You always wonder about that kid who always has a smile on her face and a laugh, even though her home life is a wreck and her parents are constantly warring. How does she do it?
The same thought crossed my mind when considering MSNBC.com, a Web site birthed by the promise of combining technology and journalism some nine years ago. Now, the site has a laundry list of what executives would call, um, challenges: Microsoft and NBC Universal have been trying to get out of their TV joint venture for more than a year; the MSN portal’s traffic growth and vision have lapsed; and four key people — including the president and editor-in-chief of MSNBC.com — have exited.
Still, the site has a lot to smile about. Despite the loss of talent, the site was named Best Journalism Site by the National Press Club for the second straight year and nabbed an EPpy Award for Best Overall TV Site over rival CNN.com and ESPN.com. Despite traffic falling off at MSN.com over the past year, MSNBC.com has boosted its traffic by 12 percent to lead CNN.com for the past three months. And MSNBC.com’s new redesign adds a unique recommendation engine that highlights similar stories depending on what articles you’ve viewed before.
“There’s no doubt they’re still in the game despite Yahoo’s advances,” said former founding editor of MSNBC.com Merrill Brown, now a consultant and head of the News21 initiative. “Their cable partner hasn’t been doing so well, and their network TV partner — which was always the highest priority when I was there — has a variety of management challenges as well. If NBC got running on all cylinders, if MSN clarified where it was going, if they got some strong dynamic new management into MSNBC.com, I think the opportunity remains. But it has some issues right now and it feels a little funky.”
The site is nearly defying gravity. In 2005, MSNBC.com lost its East Coast honcho Michael Silberman to Rodale, its editor in chief Dean Wright to Reuters, its president and MSN general manager Scott Moore to Yahoo, and managing producer Jonathan Dube to CBC.ca. The news site is a separate joint venture from its TV cousin, which has been on the verge of a breakup at least since last August — with more grist for the mills in March.
MSNBC TV has struggled in the cable news ratings, dropping to fourth behind Fox News, CNN and even CNN Headline News during the second quarter of this year. Microsoft has been trying to get out of the media-creation business since its mid-’90s splash (and subsequent burn), shedding Slate and trying to focus more on software and technology. One source with inside knowledge told me the TV joint venture is likely to end in the next three to six months, but the complicated 99-year deal between Microsoft and NBC is quite expensive to break up. Microsoft has invested more than $500 million in the TV venture.
“Both [TV channel] partners are motivated to change the relationship and will do so soon,” the source said on the condition of anonymity. “The deal is pretty much impossible to get out of or modify without the consent of both parties. If that weren’t the case, it would have cratered long ago.”
MSNBC.com general manager Charlie Tillinghast — who is also de facto editor-in-chief of the site while they search for Wright’s replacement — said the TV joint venture was not in his purview but that the dot-com joint venture was alive and strong. According to Nielsen//NetRatings, MSNBC.com’s audience has swelled from 20.4 million unique visitors in March 2004 to 23.7 million uniques in May 2005 — while CNN.com dropped from 24.3 million to 19.9 million and MSN.com dropped from 86.6 million to 81.3 million in the same period. That last number is important, because MSNBC.com depends on the MSN.com hub for nearly half its traffic.
Tillinghast says the traffic boost is thanks to a change in editorial direction — an inclusion of softer news stories alongside the ones on Iraq — along with search engine optimization that brought in more traffic from searches.
Also, Tillinghast oversaw a recent redesign of the site, which highlights MSNBC and NBC TV shows more, includes the new Recommended Stories section on the home page, and automatically generates lists of Related Stories for each article. It’s a mix of modest features that also catches the site up to others with a Most Popular section highlighting Most Viewed, Most E-mailed, and Top Rated (by users) stories.
But what comes next for MSNBC.com bears watching, if only to figure out what its name might be if the TV channel disappears or is renamed. Plus, the site still has a strong staff of 80 editorial people (155 total) and has pushed hard into video, multimedia, blogs and citizen journalism. It’s not too late for the site to fulfill its promise of delivering the perfect hybrid of journalism and technology.
The following is an edited transcript of my interview with Tillinghast, a veteran of MSNBC.com since 1999, as he explained the redesign, how they might do investigative citizen journalism and what they’re looking for in a new editor in chief.
