Website redesigns don’t usually merit big announcements these days, but CNN.com went all out to celebrate its online overhaul. Taking the stage at the *Time Warner* Center, CNN.com SVP/GM KC Estenson rolled out a wealth of stats and features in what closely resembled the ballyhoo of a TV upfront presentation.
The redesign itself is pretty standard: a less cluttered homepage, featuring more images and less text, plus more social media. Citizen journalism project iReport will no longer be a standalone site; users will be redirected to a section on the main site, which will allows users to continue to upload their photos and stories. CNN.com editors will vet stories and give the independent reports more formal play. All stories on CNN.com will allow comments as well.
The news site will also play up two areas that have remained more popular with users and advertiser: opinion and entertainment, with a particular tilt toward the latter category. While promising views from left to right, the opinion section will be populated by cultural figures as well as big name pundits, such as former Bush Administration speech writer David Frum. He will share the opinion spotlight with comedian John Leguizamo and Mashable’s Pete Cashmore — three names that are rarely mentioned in the same paragraph, let alone the same publication.
As for the celebrity section, CNN.com will get help from Time Warner (NYSE: TWX) siblings People and Entertainment Weekly. While the site often included posts from those outlets, Estenson said there would be more formal placement, suggesting that Time Warner’s otherwise independent brands might feel a need to be more supportive of each other as a tough ad climate continues to bear down on all media.
Apart from entertainment, CNN.com is also drawing closer with Facebook. In an usual partnership that brings social media and celebrity together, on Nov. 9 at 9PM EDT, CNN.com and Facebook will feature a live presentation of Oprah’s Book Club. It will be interesting to see if the news site and Oprah will be able to create the kind of “appointment viewing” that TV has relied on for attracting high ad dollars. From the opposite end of Oprah’s mass audience, CNN.com has another interesting partner for the TED Talks Tuesdays, which will serve as an online version of the four-day conference that brings together experts from a variety of fields.
The site will also be experimenting with social media functions, like a Digg-like news feed called NewsPulse.
In an interview after his presentation, Estenson dismissed the notion that having so many different functions and features — such as the more formal tie-ins with People.com and EW — meant that the site was being fashioned in the portal mode. “All the portals have been talking about their content offerings, so I have to say, I think the portals are coming after us, and not the other way around,” he said.
CNN.com’s numbers have generally been pretty good. Data provided by comScore (NSDQ: SCOR) to paidContent showed that last month, traffic was up 11 percent to 33 million uniques, while FoxNews, which tends to dominate CNN in the TV ratings, had only 10 million uniques and was down 15 percent. I asked Estenson, if things are going so well, why change things now. “Simply, we’re always looking to do better, and we’re always looking for new audiences,” he said. “Adding more entertainment and commentary to the site is designed to help us grow. Meanwhile, there were certain things, like social media tools and more interactivity, that we just couldn’t do a few years ago.”