part because the site lost about 10% of its traffic from Fortune, which remained with Time Inc. This January, however, CNNMoney bounced back up to 20.2 million uniques.
Old-school journalists may balk at such a data-driven approach to news, says Andrew Morse, g.m. of CNN Digital, who also oversees CNN’s U.S. newsgathering operations. But, he adds, “To me, it’s about getting effective reach for your stories.”
For CNN, digital properties like CNNMoney are an increasingly important piece of the 35-year-old cable news network’s business. CNNMoney pulled in roughly $50 million last year, extrapolating from Time Inc. financial disclosures associated with its spinoff from Time Warner. That’s a fraction of the coin CNN collects from its TV biz: Total overall revenue was $1.1 billion in 2014, according to SNL Kagan estimates. But the network is trying to steer the ship toward digital as ratings continue their descent, and as more consumers turn to the Internet first for news.
“There’s an entire generation of people growing up who will never have a cable subscription,” says O’Keefe, former ABC News digital producer and editor-in-chief of NowThisNews, who joined CNN last May.
CNNMoney’s war room monitors track inputs from providers including Omniture, Chartbeat, Facebook, Spike’s NewsWhip and Dataminr. It’s a template for others the company expects to build, with the Politics bureau in Washington, D.C., on track to be the next to install a bunch of giant screens.
Ultimately, the theory goes, the live data constellation will help CNN act more swiftly on stories that have the most audience traction — as well as inform what it puts on the air.
Says O’Keefe: “Social is the new newsgathering tool.”