Online Journalism Review: Tell me more about the recent redesign, unveiled last Saturday.
Charlie Tillinghast: We’ve narrowed the header where we had the search box, and that was wasted space. We have less links to MSN [sections] but still have MSN and Hotmail links because over half of our users click on those links. We have taken the links to NBC shows from the nav bar on the left and put them across the top of the home page, so they’re easier to discover. Especially if they’re watching the show and they’re told to come to the site to get more information, so they can just click on the name of the show.
The left nav is simplified, we lightened up the colors and all the areas on the left side are more topical — we’re not mixing shows and sections. Below that we’re repositioning a classified section, which is a growing piece of our business. The overall look is similar to what we have now, but you’ll see a box in the middle that has either Editor’s Choice or Recommended Stories. After you click on seven or so stories, that will switch over to Recommended Stories. The Recommended Stories will be based on what you’ve been looking at.
If you typically go to sports and politics, we’ll have a mix of that for you. It’s based on a cookie, that way you don’t have to do any setup to make it work. Even though we have personalization on the site, only 20 percent of our users use personalization. This is an effort-free use of personalization.
OJR: As I’m going through the site, I see an interstitial ad. How are those doing for you?
CT: We’re going to phase them out. We think that they don’t create the best user experience. Even though they are an important source of revenues, we’d rather get people to the content faster.
OJR: Are you getting feedback telling you people don’t like them?
CT: Not too much, but it is our own view that it slows down people’s experience. We want to be proactive and make sure people have a good user experience, and that advertisements flow with the content and don’t interrupt the content. With video, it’s hard to have a video ad playing while the content is playing. Users are more accepting of a video ad before watching video. Compared to TV, the ratio of advertising footage to content footage is quite low.
OJR: Tell me more about the new story pages in the redesign.
CT: We have the photo to the right and the text wrapping up. Previously we would have had the text below the photos. Below the photo you have the Related Stories section, and you have five stories that are somehow related to this story that you’re reading, and these are all selected by an algorithm and not by an editor. They can be overridden by an editor, but the advantage is that every story on the site can have Related Stories, and there are tens of thousands of stories on the site at any one time. It’s impossible for a human being to do this for all the stories.
OJR: Do you feel like the Recommended Stories feature is something users asked for, or something you feel like they would want once you created it?
CT: It’s more the latter, because people don’t ask for things that they don’t think are possible. Sometimes they have to know such a capability exists before they think they would want it. It’s like a GPS system in your car. Before anyone knew what they were, no one was asking for a GPS system, but now that they’re here, they think they’re pretty neat.
If you click on “What’s This” link next to the Recommended Stories on the front page, this page will tell you what was recommended and why they’re recommended.
OJR: And you can also delete stories that you saw but perhaps you didn’t like them.
CT: That’s right. You can also turn off this feature if you think it’s too Big Brother-ish. We felt that people would be more comfortable with it if they could see how it works and tune it themselves.
OJR: Is there a way to educate users on how this function works?
CT: We have a note going out on the site about it, but by and large, we feel that people will figure out what’s going on. It’s not that different from the experience on commerce sites now, like Amazon, where you’re shopping for products and they say ‘Here are recommended products for you,’ or ‘People who bought this book also bought these books.’ The concept isn’t new, but it’s new to news.
OJR: What do you have planned for future redesigns?
CT: The things coming later would open up Related Stories to content outside of MSNBC, using technology that’s contained presently within Newsbot. The product vision is to create an integrated experience where you have the ability to get content from around the Web, but you do it from the context of a structured news site, where you have editors who are helping arrange that system — versus a system that’s completely aggregated, which has limitations such as not getting breaking news up right away. We’ll get breaking news up right away by using human beings, and the bigger the stories, the more human touch we’ll use. The more specialized the story, then automation will be used more for that.
OJR: Similar to what Yahoo News has done with its redesign? Where you can put in your own RSS feeds?
CT: You can choose our RSS feeds, but we haven’t allowed people to add other RSS feeds here yet. We’ve found that users don’t want to do a lot of work setting up their site; they just want it to happen. This is taking a more just-make-it-happen approach, as opposed to saying, ‘we have a lot of cool features, but you have to set it up to work.’
