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Age-Old News Outlets Try Something New

Every traditional news outlet is spit-balling ideas to make their product relevant for the next generation of viewers, and two new digital ventures with established forebears are hoping their innovation will pay off. CBSN, CBS News’ 18-month-old digital news channel, is rolling out topical short-form documentaries, while CNN offshoot Great Big Story also traffics in global stories for a sophisticated young consumer.

The strategies are starkly different, but the products share similar goals. “Digital advertisers want millennial eyeballs—that’s the context in which Great Big Story and CBSN have been hatched,” says Jonathan Klein, former CNN International president and founder of subscription video platform Tapp. “Good for them for asking their organizations to stretch new muscles.”

‘Eye’ on the Future

Offering an around-the-clock live news stream, CBSN drew 48.6 million streams in the first quarter, ahead of the 33 million clocked in fourth quarter 2015. CBSN’s average user age is 38—two decades younger than who watches news on the parent network.

In a vast sea of unregulated “news” sources, it’s built on the reputation of CBS News. “It’s news you can count on, and not wonder if it’s real,” says Nancy Lane, senior executive producer of CBS News Digital.

The documentaries, called CBSN Originals, launched earlier this year. Running 10-12 minutes, three were produced around the terrorist acts in Paris and Brussels, with others in the works about gun policy and an unlikely Donald Trump-friendly community.

New hire Josh Elliott is creating a documentary too. Formerly of Good Morning America and Today, Elliott started at CBSN in early March. “I think he looked at [digital] and said, yeah, that’s the future,” says Lane.

CBSN is hardly a household name, and stands to lose a bunch of money before it becomes one. But CBS Corp. CEO Leslie Moonves singled CBSN out on CNBC recently as “a great part of our future.”

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Great Big Plans

Great Big Story also has the backing of its leader, with CNN president Jeff Zucker touting the “flat-out amazing” stories at its NewFront presentation. Cofounder Chris Berend says GBS is an extension of the story-driven approach CNN has embraced in its original series and films. “It’s for a smart, curious, influential audience that is not necessarily getting its news in a traditional way,” he says.

GBS debuts a few docu’s a day at a snack-able 2-3 minutes per pop; a recent video detailed monks who make hot sauce. The platform is averaging 40 million video views a month, and the average user age is 27.

While it’s primarily a mobile platform, GBS dabbles in television too. There’s a coproduction with The Weather Channel called That’s Amazing for fall, and a pilot for a weekly show called, fittingly, Great Big Show.

A key difference between the CBS and CNN approaches is that the CNN imprimatur does not appear anywhere on Great Big Story. “As soon as you put CNN on it, it’s perceived as news,” says Berend. “Great Big Story is a strong enough idea to stand on its own.”Start-ups, even ones with substantial silent partners, face tough challenges today. “That might turn out to help Great Big Story forge its own identity,” says Klein. “But it comes at a cost—losing out on the massive promotional muscle of the CNN machine.”