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The future is now


In my position with CNN Interactive, the one phrase I hear more than any other is, "It's the future," referring to interactive media and their role in the distribution of information and news.

At that point I usually smile or nod my head, because I do agree that this is where all news is going. But my outward sign of agreement is always accompanied by an inner voice that says, "It's not the future, it's the present."

Millions of people go online every day to get their news. That news increasingly comes in many new and different forms. News headlines, stories, video and audio clips, stock quotes, sports scores, polls, quizzes, weather forecasts -- these are among the most popular features on CNN Interactive's many different Web sites and services.

And the audience is using not just a computer to get to this information. More frequently than ever, wireless devices such as mobile phones, pagers and hand-held personal digital assistants are the news outlets of choice.

That is not to say television is out of the picture. Television news will be around for a long time to come, probably forever. But it is going to take on different forms and functions, as we witness the rollouts of enhanced and interactive applications and devices.

So both the voices I hear are right, the external and the internal. Interactive media are both the future and the present. But how do we know when the future arrives? And how accurate can we really be in charting the path to the future that is best? To search for possible answers I looked back at CNN Interactive's relatively brief history.

Vastly different world

This wireless pager can receive news through different services and display up to four lines of text  

CNN Interactive was formed as a division of CNN on January 1, 1995. The interactive world was vastly different then. CompuServe was the largest online service with 3 million members. America Online, now 25 million strong, had fewer than 1 million subscribers. CD-ROMs were the multimedia platform of choice.

And the World Wide Web? Just two weeks earlier, Netscape had released the 1.0 version of its Netscape Navigator browser.

Our first products, and the staff required to build them, were quite different from what we see today. We started with a dedicated handful of people who updated CNN headlines for CompuServe. The presentations consisted of text with a few photos and bore little resemblance to the robust Web pages you see today on

Being an information provider for CompuServe also meant maintaining message forums for members to discuss the news, the channel or whatever else seemed relevant to CNN's presence on CompuServe. We recruited a staff of volunteers and part-timers to handle this task. Many of them remain with us today to monitor our Internet message boards and chats.

In 1995, CNN also was a publisher of news-oriented CD-ROMs. Having done three titles in 1993 and 1994, we geared up for 1995 with a dedicated team of producers, writers, video editors and technicians to produce a long slate of discs for that year and beyond.

By the spring of 1995, the entire CNN Interactive staff consisted of about 30 people, full- and part-time, with the responsibility for carrying out this dual strategy of instant publishing on CompuServe and multimedia publishing on CD-ROMs. That was when everything changed.

Lesson in flexibility

A study released in March 2000 by the Toronto-based Angus Reid Group set the number of worldwide Internet users at 300 million in 1999  

A combination of reading, meetings and trade shows convinced us that the World Wide Web was where the news audience was heading. Despite the fact that it meant we had to throw out our entire strategy and start over, it was welcome news. We had grown increasingly frustrated with our two platforms.

CompuServe was well suited to the constantly changing nature of news, because we could update stories in virtually no time at all. But its audience was small and did not have the global reach we felt CNN should have. We also were limited by the strict format of the service, which allowed little flexibility or creativity.

CD-ROMs, on the other hand, offered nearly limitless opportunities for creativity with their video-rich multimedia interfaces. The lead time for publishing a disc, however, was so long that the CD content ceased to be news and resided more in the realm of reference material. We needed a better alternative, and the Web offered it.

We retooled, expanded our staff and reset our goals. On August 30, 1995, the new CNN Interactive was born with the launch of our first Web site, Since then, we have added 11 more sites, introduced a booming wireless business and launched very promising enhanced television operation that is just now beginning to reach a large audience.

The underlying lesson is clear. You cannot be afraid to take a long hard look at what you are doing and chuck it all out the window, if necessary. I am proud to say that we have not had to do that more than once. But to this day, we remain flexible to new opportunities as they arise.

In that way the future is always now, because it is always time to consider what you do and why you do it. I am proud to work with such a large and talented team -- more than 400 now -- as we try to glimpse the future, and to outsmart it if we can.

Because in doing so, we can continue to bring you the best news and information in whatever way you need it, where you need it, and when you need it.

As president and editor-in-chief of CNN Interactive, Scott Woelfel is responsible for 11 CNN Web sites, notably the award-winning, and (CNN's business and financial news site). Other sites include (CNN's personalized news site produced with Oracle Technology,),, Svenska CNN, CNN Norge, CNN Denmark, CNN Italia and CNN Japan. Woelfel was one of the team members who founded CNN Interactive in January 1995 and launched CNN's first Web site,, in August 1995. Under his editorial leadership and have won frequent critical acclaim, including two Webby Awards, a 1999 Milia d'Or, a 1998 and 1999 Interactive Achievement Award and a Sigma Delta Chi Award.'s companion site for the CNN documentary series Cold War was the first Web site recognized as part of a Peabody Award. Woelfel is a 15-year CNN veteran. Before joining CNN Interactive, he was an executive producer for the CNN television network, having joined CNN in 1985 as a producer. He is a 1981 graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism.

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