On Media: Is CNN’s “Newsroom International” A Move in the right direction?

Title card for CNN’s “Newsroom International.” Is it worth watching?

In which I review CNN’s seemingly positive change to their midday lineup.

As followers of this blog may remember, several weeks ago I did a post about  what CNN could do to improve its long suffering ratings. One of my central recommendations was that CNN should more or less stop competing with Fox News and MSNBC and instead compete  with BBC World News and Al Jazeera English, mainly by replacing the bulk of its off peak “rolling news” programs with simulcasts of CNN International.

This Monday, I learned (via the media navel-gazing blog TVNewser) that CNN has soft launched an edition of the CNN Newsroom program entitled Newsroom International, at 12 PM ET. The whole concept of the program is that the hour would be wholly devoted to news from outside the United States, with CNN International hosts like Hala Gorani and Richard Quest making regular appearances. This is actually not the first time CNN has tried to add an international flavor to their programming at the high noon; in 2005, CNN began simulcasting the CNN International program Your World Today at the same time.

The Columbia Journalism Review reacted well to the move, reviewing the addition to the schedule under the blunt, Onion-esque headline of “CNN Stuns US with Actual News.” They observe:

“CJR Daily tuned in at 11:45 a.m. EST. Right away we caught a promo for “Your World Today” — a promo that, as it turns out, actually contained more hard news than the five minutes of “CNN Live Today” that followed. (That was pretty easy to do, given that the “CNN Live Today” segment focused on how to keep your pet from shitting all over the hotel room once you leave the premises…)…. It speaks to the state of cable news that we sat in shock and awe for the better part of an hour, as anchors Zain Verjee and Jim Clancy did nothing more than deliver the news like it’s supposed to be done.”

Above is a clip of one of the editions to judge for yourself. The writers concluded that the program was a “solid hour of journalism with teeth, [that] had avoided the Talking Head Ping Pong matches that plague cable news.”

In the spirit of that magazine’s team of reviewers, I set out to observe the Wednesday, June 20th edition of CNN’s globally aware Newsroom and see if it was any sort of improvement.

The program began with a top of the hour news update, which, indeed, featured actual news—the continuing uncertainty in Egypt, a just resolved hostage situation in France, and Wikileaks frontman/diplomatic provocateur Julian Assange seeking asylum with the Ecuadorian government. My spirits were raised.

And then, the first full report was on the US House’s continued deliberations on whether or not to censure Eric Holder for not giving them certain documents related to the botched “Fast and Furious” gun-walking operation. Technically this is cheating the premise of the program, but it was the distracting shiny ball story of the day and it was moderately important. I’ll give them the pass.

Jimmy Carter calling in to CNN’s “Newsroom International”

The Egypt situation was next, but to my mild annoyance, instead of going to a live or taped report from CNN’s excellent Egypt correspondent Ben Wedeman, or someone else reporting from the region at the time, the story was taken as a phone interview with former president Jimmy Carter (his nonprofit monitored some of the elections this past weekend). Some interesting questions were asked, but this sort of interview with someone who is a major player in a news story is best accompanied and prefaced by a report from a correspondent on the ground to contextualize the situation. A brief latter portion on the interview was spent discussing what the US should do in Syria.

Next, the day’s date as the UN’s “World Refugee Day” was noted, and a taped report from the previous year was shown detailing a group of Iraqis displaced into a refugee camp from their homes. The report seemed to have been cut short, and a discussion with the correspondent, CNN International anchor Michael Holmes followed. The discussion was alright but I wanted to see the full report.

Another live report on the House hearings took us around the half hour mark. Nothing new had actually happened by this point, so I’m not excusing this disruption. Put it in a news update. The program then shifted to Assange’s bid for asylum with the Ecuadorian  government, and a live report from a London based correspondent followed. The segment continued as CNN International anchor Hala Gorani gave context on the Assange saga. Nothing truly insightful here, but someone who hadn’t been keeping up with the situation would actually have learned something from the segment.

The next segment featured a business correspondent discussing the latest moves out of the Fed, followed by two short mentions; one of a report by TEPCO admitting a lack of preparation for the Fukishima nuclear disaster, and the second regarding  Aung San Suu Kyi receiving an Oxford award in person that she was awarded back during her time of house arrest. Both of these were pieces that could have warranted more coverage, but the hour is not limitless.

A story followed on Mexican-American children being forced to return to Mexico because of the deportation of their parents. This by itself is a worthy and vital story, but what irritated me was that, again, an anchor from CNN En Espanol was brought in to discuss this. This isn’t terrible, but if anything, this is the sort of directly-affects-actual-human-beings story that calls for a package report. What should be a deep look into how the immigration system is tearing apart families and children from their home is whittled to two people in a studio talking.

By far the best report of the hour was a package piece (finally) on the low expectations for the Rio+20 UN summit. Discussing how many notable world leaders such as Obama and UK PM David Cameron skipped the conference, correspondent Shasta Darlington explained how this meant that another lukewarm, watered down agreement was to be discussed and further watered down at the conference. This is the one of two times in that hour I learned something new, and something that I likely would not have come across later during the day while browsing the internet.

The second “learned something new” moment came right at the end of the program, when a taped report aired on Mexico City’s innovative trash for food exchange markets. Cool idea, and again something I likely would not have found out elsewhere without specifically looking for it.

So how would I rate the program? It is nowhere near as informative as CNN’s simulcast of Your World Today was (that program has since been replaced on CNN International as well), and certainly does not compare to what I have grown accustomed to on BBC World News, Al Jazeera, or watching a similar hour on CNN International. However, in fairness, it certainly was a significant improvement over CNN’s normal midday programming. No exhortations to comment on stories via twitter, no “user generated content”, no gimmicks to keep the viewer watching, simply the news stories.

The problem is that this is the result CNN/US produces when it is making a special effort. This should be an average hour of the Newsroom, not the one hour devoted to international stories. My other concern is that this program will be used as an excuse to suck dry other international pieces from other hours in the day (“oh a story about a Taliban resurgence in Afghanistan? Let’s just put it in that random international hour”) for more talking head shoutfests and miscellany. The general lack of taped reports in favor of cheaper “live” pieces again reminded me of a Review piece I alluded to in another post about the decline of the video report.

Still, a good start, and if CNN’s management gets more inspired ideas like this, perhaps people will start watching the channel again. One can only hope.

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