OJR: Why did you take out all the MSN links from the top of the home page?
CT: The MSN links we took out were Shopping and Money, and Shopping is now part of the Classifieds section. And we have links to MSN Shopping in many of the advertisements we have across the site. We found that people were clicking on the actual shopping offers rather than a simple link at the top of the page. We realized we didn’t need those links on the top because they weren’t getting any meaningful traffic. We wanted to get rid of anything that was of a low value from the user’s point of view.
OJR: Your traffic has been going up recently. What are the big drivers of traffic to MSNBC.com, and how much of that is MSN?
CT: The MSN traffic is not the source of our increases in traffic. We are growing at a rate that’s faster than the growth at the MSN home page. A lot of it has to do with we’ve made some changes in our editorial strategy at the beginning of this calendar year. We now have a broader mix of stories that appeal to more users. We’re not trying to just be Iraq.com, but we’re trying to give them more choice of news stories. We’re updating the site more often, and we’re keeping it fresh. We’re making sure we’re always first with breaking news stories. For example, we were first on the story on the finding of the missing Boy Scout in Utah 24 minutes before CNN.com. By being fast, providing a good choice, and keeping it fresh, our users have responded very positively to the changes.
OJR: Are you noticing a change in referrals as to the sites that are providing traffic to you?
CT: We’ve improved our search engine optimization, so that we’re getting better referrals in from search engines. We performed very poorly in search engine referrals a year ago, so improving that was a major priority for us. It requires changing the way you title and name pages in the URL. We use numbers and search engines like common names.
OJR: What shifted for you editorially other than refreshing the site more? Has the subject matter shifted?
CT: The subject matter is broader now; we’re not just focusing on the war news, or hard political news. We’re really trying to have entertainment news, more lifestyle news, as well as the core political government national kinds of news. Prior to these changes, we were too narrow in what types of stories were worth putting on the cover. It’s not that the stories weren’t there; it’s just that we weren’t putting them on the cover.
OJR: Some people talk about the media focusing on softer stories like a boy missing or the runaway bride. Are you saying that you’re going to focus more on these stories?
CT: I wouldn’t say ‘focus.’ I’d say that we were going to include those stories along with stories that people may regard as hard news. We want to give users the news they want to read, not necessarily just the news we think they should read. There’s a balance to be struck there. In the past, we probably gave them a heavy diet of broccoli. If you look at the nutrition factor, broccoli is probably the best thing to give people. But people want an ice cream cone every once in a while, or they might want a hamburger or something. I think you can’t just serve people a diet of broccoli every day and tell them it’s good for them. You’ve got to give ’em a balanced diet. They’ll still eat broccoli, but they want some other things too.
Some media publications and sites and even TV stations go all one way, all action news, and we’re not doing that. Fortunately on the Web there’s enough space to do more than that. And that’s where the Recommended Stories come in, based on what you read. If you read only political stories, you will always get those five political stories on the cover of MSNBC.
OJR: Do you think there’s a change in the way news sites are run, that instead of telling people what’s important, the readers have more power to choose stories and also take part, as in your Citizen Journalist section?
CT: The Internet itself is giving people that power. The technology provides the power for users to aggregate their RSS feeds, to go really anywhere they want. For a mainline news site to be viable they have to provide that kind of choice and that kind of control to their users. It’s not like being at a newspaper in a one-newspaper town, where if they don’t like it, what are you going to do? We compete with the world, and we have to be viable.
OJR: Tell me about your financial situation. You were profitable as of a year or so ago. How has that been going over the past few quarters?
CT: We don’t report our numbers. We did that one time, but we’re not in the practice of reporting our numbers. I can tell you that our financial results have been extraordinary this year. We’ve exceeded expectations, we’re growing very quickly and are quite profitable.
OJR: You’ve lost Dean Wright, Michael Silberman, Jonathan Dube and Scott Moore. Do you see a common thread to why they have left?
CT: The reasons that each of them left was entirely different. There was no common thread on why they left. We are in a new environment where the online opportunities are very strong, and those opportunities didn’t even exist a few years ago. What better place to go shopping [for talent] than at MSNBC?
