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CNN International Chief: We Are Heavily Committed to London Coverage

There has been a global news riot this week. The fact that London exploded into violence over the weekend would have been enough to keep most major news organizations occupied full time in recent days, covering riots that destroyed hundreds of businesses, including a big Sony warehouse, and raised serious concerns about security for the 2012 Olympics. But London burning and the spread of violence to a number of other British cities, is just one of several major international news stories exploding into public view, any one of which would have topped the newscasts in a normal week.

Global financial markets, spooked by the debt crisis in the U.S. and the Eurozone, gyrated wildly, raising fears of a renewed global downturn. Meanwhile, violence heated up in Syria and Libya and famine continued to spread through Somalia. Those stories, coming after big stories out of Japan and the Middle East earlier this year, are adding up to one of the biggest years ever for international news. While that is good for ratings, it also poses some major challenges for news organizations trying to keep on top of so many big events both in costs and simple logistics.

Tony Maddox, executive vice president and managing director of CNN International, spoke with B&C's contributing editor George Winslow about how they're handling so many big, challenging stories.

An edited transcript of that conversation follows.

What are some of your plans for deploying your talent and reporters for next few days for these international stories?

With stories like this, we're constantly asking ourselves, who do we need to rotate in, who do we need to rotate out. It is like looking at chess board. Tuesday was another roller coaster ride for the financial markets, so we will probably stay with the finance story for another 24 hours and keep teams deployed throughout that period. The London riots are a tricky one. I am old enough to remember the earlier ones. What tends to happen is they blow-up quickly and they die down equally as quickly but you often don't know how long it will take for them to die down. But we have to remain heavily committed on that story for the time being. The AC360 team is in Somalia for another 24 to 36 hours and then they start making the journey back to the U.S. We are still trying to get back into Syria but we haven't made any progress on that yet.

How are you balancing your coverage of so many major international news stories?

It is interesting because we are in a situation where we've had some stories that are quite long-running and require continuous commitment from us -- Syria, Libya or the ongoing events in Cairo. We have a rotation planned around those events so we can move crews in and out and we are using people on multi-week assignments. Then if one of those stories gets hotter, we will draft more resources into it.

We also have some stories that have been a steady backbeat through the year that have suddenly got louder and louder like the debt ceiling in the U.S. and the global stock market fluctuations. A big factor in that story has been what is happening in Europe, with the Euro, first with Greece and Ireland and then with concerns over Spain and Italy.

Our Asian operation has been very important for that coverage. As Wall Street closes and people track those stories, Asia just goes to work and you see our people like Kyung Lah in Tokyo going on to Piers Morgan's show and giving people a sense of what is going to happen the next day and where we are in the cycle.

We've also been ramping up our coverage of those financial stories. We had brought Richard Quest to New York to cover the settlement on the debt ceiling because of the huge international interest in that topic and then we kept him there to cover the subsequent business events. Quest has been doing his show from here as well and he's been all over the U.S. shows.

The amount of international news coverage and the amount of international news talent that is making its way on to the domestic channel, is something I've very proud of. I really think that helps CNN and is definitely part of our competitive edge. We don't just suddenly show up in these places, we have an expertise and people on the ground.

When you look at the coverage we are doing in London in the past 24 hours of the rioting, we have someone like Dan Rivers, who grew up in London and knows the place like the back of his hand. That makes a big difference. I think his reporting last night from inside the riot zone, behind the police lines, was extraordinary. It certainly matched anything I saw of any of the U.K. nets. ...We also have a reporter based out of London called Nima Elbagir who is a British citizen but she is of Somali origin and spent time out there. So we are one of the few people that have a Somali reporter who speaks the language and has been working out there.

David McKenzie, who is permanently based out of our Nairobi bureau, has also been in and out of Somali, they did a lot of great setup work for Anderson [Cooper] and Sanjay [Gupta] when the team arrived out there [this week to cover the Somalia famine story live.]

That has allowed them to go into what is the definition of a very anarchic and chaotic situation. They've been able to immediately hit the ground running and broadcast live with great material.  It is very much to Cooper and the team that they chose the week of launching their new show to actually put the flag in the sand there in Somalia.

Like the Arab spring, social media has been a big issue with the London riots. How has it fit into your coverage?

