AUSTIN, Texas--The horrifying consequences of the recent earthquake in Japan have been yet another proving point for the promises of "citizen" journalism, K.C. Estenson, general manager at CNN Digital, said at an event that the news network held at the South by Southwest Interactive Festival (SXSW) this evening.
"We now have over 50 people on the ground from CNN, the men and women of CNN who report on these things, there in Japan," Estenson said. "(But) in the 36 hours that led up from Friday through the weekend, we just couldn't get people in. It's a long way to Japan, the infrastructure wasn't set up to get outside correspondents in and this is where the power of iReport (CNN's citizen journalism initiative) really comes to life for us, and it's frankly at the core of why we're here at SXSW is this user empowerment that's happening that's changing the course of journalism as we know it."
The event today was held at the "CNN Grill," an elaborate space that CNN had set up two blocks away from the Austin Convention Center--completely re-branding a bar with a massive neon sign out front, TV screens inside, and a CNN-branded bus parked at the sidewalk.
Estenson, in his talk about "the future of news and what's next," previewed a new interface for watching CNN video online (it'll launch "earlier in the summer") in high-definition with the ability to creat drag-and-drop playlists, an experience possible both on the Web and on apps for tablets like the iPad. The audience applauded when Estenson demonstrated pausing mid-video on the Web site and then restarting it from the same moment in the iPad app as well as on a Google TV device.
"Imagine just building your own CNN, the subjects you love, the topics you love, and being able to stack those videos in and carry with you wherever you go," Estenson said.
Also coming this summer is video commenting on CNN online stories, he added in a side note. More importantly, he said that CNN's iReport will become more like a technology API, from its partnership with Apple that makes uploading straight to iReport an option on iMovie, to a partnership with Gowalla that allows iReport contributors to earn a special badge. On CNN's Web site, this will pan out in a new interface called "Open Story" that logs reports on a certain topic chronologically, aggregating both CNN journalists and correspondents alongside iReport in a series of avatars not at all unlike a Twitter timeline and then overlaid on a map.
He pitched CNN as a brand of authenticity in a news world that's grown cluttered with content, much of which has been produced for money rather than quality. "We're not a synthetic news organization," he said, bringing in undertones of the controversial "content farm" publishing that's come to populate search engines. "There are other news organizations that are, maybe, slaves to search engines, might be using algorithms and technology to amplify their traffic, sort of like an anabolic steroids approach to the sport. We're about soul."
There have now been 750,000 contributors to iReport, Estenson said, and added that iReport stories--which, it should be said in the interest of objectivity, have been the subject of a handful of hoaxes and incidents of misinformation--have been filed from every country in the world.