CNN launches bureau on Second Life


As news organizations slash budgets and scale back bureaus, CNN is expanding -- except not in real life.

In the week of Nov. 5, the news giant is set to open a news-gathering outpost in Second Life. And unlike news service Reuters, which embedded a real reporter in the online virtual world last year, CNN will rely on Second Life "residents" to do all the legwork.

In the space, the network will create a variation of its i-Reports, the real-world vehicle through which average citizens contribute eyewitness reports. CNN will equip Second Life denizens with kits enabling them to transmit copy and photos. Visitors to Second Life will be able to get the latest news via kiosks scattered throughout the virtual community.

And the network will act as a sort of journalism school, offering guidance to avatar citizen journalists via weekly "news meetings" directed by staffers. And top CNN personalities including Larry King will conduct virtual training sessions for budding cyberjournalists.

Given that Second Life users tend to be highly passionate about the virtual space, CNN execs believe the community will embrace user-generated journalism--more than they would embrace simply repurposed content.

"We looked at what are people doing [in Second Life] that is meaningful to what we do," said Susan Grant, executive vp of CNN News Services. "I love that we don't have to take things from the real world and force them in."

As for whether the world of Second Life will generate news events worthy of reporting, i-Report producer Lila King is not concerned. After all, visitors to the online world include newsmaking personalities like Newt Gingrich, the former Speaker of the House who most recently had the public guessing whether he'd jump into the presidential race (he hasn't).

CNN's association with Second Life comes at a time when the digital phenomenon is awash in media hype but still far from cracking the mainstream. Its unique user base has hovered between 400,000 and 700,000 per month over the last year, according to Nielsen Online, and has twice fallen below the research firm's minimum reporting threshold.

Meanwhile, research company the Yankee Group in recent weeks produced a report on Second Life detailing a "pronounced" decline in usage. Senior analyst Christopher Collins said Second Life's claims of 10 million-plus avatars skewed perceptions about its popularity.

"The people that are active there tend to be very active," Collins said. But many users come to Second Life, he added, and are "frustrated, confused and don't find it immediately compelling."

Brands looking to link up with Second Life should view it principally as a way to "experiment with the different ways people are communicating," Collins said. "Is it a great, cost-effective way to reach a mass audience? No."

In fact, CNN's aim in establishing the virtual bureau -- which required "very little investment," according to Grant -- is to learn. "I don't think we are betting the whole farm on it," she said. "It's one aspect of many ways we are engaging with users."