CNN and Technology: 9 Landmark moments

CNN, one of the most watched cable news networks in the US, is not shy about incorporating never-before-used technology into its coverage. Whether its the now iconic “Magic Wall” or the questionably useful live holograms, CNN is using technology today that may be the standard for newsrooms everywhere in the future.


CNN was one of the first major news networks to actively encourage its users to not just send in tips, but to become the reporters themselves, when it launched iReport in 2008. The site encourages citizen journalists to submit photos, video, and stories, some of which appear on-air and many more appear online. iReport is still going strong and to date has received hundreds of thousands of submissions from around the world.

YouTube Debates

CNN really kicked off its use of innovative technologies during the 2008 U.S. presidential election. Instead of a traditional debate with a news anchor fielding the quesions, the YouTube debates encouraged users of the video-sharing site to submit their own questions for the candidates. While the questions themselves were pre-screened and selected, it did mark an important shift toward the incorporation of user-generated content into a traditional media framework.

The Magic Wall

Likely the most hyped touch screen device since the iPhone, CNN debuted the “Magic Wall” during its 2008 political coverage and used it to display zoomable maps, county-by-county statistics, and the locations of its field reporters. Watching CNN anchors use the Magic Wall was a little like watching other kids playing with a cool toy and while its usefulness was questionable (the technology was parodied by Saturday Night Live), it did bring life to otherwise boring data.

Live Holograms

Reporter Jessica Yellin and Black Eyed Peas frontman/Obama supporter were given the Star Wars treatment and beamed into CNN’s New York studio to chat live with CNN anchors — even though they were miles away in Chicago. While it technically wasn’t a hologram, it did make many jaws drop and helped CNN stand out from an already crowded political news market.

“Balance of Power”

CNN used the holographic technology again earlier that night with a 3D representation of the US Capitol to illustrate how key Senate races could affect the balance of power. Cable news networks often use infographics to synthesize complex data, but not may of them have done so in 3D.

“The Moment”

During the 2009 presidential inauguration of Barack Obama, CNN asked users to send in their photos from the event as Obama was sworn in. More than 600 submissions were combined to create one high-resolution, interactive photo dubbed “The Moment.” The incredible photograph was powered by Microsoft’s relatively new Photosynth technology and illustrated how crowdsourcing and citizen journalism could be mixed with innovative technology to create a unique and outstanding result.

The Race to 1 Million

When television celebrity Ashton Kutcher challenged CNN to see who could be the first to reach 1 million followers on Twitter, the internet was abuzz, placing bets on both sides. Who would win old media or young upstart? The competition became more intriguing when it was revealed that CNN didn’t actually own @cnnbrk, the username that was amassing the large number of followers. In the end, Kutcher won the bet and CNN now has one of the most followed Twitter accounts dedicated to breaking news.


Twitter users turned the tables on CNN and called out the network for its lack of coverage of the recent Iran voting protests. Using the hashtag #cnnfail, a seemingly endless stream of tweets admonished the network to dedicate more airtime to the story. In the end CNN complied, ironically using Twitter itself as a source for news reports from the country.

Live Webcasts

Many news networks offer online clips of previous broadcasts arranged neatly in video channels. CNN takes the idea a step further by offering live online simulcast of its television broadcast as well as live streaming video during special events such as the funeral for pop star Michael Jackson and the hearings for US Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor. The online video strategy proved to be popular during the 2009 inauguration when an estimated 7.7 million viewers watched the event online. To add another layer of technical wizardry, a list of related Facebook status updates were streamed in a sidebar adjacent to the video.

And here is a timeline of these landmark moments, created by Kevin Sablan at Almighty Link using Dipity. Many thanks to Kevin for creating this visual example.

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