Web exec for CNN talks story tools

Mike Toppo says iReports are all about “passion.”  He told a crowd at the SPJ Reporters’ Institute that CNN now has more than a half million iReporters around the world and at the website, they’re using these folks to tell stories differently. 

He pointed to a recent piece in which the band Vampire Weekend was interviewed by fans who had sent in video questions.

“What’s better, an interview with Vampire Weekend with some reporter asking the same old  questions or questions from passionate fans?” Toppo asked. 

Of course, using viewers or readers to ask the questions is not exactly new, but Toppo says he’s trying to empower the journalists who work for him to look at each story they cover and then determine which tool will help them tell that story best.  For example, Toppo says he was delighted when an associate producer produced this piece within hours of Apple announcing the name, iPad.  All it took was Skype and some initiative. 

“Without ever talking to me, she and a co-worker got on the phone, got the interview, went into the control room and did the whole thing,” Toppo said.  “That’s what I like to see.”

Toppo also said that “video is not right for every story.” He pointed to a piece about teenagers overdosing on methadone as an example of a story that became more powerful through the use of audio and stills. 

At other times, CNN.com becomes an aggregator of content, according to Toppo, creating an “explainer” for users by pulling together content that’s already available else where online, such as a Web package on the “New Jews.”

Perhaps this is the start of the next chapter for journalism — with more journalists becoming more adept with more tools, the quality of storytelling may improve, if we can keep the focus on selecting the right tools for the right stories.