OJR: I assume you’re looking for an editor in chief?
CT: Yes, we are, but for the other positions we just shifted things around internally to cover those areas.
OJR: What’s the state of Microsoft and NBC relationship? There’s been a lot of talk on the TV side that Microsoft was looking to get out of that deal. How is that right now?
CT: I’m not tied into the cable side, so what they’re doing on the TV side is out of my purview. But on the online side, things are very strong and the relationship has never been better. One of the things I’ve done in my role as publisher is to engage both partners more actively and to improve the communication flowing between them and through MSNBC.com, and that has been productive. I think both partners feel more informed and comfortable with the way things are going. And there’s nothing like great financial results to help that along.
OJR: Microsoft had this push into media in the mid-’90s, but they’ve since pulled back, selling Slate, and it feels like they’re trying to get out of the media business to some extent. How do you engage them?
CT: In some ways, it’s a good arrangement, because they’re focused on technology, and the technology becomes available to MSNBC. And because we’re a separate company legally, but we’re tied into Microsoft, they view us as their media play. It’s easier for them to participate in media when you have a unit set up to be a media company and isn’t just a division within Microsoft that is trying to conform to that company’s overall strategy.
It’s a good place for them to look for media expertise that’s successful for them but is a little separate and doesn’t have to fit in with all their policies and strategies.
OJR: What about on the NBC side? Do they still put a lot of emphasis on the Net?
CT: Oh yes. The Internet is more important every day for all the NBC news shows. We have someone assigned to each one of those TV shows to make sure the Internet component for those shows is working and to help them with their audience. And we benefit too.
OJR: Because things have been going well financially are you looking to hire more people?
CT: Judiciously. We’re not looking to ramp up the headcount significantly. We’re looking at building more productivity mainly through technology so we can scale the business more.
OJR: What about deeper investigative pieces? There’s been a lot of hand-wringing about the lack of investigative work due to cutbacks at news organizations. Are you going to try to increase those?
CT: Yes, it’s in our strategy, where we have a group called the Franchise Group, where we’re writing stories on subjects that we don’t think are well covered by anybody else. An example of that is our work in identity theft and Internet fraud. One of our writers Bob Sullivan, who published a book called “Your Evil Twin,” regularly breaks stories on this subject and appears on NBC quite a bit. So we’re staking out territory like that and putting our resources for investigative work there. It is a very important part of our strategy and we’re not just trying to cover the main stories of the day.
OJR: What about engaging the audience in some of these investigations?
CT: Yes, we have a number of ideas that we’re working on, none of which are ready for discussion. But we see the user as more and more a bigger part of how we cover news, almost as a network of citizen journalists. We do keep a database of all our citizen journalists, and what we’re trying to do is come up with an easy way to do that.
I don’t know the count of people, but to do it right you need to have the right tools — e-mail alone isn’t going to cut it. You have to have a database of people, have it searchable, know what subjects people are experts on, where they live and be able to get back in touch with them. It’s an exciting area, and it’s a big part of the future of news. The blogs are OK, but blogs are a lot about opinion or linking to content that already exists. The more exciting opportunity is where people can report on events that otherwise you wouldn’t know. It’s more about facts than opinions. Coming up with a way to vet those facts is one of the next big challenges in journalism.
OJR: Do you have a person in charge of your citizen media efforts?
CT: Yes, Andrew Locke. He’s an editor in our Creative Media department. He’s in charge of thinking about this and getting together with our technology people to create a plan to make it work. It’s user-generated video and multimedia, user-generated everything. Definitely using technology resources — otherwise we’d have to have an army to oversee it all.
OJR: Who would be your perfect editor-in-chief, skills-wise?
CT: Well we need somebody who has a real vision for where the future of online journalism is going, someone who is very thoughtful about what we’ve been talking about and can plot a course. They have to be somebody who understands technology very well and understands marketing and can work well with those disciplines and doesn’t view editorial as an island. Because in the online world, it’s all connected, and all those disciplines form a collective. And they have to be a good manager, because 80 people is a lot of people to manage. You need someone good at leading people and inspiring people and who can make the tough calls when necessary.