Scott Woelfel builds CNN Interactive, settles into Armchair! INTERVIEW

Originally Published November 18, 1996

CNN is one of the world’s most recognizable brand names. If you need a news fix, it’s the television channel to which everyone in the global village turns.

What about when there’s no TV around?

That’s the idea behind CNN Interactive, yet another brand extension from the house that Ted Turner hacked together with baling wire, spit and grit more than 15 years ago. CNN Interactive takes the company’s video content and resources and makes it available via a hugely popular World Wide Web site, a CompuServe kiosk and even alpha-numeric pagers.

“While CNN is right up there with SuperStation TBS in most households in the United States, there are times you’re not near a TV or cable,” says Scott Woelfel, 37, vice president and editor-in-chief of CNN Interactive. ” ‘Interactive’ provides another way to access us.”

CNN Interactive has been a regular Web hangout for newshounds since its inception on
Aug. 30, 1995. It’s a place for finding up-to-the-minute news, sports, weather, business — even Elsa Klensch’s fashion reports. During an average week, the site logs 14-million visits.

But that volume paled compared with Election Day, when it seemed liked more people visited CNN.com for election updates than actually voted. “I thought, ‘Anybody who ever bookmarked this site will go online tonight,’ but I had no idea how many people that really was,” Woelfel says. “By early afternoon, we already went beyond any previous count per minute.”

SCOTT WOELFEL audio excerpt: “You literally can put CNN on your hip. I look at PageNet constantly to see what’s going on. So does Ted Turner, I hear — it puts CNN within arm’s reach of the consumer, no matter where they are.” 

The network logged at least 50-million hits that day. Maybe more — they turned off the counters to conserve computing power.

All afternoon, CNN.com computer wizards juggled Web servers, trying to keep up with demand. Graphics on the most heavily accessed pages were temporarily dropped to speed the process along. The weakest machines, anything that might crash the system, were turned off and additional servers were put online to handle the crushing demand.

Prior to the election, the biggest sustained period of hits for CNN.com came during the Summer Olympics, held in the network’s hometown of Atlanta. Other big events drawing a crowd included the Yitzhak Rabin assassination, the TWA and ValuJet crashes and the latest U.S. attack on Iraq.

Scott Woelfel, William Shatner

Scott Woelfel, William Shatner

The CNN Web site actually has more recommending it than the TV version. For instance, if you’re watching CNN or even CNN Headline News, you have to wait for them to get around to the sports, weather or business news. But by accessing CNN.com, you get what you want when you want it. Freshness guaranteed, 24 hours a day. It’s sometimes even more up-to-the-minute than its TV counterpart. Thanks to automated programming, CNN.com updates its stocks, sports scores and weather every second, around the clock.

“Broadcast is a linear medium,” Woelfel says. “For the last 70 years, radio and TV have been one story followed by another story. There’s no reason that’s necessarily the best way to tell a story. The linking way the Web works is probably
best.”

Online producers can draw material from 30 worldwide CNN bureaus and 600 affiliates. And while some local TV stations, which post their reporters’ scripts on their Web sites, CNN’s producers rewrite stories specifically for surfers.

“It’s not print or TV, it’s something in between,” Woelfel says.

Text is supplemented by photos, QuickTime movies and RealAudio soundclips. And while CNN probably seems a natural candidate for the kind of live, simultaneous Internet audio broadcasts that many radio stations are experimenting with, Woelfel says it doesn’t work for the news channel — yet.

“It’s a bit of a sore point with us,” he admits. “We get a thousand e-mail letters a day and the No. 1 question is, ‘Why don’t you have RealAudio?’ But we don’t because we’re too successful. When we have tens and hundreds of thousands of people coming to our site at the same time, it gets frustrating because it doesn’t always work.”

The CNN Interactive staff of 120 rarely originates reporting at this point, but Woelfel expects that will change in the future. “There are needs of the online area that won’t be met by traditional TV-style reporting,” he says. “We’d like to figure out what those are and put our people on them.”

For the folks who run CNN.com, one lesson from TV news has come through loud and clear: keep it short, stupid.

“People don’t want to scroll a lot,” Woelfel says. “On television, everybody’s got a remote control. If their attention wanders from one show — click! — they’re gone. Same thing on the Web — they can click a link and be gone. We need to be short and interesting. Our articles are shorter — we’re not trying to do analysis. It’s best to be direct and let our readers sort it out.”

In its 15 months online, CNN.com has amassed nearly 80,000 pages of content. Unlike most daily newspapers’ Web sites, everything CNN produces online stays there, archived and searchable. It has an enviable track record in another department, too: CNN.com is a profit center for Turner.

“We’re making more money than we’re spending,” Woelfel says. Not many Web sites — heck, hardly any Web sites — can make that claim.

One important skill that Woelfel mastered is sustaining interaction between the online site and the TV channels.

“We try to capitalize on people who have access to both,” he says. “If it’s a plane crash, during the broadcast, we’ll get the anchor to promote the Web site by saying, ‘Go there to see a complete list of survivors.’ We’ve also got a Java news ticker on our home page that says, ‘Turn on your TV to see live coverage of the Whitewater press conference’ or we’ll have a promotion for whoever is on ‘Larry King Live’
tonight.”

All well and good. But what if you’re not near a TV or a computer with Internet access? No problem.

More than 800,000 news addicts carrying PageNet’s alphanumeric pagers receive updates every 30 minutes direct from the CNN newsroom all through the business day.

“You literally can put CNN on your hip,” says Woelfel, who is one of the PageNet Army. “I look at it constantly to see what’s going on. So does Ted Turner, I hear — it puts CNN within arm’s reach of the consumer, no matter where they are.”

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