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April 16, 2009, 3:57 p.m.

How a CNN user propelled the network into Twitter’s top slot — or why CNN headlines are so short

James Cox just wanted the news on his phone. But the year was 2006, and if you can remember that distant age, getting the latest headlines on your mobile device wasn’t yet trivially easy.

CNN already had a longstanding email news alert that hit inboxes whenever a plane crashed or foreign capital fell. And out in San Francisco, a ridiculous product called Twittr, then just months old, had vague notions of social text-messaging. (“I imagine most users are not going to want to have all of their Twttr messages published on a public website,” wrote TechCrunch’s Michael Arrington, who now boasts more than 400,000 followers.)

Cox, a web developer, wrote a five-line Ruby script that yanked CNN’s emails and turned them into brief messages on a Twitter account called, somewhat inelegantly, @CNNbrk. He signed up to receive those tweets via text message, and — voila! — Cox had breaking news on his cellphone. He alerted his friends on his personal Twitter account.

“That was the only kind of announcement I ever bothered doing,” Cox told me in February, when @CNNbrk had 230,000 followers — “which is kind of cool,” he said.

The CNN Breaking News feed is now the most popular account on Twitter and projected to reach 1 million followers sometime tomorrow. (Ashton Kutcher may hit platinum before the most trusted name in news. Earlier he tweeted, “Today we decide if we want gatekeepers for social thought or democratization of media.” LOL.) The user-created @CNNbrk dwarfs CNN’s official account on Twitter, which has just under 65,000 followers.

Now, however, they are one in the same. Separately yesterday, Dan Frommer of Silicon Alley Insider reported that Cox had transferred the @CNNbrk account to CNN. I spoke this morning to Jen Martin, a CNN spokeswoman, who confirmed that report. She wouldn’t offer too many details but said that Cox had entered into a consulting agreement with them and that CNN now owned @CNNbrk, so you can put it together.

Back in February, I asked Cox about his relationship with CNN. He chuckled and said, “It’s a rocky road as ever when you have big organizations who aren’t that open yet.” You can see his full response in the video above or the transcript below, but Cox summed it up this way: “We’re coexisting in a symbiotic relationship that doesn’t, you know, suck too much.” (By the way, the occasion for our meeting was Times Open, a software conference at The New York Times that I covered. My interview with Cox was photographed by John Young, who was amused by my admittedly excessive camera technique.)

Check out the video for more about what prompted Cox to create the account (“having access to news makes us feel safer, makes us feel connected, and makes us feel people are solving and fixing these problems”), how CNN learned to write headlines under 140 characters, and why he limits the breaking news alerts at night. Cox is @imajes on Twitter. His personal website appears to be down.

Here’s the transcript:

Zach Seward: Hey, I’m with James Cox. You run the CNN Breaking News feed?

James Cox: Yes.

Zach: Talk a little about that. I mean, what’s, what’s involved in maintaining that? It’s one of the popular ones, right?

James: There’s very little to maintain it, actually. Its script runs by itself. It’s sort of really autonomous. The whole reason it came about is because I wanted to have real-live breaking news on my device, my mobile device, wherever I was. It kind of came out after a couple big events happened and I was out with friends and didn’t really catch up. And three or four hours later, you try to find out what’s going on. In this sort of world, it’s really hard not to be a news junky. So that was kind of what was, what the whole impetus was.

Zach: It’s an email alert, too, and it started that way?

James: Right, yeah. That was the way that it used to come out, was through CNN emails. But email on the phone, back in three or four years, when it was first out, was really tricky and would never really work consistently. Certainly before the iPhone, and that sort of thing was a big change for that. But with Twitter and SMS, it was kind of really simple. So, ironically, at the same time, I was trying to build my own SMS system, and um—

[Announcement in room]

James: So I was building my own SMS system and then realized that Twitter had already done that work for me. And it was simply the case of a sort of a five-line, quick Ruby script to push it straight to Twitter. And then Twitter handled the delivery for them, which is awesome. So then I had breaking news on my, on my, on my phone. And posted it to some of my friends on my Twitter stream, saying the CNN feed is now live. It was the first Twitter bot actually ever built [inaudible]

Zach: When was that?

James: It was two-and-a-half years ago, it started off. [This interview was conducted on Feb. 20, 2009.] And left it at that. That was the only kind of announcement I ever bothered doing. And now it has 230,000 people following it, which is kind of cool.

