The Covid-19 pandemic has brought with it behavioural changes, for example, how people consume news. A lot many people are consuming it via digital means, as opposed to physical means. And this shows. According to Hong Kong-based Brett McKeehan, director of Asia at CNN Digital Worldwide, the audience from India surged 101% in May 2020 over May 2019. This suggests that people want to consume journalism they trust, says the Australian, who is responsible for digital content strategy, content development, and publishing across key regions including China, India, Australia, Singapore, Japan, South Korea, Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines.
He says the story of aspirational India offers many content opportunities. An award-winning journalist, McKeehan—who has worked with the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong and News Corp in Sydney and London—says credibility leads to loyalty, and is a key reason why CNN remains the world’s most-read digital news provider. In an email interview with Fortune India, McKeehan discusses how to deal with fake news, the responsibility of social media platforms, India’s digital revolution, and the newsroom of the future, among other things. Edited excerpts:
How does one deal with fake news, especially during a pandemic?
It all boils down to trust and reliable sourcing. There is so much information and disinformation, so much noise—particularly in these challenging times. So, for us, it is about investigating as many sources as we can to get the fullest possible picture. That means we check, check, and check again to verify every single component of every single story i.e. the sourcing, the pictures, the video, the claims, and the counterclaims. Our audience has never been bigger. That suggests audiences want to consume journalism they trust, so they are loyal to brands they believe are accurate and transparent in their pursuit of truth.
Do you think consuming news on social media is here to stay?
We are seeing our audiences come directly to us in record numbers right now—in a time where reliable and trusted news and information is more important than ever. The [social media] platforms do not create news—they distribute news. And they have a responsibility to manage the people using their platform to not spread disinformation. If they do not properly manage that, we may see people become more cautious of content they find on social media and continue to come directly to trusted sources.
What is the proper balance between digital agility and meticulous procedures? How can contemporary newsrooms adhere to both speed and accuracy?
Accuracy is more important than speed, and at CNN we’d much rather be right than first. In 2020, so much information can come from sources that didn’t even exist five years ago; however, it’s our responsibility to filter those sources and confirm our facts before they appear on our platforms. We have a series of intense internal checks and balances to ensure our facts are correct, and all meet CNN standards for fair, accurate, and responsible reporting. Only then will we publish. It’s a rigorous process that we take extremely seriously. You can’t put audience trust in your brand on the line for poor journalism and a few extra clicks. I’m a firm believer that credibility leads to loyalty, and a key reason why CNN remains the world’s most-read digital news provider.
How are brands reinventing their marketing strategy in the present times? Is creative storytelling on digital and mobile the only way to go?
Creative storytelling is vital. Audiences today have both higher expectations and lower attention spans for the content they consume. The digital news market is more competitive than ever; and we must not only meet audience expectations, but also maintain CNN’s quality at the same time. Yet we’ve found we can aim high, not low, and still grow. So that means a firm commitment to original, enterprise reporting. We know we’re not just telling the Asia-Pacific story to this region; we’re telling it to the world. As a result, we aim to break down complex regional issues, to give context as to why they are relevant and important for everyone, regardless of country. This is how regional news becomes global.
How does Asia compare to the rest of the world in terms of digital uptake?
I firmly believe Asia has the most potential for global growth. CNN’s APAC headquarters is in Hong Kong, but we also have extensive newsgathering reach via bureaus in Beijing, New Delhi, Tokyo, Seoul, and Bangkok. This gives us plenty of opportunities to explore stories many news organisations cannot. And as tech infrastructure continues to improve across Asia, mobile phone proliferation will only increase—giving a global operation like CNN incredible access to new audiences.
What do you think of India’s digital revolution? Which way is the market headed? Shall people consume news on news apps or on aggregators?
India is on the rise. The numbers are incredible—with at least 450 million Internet users and another 800 million tipped to join over the next decade, coupled with the proliferation of affordable data plans, it is clear which way the market is headed. So, for me, the focus is very much on mobile and India’s youth. News apps are my personal preference, as I’m a firm believer of loyalty and maximising the brand experience for audiences. With India having surpassed the U.S. in smartphone app downloads for the first time last year, the market potential is unmatched for an English-language news publisher like CNN. For CNN, our audience from India was up 101% in May 2020 over May 2019. The interest is there and growing.
How does one tell the story of India’s digital revolution to an international audience?
The story of aspirational India—of hundreds and hundreds of millions of very clever, well educated people being plugged into the wider world—offers so many content opportunities. The scale is also immense. India is one of the most diverse countries on the planet, yet rising digital consumption is a common theme throughout. So, covering it can be a lot more straightforward than it may initially seem i.e. technology as a unifying factor, from Delhi to Kanyakumari.By consuming media on their phones, many Indians have watched the world get rich. Now it is their turn, and we want to chronicle how they achieve that. In my opinion, that is very much a global story.
What is the newsroom of the future—digital, traditional, or integrated?
For CNN, our newsroom of the future is very much integrated. Our newsgathering operation serves both our digital and broadcasting teams, as there are a lot of synergies to benefit all platforms.
What is the role of artificial intelligence in the modern newsroom? Will automation replace desk editors?
Our product and technology teams are focussed on building out products that serve our customers. With AI, that experience will look like a customised experience on CNN.com or on our mobile apps or OTT devices with recommendations and products that know the individual. That is not desk editors or copywriters, but rather a focus in delivering the best experience for people who come to us for news and information.