How CNN told the story of London’s Grenfell Tower fire on mobile platforms

Breaking news needs to be mobile-first these days. Take how CNN handled the fallout from the disastrous Grenfell Tower fire in west London on June 14. CNN Digital Worldwide’s London team developed a go-to bank of formats it has used once a story breaks to ensure it can react quickly with a range of bite-size material that works well for mobile. That means bulleted lists of confirmed facts, not wordy text articles, and image- and video-led on-the-ground coverage, at least in the first few hours.

Although the Grenfell Tower news broke overnight and CNN’s coverage began instantly, the first mobile push alert was sent at 3.20 a.m. and a third at 8 a.m. U.K. time, when the majority of people would have been awake and checking news on their phones, according to Blathnaid Healy, senior editor at CNN Digital in London. A rolling live blog and other “what we know”-type stories on the site and news app followed. In total, on the first day of the fire, 5.7 million of CNN’s pageviews to its app and mobile and desktop sites were on Grenfell Tower-related stories, according to Adobe figures the company cited. On average, 75 percent of CNN’s traffic is from mobile devices, according to the broadcaster.

An Instagram story depicting the impact of the fire on the Alves family, who lived in Grenfell Tower

As the day unfolded, CNN adapted the type of story delivered to cater to people checking for news in their social feeds via their mobile phones, paying attention to the human aspects of the story rather than the hard-news facts. Five people on the CNN Digital London team — which has about 75 staffers total, divided across editorial, digital video, product, design, development, programming and social — are dedicated to publishing to social platforms, and they created custom posts for Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat Discover throughout June 14. Snaps were created that focused on what it’s like for the families that survived the fire to lose all their belongings and the fire’s psychological impact.

That kind of story also worked for Instagram, where a Story ran about a family that lost everything. A square version of that same video was also cut for Facebook and Twitter. Most of CNN’s digital content features a video or, at the least, links to videos, according to the broadcaster.

Phil Black, a CNN International correspondent, streamed a six-minute video from the scene via Facebook Live at 7:20 a.m. U.K. time. In it, he described what CNN knew about when and how the fire started and the speed at which it spread through the 27 floors. He also described eyewitness accounts of how the building’s cladding fueled the flames. Dozens of formats were created the day the news broke.

CNN stressed what facts it had confirmed and what was still unknown in its posts as the story unfolded — an important factor in differentiating from the proliferation of fake news and false facts that circulate on social sites, according to Healy.

“In those early hours of a story like that [Grenfell Tower] breaking, there is a lot of information flowing on social and it can get confusing,” she said.

Fears about other high rises having the same flammable external cladding across the U.K. have been widely reported since the Grenfell Tower fire. CNN’s coverage on this topic in the weeks since has included different versions of graphics and animations posted on Facebook and Twitter.

“Whatever we do now, mobile is considered first, followed by desktop. It’s still a challenge when you don’t have planning time [with breaking news],” Healy said. “Everyone [in the industry] is still trying to figure out how to make the mobile experience as good as it possibly can be, but mobile has to be our focus.”

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