Zach: And you’re taking the email that CNN sends out?

James: Right. I was taking the email CNN sends out. A little bit of cleaning up, see if I can make sure it’s short enough. Fortunately, CNN does that for me nowadays, so I don’t have to do so much work.

Zach: Sure, sure. And you don’t work for CNN?

James: And I don’t work for CNN. It’s great. I just republish their content and make something out of it. I’m making it a little bit more accessible.

Zach: Tell me, you were talking earlier about, sometimes CNN headlines are too long or had been?

James: Right. Initially, CNN would write a two- or three-line sort of story. It was like a mini version of the story. And oftentime, these alerts would go out before the story ever even hit the website. It was like, this is the breaking-news headline; we’re still writing the story, but we’re going to push it out to you. So they would be long, little headlines trying to tell the story. But that was usually too long for Twitter, and occasionally you’d miss out the “and no one was hurt” bit, which makes the whole story that much more important—

Zach: Sure.

James: —’cause Twitter was shortening it out. So I did a little bit of shortening myself, to try to make it a little, make it fit. Things like state names, stuff like that came out. But CNN do it themselves now, which is great, so I don’t have to work at it. The editorial team has picked up the relevance and value of short headlines, and now that’s the [inaudible] practice.

Zach: And they keep their headlines under 140 characters?

James: Right, which is really, really cool.

Zach: That’s pretty good. Uh, I mean, what do you do, is, normally?

James: Normally I do web-development stuff, so it’s sort of like second nature. But it’s kind of nice to get into that crossover of taking — like, as Tim O’Reilly was saying earlier — taking meaningful data and putting it into ways that are more accessible and more interesting to repurpose. And this was a big way of doing that. And it was so easy to do that, as well, you know, to take that kind of like common feed or common output, like email, and making it accessible through Twitter.

Zach: Is it more popular, your feed, than I assume CNN has its own feeds?

James: They have like millions of subscribers to their email. But email, you know, people change email all the time, so it’s hard to tell who’s going on. I know that I can tell in those 230,000 people actively following this feed, and looking at the search results and people’s comments, you know — I’m often, when we, when an alert comes through, it’s often the top retweeted alert, you know, update for like half an hour, an hour after it happened.

Zach: Sure.

James: And the hardest problem is people think I’m CNN now, so I end up seeing tweets, response tweets from people asking me to promote stuff, to comment on news stories. It’s incredible, the sort of stuff that you see.

Zach: You’re sort of the external, totally unaffiliated ombudsman of CNN on Twitter.

James: Right. And suddenly I — and [inaudible] I have to sort of disclaim I am not CNN, but it doesn’t really matter because people don’t really get it. The fun thing is is that there are a few people out there who have very few feeds that they follow, and CNN is one of the ones they’ll get on the text message. So my biggest problem is making sure I don’t send too many during nighttime, during U.S. hours, ’cause people will actually wake up when they get a tweet from me, from the feed because it’s usually important. They tend to pay attention.

So it’s really impressive to see how that has changed. It goes back to that original point. People want breaking news. They want to feel connected to the world that they live in. I mean, there’s a massive event like 9/11 or the Hudson crash or whatever it was that tends to trigger this kind of feedback — having, wherever you are, whatever you’re doing — having access to news makes us feel safer, makes us feel connected, and makes us feel people are solving and fixing these problems. And this sort of encourages that and lets us get it. But it’s in bite-size form. It’s really, really — only that you need to know, nothing else.

Zach: Have you had conversations with people at CNN about your feed?

James: Yeah, we talk about it regularly.

Zach: Are they encouraging? Or have they been apprehensive or—?

James: It’s, it’s, it’s a, it’s a [laughs] rocky road as ever when you have big organizations who aren’t that open yet who are struggling to get as far as, for example, The New York Times has gotten so far and getting them, getting that sort of out there. I, I, sometimes I’m the guy who’s being their third arm. Sometimes I’m on my own road.

Zach: Sure.

James: It’s, it’s it can be both, but it’s working out.

Zach: Alright, coexisting, for now.

James: We’re coexisting in a symbiotic relationship that doesn’t, you know, suck too much.

Zach: Alright, thanks very much, James.

James: No worries, thanks.

POSTED     April 16, 2009, 3:57 p.m.
PART OF A SERIES     Times Open at the NYT
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