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Pope’s death challenges TV in new ways

It has been 26 years since a new Pope was elected. That’s a long time in television years - a medium whose technology has changed dramatically. In far more subtle ways, change has come to the Vatican as well.

In a technology first, the Pope’s death was announced to reporters via e-mail. Thus began a week of around the clock news coverage focused mostly on the man and the religion.

In another first, the Vatican was able to communicate with the throngs waiting in mile-long lines who made the pilgrimage to view the Pope’s body via cell phone text messaging. Many were amazed at the Vatican’s use of new mobile technology.

This week, however, the coverage shifts to church politics, as the 117 cardinals prepare to begin the election of a new pope. It’s a process that’s veiled in secrecy - one sure to get election style coverage until the voting actually begins April 18.

Jonathan Klein, president of CNN’s domestic networks, told the New York Times that the coverage of the pope’s successor would become more of a hard-news event when the cardinals enter the Apostolic Palace to choose a new pope.

Klein said the College of Cardinals goes to efforts to maintain secrecy, including sweeping the room for bugs.

Ironically, Pope John Paul II left behind a technological improvement that will help reporters learn when a new pope is chosen. Traditionally, outsiders have waited for a puff of white smoke from a chimney above the cardinal’s meeting room to learn when a new pope is selected. Until then, there is a continuous billow of black smoke, which signals that deliberations are in session.

In the past, however, there’s been a problem of it not being entirely clear whether the grayish smoke coming from the chimney was black or white. Perhaps envisioning a scene of continuous false alarms by the modern press, Pope John Paul II decreed before his death that in the future bells would ring along with the white smoke to clearly signal the selection of a new pope.

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