CNN @ 30: How the World of News Has Changed in Three Decades

CNN, the entity that transformed both how we obtain breaking news and the role it plays in our lives, turns 30 years old today.

Whether or not you like or agree with how CNN presents the news today, the bottom line is by its sheer existence and the novel approach it took to news gathering and reporting three decades ago, it paved the way for many of the broad choices of information channels we have to choose from today, including the citizen journalism we see around us in blogs and social media.

Before CNN, there was sort of a Berlin Wall of news reporting: Breaking news came from the three big TV networks (ABC, CBS, NBC), with PBS joining the fray as a latecomer. With a lot of extra work, one might also be able to access the BBC or a couple of other European sources, but that was it. Print sources were delayed by anywhere from hours to days to weeks, depending on the medium and its publishing schedule.

What we knew about major happenings in the world, from the Cuban missile crisis to the war in Vietnam and Watergate, came through major newspapers and an hour or so each evening of network news. Walter Cronkite or Huntley and Brinkley told us authoritatively what we needed to know. Whether they meant to censor information or not, the bottom line is there was only so much news that was fit to print (or in this case, to view), as the New York Times used to say.

CNN offered news 24 hours a day on a global basis. It broke the “rules” that news time and coverage were both limited and latent. CNN took us to where things were happening in more or less real time.

That meant live coverage of big breaking events, from the shootings of John Lennon, Ronald Reagan, and Indira Ghandi to the bombing of the Marine HQ in Beirut, the Challenger disaster and the uprising in China’s Tiananmen Square–and that was just in the ’80s.

We saw Wolf Blitzer broadcasting live from behind the scenes during the first Gulf War, and we eventually saw news reporting with reporters embedded within the ranks of the military during the second.

How many interviews with celebrities in the news has Larry King hovered over throughout the years? From the OJ Simpson case to the deaths of Anna Nicole Smith and Michael Jackson, you can expect Larry to go easy on the celeb on the other side of the desk, but to always have who ever is hot in the seat across from him when news is breaking.

And dozens of times throughout the day we heard the voice of Darth Vader (aka James Earl Jones) telling us, “THIS…is CNN.”

Not everyone likes or agrees with CNN’s point of view, and that’s perfectly fine. But the key point is that because CNN came first and proved it could be done, others were able to come later with different approaches or political leanings. Today with so much information available at our fingertips 24×7 from the Web, mobile devices, and social media, it’s hard to imagine how different things used to be.

So happy birthday, CNN. For better or for worse, it’s a whole new world of information now, and you helped us get there.

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