Earlier this year, Mark Johnson gave a talk on the future of online news to executives at CNN in Atlanta. The wiry, red-haired 34-year-old, who had sold his software startup Zite to the cable news giant, told the group that technology will play the role of editor in selecting the top news stories of the day.
“I got off stage thinking people were going to tackle me,” said Johnson.
Instead, CNN has soaked up his vision. Starting today, CNN.com will begin featuring links to stories produced by The New York Times, Fox News, Slate and thousands of other sites. The links will be grouped together around the topics and stories that are hot on Twitter and Facebook, and collected on a page called CNN Trends that can be accessed from the big red banner across the top of the home page.
The new service was created using algorithms developed by Zite, a startup best known for its slick news-reading app for Apple’s iPad. When CNN bought Zite in August 2011, the company planned to keep the app running, while at the same time looking for ways to weave its technology for aggregating and personalizing news into CNN.com, said KC Estenson, senior vice president and general manager of CNN Digital, who led the acquisition.
“Smart people consume their news from a wide variety of sources,” Estenson said in an interview. “No one organization can cover the world with the breadth and depth of people’s myriad interests.”
Sending readers to other news outlets means CNN, currently the second most popular news site with 60 million monthly users, may lose opportunities to show ads at the expense of rivals. Yet over time, having a more agnostic news site will lead users to CNN more often for more things, Estenson said. The niche categories of news subjects that get featured on CNN Trends may become more valuable to premium advertisers, he said.
“We can take BMW into a category of content inside Zite that is all about luxury or aviation or automotive innovation or performance or wine,” he said. “That audience will be a lot smaller, but I believe their intent to purchase will be higher.”
While Zite has kept most of its staff and still has an office in the SoMa district, the heart of San Francisco’s startup scene, the unit now has two staffers dedicated to testing out new ideas for CNN.com. Their next mission, said Estenson, is to begin customizing the site to the tastes and interests of individual users.
“CNN.com should publish to you as a person,” he said. “Right now it publishes broadly and generically to the world, with a lot of human intervention.”