CNN Lets Readers Play Editor

CNN change the listEarlier this week, CNN columnist John D. Sutter asked his readers to tell him which topics to cover. He posted an online poll with twenty stories and promised to report on the five stories that received the most votes.

“We’re asking the audience to be the assignment editors, basically,” Mr. Sutter told The Observer. The poll is part of Mr. Sutter’s “Change the List” project, which tries to call attention to stories that aren’t widely known because they’re “at the bottom of the list” of stories to cover.

Most of the twenty stories that Mr. Sutter proposed are the kinds of unsexy public interest journalism more likely found on PBS than CNN: places in the U.S. where no one has has Internet or toilet paper, countries wracked by polio and leprosy, the effects of extreme poverty on children. Mr. Sutter hopes that the audience’s engagement with the story—they chose it, after all—will lead people to get involved and work for change. “I’m also looking for buy-in,” he said, “for people who want to be involved in making the world better.”

It’s a very different kind of journalism than the “infotainment” that the CNN’s brand, fairly or not, is known for. CNN’s cable channel does breaking news well, but when news isn’t breaking, it has a tendency to treat minor stories as though they’re major events (24 hours, after all, is a lot of time to fill). This is a network that devoted over 12 hours in a single day to a stranded cruise ship. Its sister network HLN, meanwhile, went wall-to-wall on the sex-soaked Jodi Arias trial. Those coverage choices resulted in high ratings, suggesting that the sensationalist coverage is what most many people wanted to see.

In it’s crowdsourcing ethos, the “Change the List” project has more in common with CNN’s five year-old iReport initiative, which enlists its audience to do basic (unpaid) reporting. Anyone can sign up and submit stories, photos, and videos of news events to the network. Sometimes this leads to great coverage of breaking news events and human interest stories. Other times, people just send in pictures of cute animals. The best iReports can be featured on the main site and become grist for full-fledged CNN reports.

CNN isn’t the first news organization to crowdsource a pitch meeting. Slate pulled a similar stunt last October, letting readers choose which topics they wanted explained in the website’s signature style. Choices included “Explain the ‘Asian vote’ in U.S. elections” and “Make Matt Yglesias explain why hotel rooms cost so much.” The winner? “Make Troy Patterson review cheap beers.” (Mr. Yglesias answered the hotel question anyway.)

Mr. Sutter, though, aspires to something a little more meaningful. He doesn’t just want to report on the most popular stories, but the most popular unpopular stories. “It’s bringing a focus to people and places that are off the map,” he said. “There are topics that, for whatever reason, aren’t covered by the media.”