It is remarkable that in an incredibly short time period social media has become an accepted part of our newsgathering process and a key dynamic in the story, with the rioters using it to communicate with each other and with people using it to alert the press and police. So, it has created a completely new dynamic in the stories we now cover and it is important that organization like ours -- an organization that might be considered a more traditional media organization -- be open minded about it. We need to fully embrace it and recognize that social media might do some things more quickly, more effectively than we do them. And that is fine. We are not competing with that. We just want to make sure we can make best of that media in telling our stories.

One London MP has called for authorities to shut down the Blackberry network that by some rioters. What do you say to those kinds of responses?

Someone this morning was also talking about a news blackout. I can understand why people are disturbed and horrified at the levels of vandalism and wanton destruction. But a free press has an important role to play and in counters like the U.K., you can be very proud at the quality of the free press that they enjoy. As frustrating and annoying as it might be, I think that they are better off with the free press than trying to impose news blackouts.

What have you done to ramp up bureaus and infrastructure to handle so many big stories?

We've hired new folks in Asia and we put Kyung Lah into Tokyo and invested in that bureau, which has turned out to be a very good investment, because it has given us a real edge in some of these economic stories. We made the investment in the Abu Dhabi bureau, which is our hub in the Middle East. With all the events in the Middle East, it has been fantastic having a proper hub where we can coordinate our coverage in a lot of different countries and different parts of the region.

The other thing we did with the investments in improving our Africa coverage, where we went to East Africa and Lagos and we further invested in Johannesburg. So we've been big on stories like the pirate story, and it puts us in a good position to be able to respond to issues and stories like the ones we are covering out of Somalia.

We have also made significant investments in our London operation both in terms of prime time programming and in terms of newsgathering infrastructure. So we've been able to field talent into the field on the back of that as well.

None of these investments were made to yield an immediate return. None of them are about immediate ratings boosts. They are about deciding what the network is about and what it stands for and then investing in that with the idea it will reap its own reward.

These big international stories have come at a time when a lot of U.S. news organizations have shut down many of their international bureaus. Where does that leave the U.S. TV industry in terms of covering international events?

It is always possible to fly into stories. We fly into stories. We are not always permanently based in some of the places that we go to. But frankly I think the audience cares about authenticity. I think they know whether or not you are committed to a story, whether or not you have the background knowledge and a genuine expertise. If they see [CNN's] Arwa Damon reporting on Syria, [its apparent that she speaks Arabic] and has grown up in that region and that she knows the region. There is an expertise and an authenticity there that is very difficult to achieve if your journalism consists of helicoptering into a place for 24 to 48 hours and then leaving again. Ultimately, that doesn't give you the same quality of coverage and the same level of intelligence, no matter how well-intended.

A lot of these international stories this year might seem to come as a surprise to most people when in fact, like the Arab spring or the problems in Somalia, they've been building up for a while and didn't get the coverage they deserve. How do you feel about that criticism?

I think that is a fair point. I think as journalist we should be always be asking ourselves tough questions. When things seem to come out of a clear blue sky, we need to ask if we could have seen this coming and if there was more we could have been doing to tell the world about it. We're coming up on the 10th anniversary of 9/11. I remember around that time, there was quite a bit of soul searching. Did we do enough to identify the threat? Did we devote enough of our news shows to the sort of animosity and hatred that was building out there? Did we really spend enough time talking about group like Al Qaeda? Those are important questions to ask. Audiences are very questioning and it is essential for news organization to do some humility in that process.

But I also think there are some areas where we have done some groundbreaking coverage [in subjects that aren't on public's radar.]...We have the Freedom Project which is about human trafficking and slavery in 2011. We are running over 100 packages as part of that and there has been a huge response to that coverage. We've been able to get...companies to change the way they behave. I think that is very important.

When you have a year like this with a lot of big international stories, has that really ramped up some of your costs? 

You don't know the half of it. It has been a year of significant investment in our ongoing news coverage. But we want to invest in quality news coverage. It is what the brand is about, and we see increases in our audiences when we have those really big news stories. For our distribution partners, it also helps to reinforce the idea that CNN is a vital service and a distinctive service. That is an important message for us when we talk about renewing our distribution rates. Although it involves investment, it is ultimately good for business.