MSNBC.com: From News Publisher to Production Company

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Last July, MSNBC.com celebrated its fifth birthday. Not a bad age to be in an era of Internet shooting star flame-outs. Heck, they're not only surviving, they're still bending the bars of market limitations on broadband, advertising, wireless, etc. MSNBC.com hit the ground running with an integrated cable/Internet news platform while the curious and skeptical felt compelled to do nothing more than sit, watch, and wait. Since then, after having gone through classic growing pains like traffic-related site crashes, the site has enjoyed almost perpetual number-one news site status. Andrew Pemberton, EContent's publisher, and I sat down with editor in chief Merrill Brown and chief technology officer Steve White to get caught up on how MSNBC.com has grown over the last five years, and how it's still quite bullish on ad revenue, broadband content, and...sports.

ECONTENT: Comment on some of the biggest differences you see with MSNBC.com as it started five years ago to what it has become today.

MERRILL BROWN: There are some key differences. Number one, the scale of what we do is dramatically different. We were maybe serving 4-500,000 people a month back in 1996. Today, the monthly audience is in the 25-million range. The daily audience is in the three million range. The scale of what we do content-wise is enormously greater than it was in 1996. We are covering the world with original material 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Our international editor is based in London. This is just one example. He oversees a whole team of NBC news people and an entire stringer network that covers the world for us. We have partnerships with a large number of really important news organizations, which we didn't have in 1996-Newsweek being a critical one of those, also the Washington Post, the Sporting News, the Wall Street Journal. I could go on in that regard. We have a hundred plus affiliates in local markets who are both NBC-owned stations-NBC affiliates- and daily newspapers. We cover local news for our users in a vastly more complete way than we used to with both these television and newspaper partnerships. The amount of video we produce, both in concert with our partners and on our own, is vastly greater than it was then. We're producing dozens of video clips a day and our own video newscast called MSNBC Video Headlines. We weren't doing that in 1996. And I guess the most important point of all, which all that leads to, is that we are now a regular part of the news diet, of the news agenda, of the American public. We were a strange, brand new technology and brand, an odd amalgamation of letters, in 1996, and today MSNBC.com is an accepted part of the news diet of millions of Americans, and every day our circulation is larger than that of any print daily in the country. So that's a long way to have come in five years.

ECONTENT: Talk a little bit about how content scales. Are we talking volume? Are we talking depth of coverage? All that?

BROWN: We're talking all of that. There's probably some interesting data on how much data we're delivering every minute, every hour, and I've never seen that compared to what it was in 1996, but it must be thousands of times greater than it was then. If you just think about the mass of video, in and of itself, and when you think about hundreds and hundreds of stories at a given moment, the scale of this is just mind-boggling.

ECONTENT: What is the shelf life of content on the site? Does it turn over? Do you archive?

BROWN: We archive very, very little, although we make available old content when it has particular relevance. So we create, for instance, a lot of applications about the Middle East. Sometimes the Middle East will disappear from the front pages, and we'll bring that content back as events warrant. We have a lot of very tricky ownership rules about the content we have. For instance, the Washington Post content we have to lose in a couple of days. Newsweek content we can keep forever. Content by our own writers and from freelancers for us, obviously we own those rights in perpetuity. So another tricky part of the whole archiving and content management circumstance we face is there are different rules and standards legally for what we own and what we don't. It's a real complicated system of checks and balances.

ECONTENT: You mentioned content management. Is any part of that automated?

BROWN: Much of this is manual, almost all the time.

ECONTENT: How about the concept of wholly integrating the television platform into the Web platform and combining the two media into one? It's not just that TV is acting as a bridge to your Web site. You're forming one unit where it's all happening together.

BROWN: The goal from the beginning has been to prepare ourselves for the day when our service is delivered on one platform. The game at hand is to create an experience for the user so that the television and the Internet work in complimentary ways, so that when Katie Couric finishes interviewing John Irving about his new book and says you can read an excerpt at MSNBC.com, that works for the user. So that when Jane Pauley on "Dateline," in front of 15 million people says, "If you want to find out how to go to the IRS and obtain your refund, go to MSNBC.com," that has real utility and really does begin to create the single platform experience that we believe to be the endgame here.

So the goal is to make the content work in ways that are complimentary, that takes advantage of the strengths of each medium: Television for its intimacy and for the breadth of its delivery system, and the Internet for the richness of its data, its interactive capabilities, and so forth. Promotion is important as well, and getting the URL out there is important, especially with the kind of numbers you reach with television, but the goal has not been that, necessarily. The goal has been to make the content capabilities of each platform work together in ways that make sense for the end-user and for our business, which was utterly unheard of in 1995 or 1996 when we started thinking about this and doing this. I mean, the notion that content from a computer would somehow be integrated into a primetime magazine show in front of 12 to 15 million people-nobody was thinking about that. Nobody understood that. It was utterly unheard of. Now lots of people mimic what we originally started doing in '96, '97, and now it's sort of part of the general nature of television. The Internet content is a part of it. But that was unheard of then, and we are exploring even more effective ways of doing that to obtain our leadership and innovative status.

ECONTENT: You're still talking about multimedia-television and Internet. When do you see the two really becoming one, with broadband taking a seat in the home? That's where the endgame is, isn't it? One single medium. You've got two companies positioned so perfectly to be that one supplier.

BROWN: I was certainly more bullish on all that in a healthy economy than I am today. Your guess on when the recession-or at least the advertising recession-ends is as good as mine. We could flip coins to try to figure that out. I would have said a couple of years ago that, no question about it, by the middle of this decade, the decade we're in now, we would have lots of people looking at this content on a single appliance through a single platform. That scenario changes as the broadband build-out slows. There's no question at all that in this country it has slowed-sadly, from our point of view-but it will pick up again inevitably, and nobody has figured out the appliance situation yet, which we had hoped would be figured out by now. I have no doubt that by the end of this decade-although not necessarily by the middle-high-speed access to the home will be a majority rather than a minority of households. There is an inevitability to all this. The financial incentives are there. There's no question about it. People will get through the short-term economy hiccup we're in now, and telephone companies, cable companies, and others will get the country rewired.

In many, many ways-and I cite these examples all the time-it's like the growth of cable television. In the early '80s, cable got off to a fast start. It slowed down. Money got tight. The economy got tricky. Ultimately, by the end of the '80s, a little bit into the '90s, the country got built out. The country is now fully cabled. There was great skepticism in the '80s that it would be, but it now is fully cabled. Cable is now part of everybody's television diet, and this will get done as well. It's just going to take a little longer than we had hoped.

Our audiences for video are comparable to those of a small cable network today, and, most importantly, we have, with our video, an extraordinary asset that cable doesn't, and that is we reach people at work. That's a whole new facet of what we've done. We've made news available for people in a whole new marketplace that didn't exist a few years ago called the workplace. What's the penetration of the television set at work? Something like zero, right? Just media nuts like us have TVs there, but put it all together and it's probably less than one percent of the office marketplace. What's the desktop penetration of the computer at work? It's very, very high. It's probably-certainly in the white-collar world-70, 80% plus. So we have a whole new marketplace for video that cable doesn't have, and it's one of the important parts of our strategy with NBC. We can bring their product to people at work in a way that they couldn't without Internet distribution.

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